I am in Dhaka, Bangladesh for evaluation and capacity building of the rural development institutions in the remote regions like Bandarban and Rangamati. I landed Dhaka airport named Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport (formerly Zia International Airport) just two days before to rush for Bandarban, one of the three hill districts of Bangladesh and a part of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This is not only the remotest district of the country, but also is the least populated.
During the spare time, I got a chance to see this city. Today's Dhaka has a long story of evolution from the time it was founded during the 10th century. It served as the Mughal capital of Bengal from 1608 to 1704. Before coming under British rule in 1765 it was a trading center for British, French, and Dutch colonialism. In 1905 it was again named the capital of Bengal, and in 1956 it became the capital of East Pakistan. During the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971 the city suffered a heavy damage. In 1982 the spelling was changed from 'Dacca' to 'Dhaka'.
Dhaka is located in the geographic center of the country. It is in the great deltaic region of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers and located on the banks of the Buriganga River. With a population of over 12 million, Dhaka is a major city in the region. It is known as the City of Mosques and renowned for producing the world's finest muslin.
Having been the center of Persio-Arabic and Western cultural influences in eastern Indian Subcontinent., today it serves as one of the prime centers for culture, education and business in the region. Additionally, Bangladesh is the seventh most populous country in the world and is among the most densely populated countries in the world with a high poverty rate. However, per-capita (inflation-adjusted) GDP has more than doubled since 1975, and the poverty rate has fallen by 20% since the early 1990s. The country is listed among the "Next Eleven" economies. Dhaka and other urban centers have been the driving force behind this growth.
Unfortunately Buriganga river, which flows by Dhaka, is now one of the most polluted rivers in Bangladesh because of rampant dumping of industrial and human waste. A World Bank study said four major rivers near Dhaka -- the Buriganga, Shitalakhya, Turag and Balu -- receive 1.5 million cubic metres of waste water every day from 7,000 industrial units in surrounding areas and another 0.5 million cubic metres from other sources. Buriganga is the life line and much happens in and around this river. It is the main river flowing beside Dhaka. Hundreds of years ago, the banks of the Buriganga were a prime location for trade when the Mughals made Dhaka their capital in 1610.
It was the main waterway for trading. It is said that the water levels during high and low tides in this river astonished.40-50 years ago, a cruise on the historic Buriganga River in the capital used to be a must for visiting dignitaries. It was once the main source of drinking water for Dhaka residents, and the river is still crystal clear an hour upstream from the capital.
Chemicals such as cadmium and chromium, and other elements such as mercury carried by the industrial waste are also creeping into the ground water, posing a serious threat to public health. More than 60,000 cubic metres of toxic waste (textile dying, printing, washing and pharmaceuticals) enter the Dhaka canals and river system every day. Nearly four million people directly suffer the consequence of its poor water quality, a local journalist reported me.
These days they are confronted with foul smells and rotting fish, the stench is unbelievable. As per the Environment Department, up to 40,000 tons of tannery waste flows into the river daily, along with sewage from Dhaka, a city of more than 10 million. But, unfortunately, the Department of Environment (DoE) does not know much about it.
Besides industry generated liquid and solid waste, most of the human excreta directly goes down the rivers through underground pipelines as nearly 70 percent houses are not connected to the excrete treatment plant. Waste from these industries is connected with the sewerage system that directly goes into the rivers around the city. In fact, the rivers have become a dumping ground of all kinds of solid, liquid, and chemical waste of bank side population.
Slums: The Stinking Atmosphere
Slum has it’s own way of life. Be it is Dharawi of Mumbai, Silampur of Delhi, Hatgachhiya of Kolkata or elsewhere—there is no difference. The life enveloped in stinked atmosphere, ill treatment by the local police, governed by hooligans, submerged in mud and sodden junk with horrible smell—this is the landscape of any slum of India. High incidence of diseases such as diarrhea and anemia always take place. Drinking water, access to schools and hospitals, and the various other services, a citizen needs are severely near to nil at these locations. The accommodations remind you of gas chambers. No civic facilities, no guarantee of life and in another way, such human settlements always hit the crossing heads of newspapers for all wrong reasons of life.
Some years back, I got a chance to see the sub-human condition of life of Dharawi in Mumbai with one of my friends, who is in FM Radio in NOIDA. Reaching before Dhaka, I had a lucid picture of slums in my psyche. But the life in the slums of Dhaka was supposed to be more wretched and pathetic. But coming over here, I changed my pre-assumption when the story of a teenage came into my knowledge.
The 18 year-old Miss Doly Akter is celebrate of this area as her work in the slum to improve health and education, has been widely praised. On my part, it was the matter of curiosity as how did she face the challenges, while working in so adverse situation is next to impossible for a girl. We should not forget the situation and circumstances in a society, where burka and many more social evils and stigmas already prevail in a very crude and shrewd manner. Being a social activist, I was losing my patience to call in her at the earliest. Meanwhile, Ms. Shazia Sahar, who is associated with a right based NGO in Dhaka informed me that Doly earned a chance to speak and share her experiences, just to narrate her success story at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
So eager was I to meet her that the first thing I did on checking into a hotel on Naya Paltan was to call her. I was happy that her office-cum-residence was a stone's throw from the hotel. I just had to cross the road and get into a small lane to reach her. I was welcomed by an old person, who wore a lungi and was bare-chested. What I noticed first about Doly was the way she spoke in Bangla. Her spoken Bangla was not different from the Bangla prevalent in Kolkata or rest part of India. Her sentences were short and crisp. Shazia Sahar is very familiar with her, who were translating her words in to English. She has been attached with Doly from the very beginning of her expedition. “Doly is a teenage..this is only to say…as she had to do something. Being a lady, she was accustomed with the pain and pangs of womenfolk of her surroundings. Hence, she targeted the ladies and babies as well”, Nagma explains with lungful of air. She seemed to be more confident and very active. She is a dreamer, visionary and idealist. She does know the agenda of her life. When I met her she was so confident and was not hesitant to meet with outsiders. But how did she undertake the operation? This question was hovering around me.
“With the help of some friends, I set up a project to change the lives of local women that became massively successful”, Doly replies. I was amazed to listen her. "I hope we showed the strength we have by establishing ourselves," she told. It was another knock to make me stunned. Although she was born in an area with real problems in terms of access to health and education. Her mother saw and realized the advantage of education, saved hard and sent her daughter to school. On the other side of the coin, Doly decided to use the benefits of that education to help the people of her vicinity.
“Two years back, with the help of some women of her neighborhood, she started a project to improve living conditions….”, says Isharat Khatoon (42). “Through house-to-house visit, she targeted more than 2,000 household in the slum, collected the information on the health and hygiene, and offered them basic advise-- such as how to prevent diarrhea", she adds. Her work was widely appreciated by the agencies of her country and abroad. She served the society through best way of advocacy and awareness generation, so her popularity began to rule the roost. Now, her work has been supported by UNICEF. She was invited to speak at UNICEF's 60th anniversary, which ultimately entailed addressing the UN General Assembly.
She explained the Assembly about the work being done in her slum, specially, involving girls saved from early marriage. And although she is now leaving for university. Doly is keen to stress the work of her group will go on- - and they are now looking at helping tackle the dowry system.
During the one hour or so that I spent with her, she gave me a lowdown on what pulled down in slums. "I compared my life and the life of my mother," she narrated. "I told the General Assembly that at my age, my mother was at home without education. Now, I can study, go abroad and think about doing some good for my society," she explains. “And this is changing face of my society,” she declares with proud and pleasure.
Well Done! Congrats and Regards to Doly !!
Continued to Chittgong 2011