<%-- Page Title--%> Impressions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 122 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 12 , 2003

<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- 5% Text Table--%>

Alice in Dhanmondi Land

Sultana Alam

Neighbourhood organising in Dhaka turns out to be nothing short of the adventures of Alice in Wonderland. Try to do something about the slaughter of Dhanmondi as a residential area by the Hun-like invasion of illegal businesses. As sure as today is Friday, you are headed straight down a shaft into a demented world where:

2 Wrongs = 1 walloping Right

Ergo, if every rogue and her/his cousin are doing it, it's A-OK.

Wake up to an Eight-foot banner, strung up between two light-posts in front of your window. Experience the throb of bright neon colours inviting one and all to instantly apply for admission to the Anywhere-but-In-Bangladesh School next door. Running all the way from Play Group to A and O Levels, the school is ready, willing and able to pocket your non-refundable application fee. Never mind that the school has very little space. Ignore the fact that it operates out of a single-family house that was originally designed to accommodate 2-7 children. Never mind that it has no playground to speak of for 3-5 year olds. Forget that it operates without any certificates or licenses from the Authorities.

It takes hours before you get the malik (principal) on the phone (he's a man-around-town and hard to track down). When at last you succeed, you demand that he take the festoon down. Urbane as he is, the man has no idea what you are talking about. He cannot comprehend your meaning when you say that festoons are for selling toothpaste and cigarettes: not education.

He is equally uncomprehending when you add that a residential area is no place for visually noisy advertising. However, he will offer as excuse:

“But all the other schools are doing it”.

“You mean”, you counter, “that if your school catches a student cheating and s/he can definitively prove that other students are also cheating, cheating is not cheating?”

End of debate though not of the problem. The offensive rag does not come down. Forget about convincing the authorities to do something about it. Ever since some year in the 1980s the Dhaka City Corporation has not issued any trade licenses or licenses to advertise in the Dhanmondi area. Therefore, neither the school nor its ragged ad exists. You are confusing virtual reality for the real thing.

A variation of the “2 Wrongs = 1 Right” formula is:

1 Right = Justification to do any number of wrongs, knowing they are wrong.

Believe it or not. Out of some 48+ hospitals, clinics and labs in Dhanmondi, only one has a permit from RAJUK to do business in Dhanmondi. The permit requires this venerable teaching hospital to provide ample on-site parking for hospital staff, patients and visitors. Disappointingly enough, the hospital has chosen to cut corners. Instead of 2 or 3 levels of underground space it has built only one (patently inadequate to the volume of traffic the hospital creates). Even so, instead of using it for parking the hospital has turned it into space for labs, offices, clinics and, inevitably, fast-food stores. The result? A Gordian knot of rickshaws and cars that tie up roads for blocks around. Life is one unliveable hell for the neighbourhood.

Dare to complain about this act of high-handed take-over and you are likely to be told in shocked disbelief:

“But our hospital provides good medical care” Relax. You are not the only one to be caught short. I too didn't know that the Hippocratic oath offered a choice between being a Bad Daktar and a Good Daktar. Or that, in exchange for the promise of being a Good Daktar a physician is free to act the Dakait, fully entitled to take over a community's roads, opens spaces, and rights to live free of noise, crowds and filth.

The equation between providing a needed social service and gaining the right to engage in highway robbery is but a survival of our feudal past. To be sure, the glory days are over. Gone are the times when zamindars were Zamindars. So too is the social order that allowed a Zamindar to suck tenants dry so long as he tossed a coin, an occasional length of cloth or scrap of protein in their direction once or twice a year. Nonetheless, our feudal attitudes persist, with devastating consequences for Dhanmondi.

After all, the worst offenders in the illegal take-over of Dhanmondi are none other than schools, colleges, universities, coaching centres, medical labs, clinics and hospitals. Adding to the problem is the influx of NGOs who have started running schools, colleges, and universities in their bid to reduce aid-dependency. With the awe in which our culture holds the obligations to provide bidya (enlightenment), chikitshya (healing), and shamaj sheba (social service) who is so low as would oppose the hundreds of squatters masquerading as principals, teachers, doctors and social up-lifters?

Not my mother. Nor my uncles or aunts. Nor, my many cousins and their children, either. No way! After all, we come from bhodro stock. My family fancies itself above gossip and “thinking evil” of people next door or socially sanctified work. Confronting greedy neighbours who lease out to schools is off-limits. It is unthinkable to suggest that schools, which operate without legal permits, teach children contempt for the country's laws. In fact, it is social suicide. It is to say ta-ta to family invites, some of which come equipped with really delicious grub.

But I exaggerate. It isn't that the bhodro mind-set is entirely sealed. Occasionally, you can get people lamenting about the way the cream of our society flaunts the laws of the land. Unfortunately, the reaction doesn't last long. Any possibility for outrage, -- more importantly, righteous action, -- soon peters out under the spell of the hypnotic refrain that has come to resemble an alternate national anthem for us.
Accordingly, Bangladesh may be golden and our love for it unbounded. But we, her daughters and sons, are something else.

We are bad. We are vile. Really, really heinous.

We are base. We are venal. And oh so very nefarious.

Yeh! Yeh! Yeh!

In short, none but the utterly naïve or the seriously retarded dare expect things in Bangladesh to change for the better. Our youth may be going to pot. We may be headed for extinction because of the social pandemonium and environmental disasters we create. But who is so despicable, so utterly disloyal, so ignominiously un-Bangladeshi, as to expect us to be anything but us?

Given this bad-is-cool equation, it is small wonder that we think nothing of people dying because of overhead walkways collapsing, houses being built on marshy land, or reckless electrical wiring. Or that the pattern of urban “growth”
in Dhaka is what it is: a constant effort to create and then overwhelm a liveable (hence workable) centre where children can play, adults hear themselves think, communities cohere, roads are accessible, the air breathable and business finds it easy to move goods and customers around. As a result, our “centre” has moved from Shadarghat to Islampur, Nawabpur, Purana Paltan, Naya Paltan, and Azimpur. Now its Dhanmondi's turn to be killed off, with Mohammadpur, Gulshan, Banani and Uttara bringing up the rear. At this rate, Dhaka's shifting centre threatens to spin us past Gazipur, Chittagong and plum into the Bay of Bengal.

But halt! This is dangerous territory, …….this history thing. It invites local historians into the arena. Not only do they have the advantage of knowing every bend in Dhanmondi's progress. They also have some truly astounding arguments for acting Nero to the implosion of Dhanmondi under the weight of illegal commerce.
Foremost among such arguments is democracy, the will of the people. Our local historian justifies the introduction of business in our residential area because this is “what the people who live here wanted”.

What people?, you ask.

Why, you learn, the pioneers of commercialisation were none other than ministers, secretaries and deputy secretaries who lived in Dhanmondi. In fact, it was a former chief minister (from E. Pakistan times) who was responsible for the introduction of the first shopping mall in our area. Never mind that ministers, secretaries and deputy secretaries probably did not account for .05% of the Dhanmondi population. Apparently, as the crème-de-la-crème of society, what the pioneers lacked in numbers they more than made up for in social weight and aura.

More progressive historians shun outdated elitism. Instead, they will justify the mass violation of city zoning codes in Dhanmondi on more contemporary grounds. By now, they argue, a majority of Dhanmondites are resigned to the de-residentialisation of the area .

Besides, the progressive historian adds, is it right to stand in the way of economic growth and profit making? Not wanting to appear passé in these days of globalisation, BBAs and MBAs, you have only one comeback. Genuinely interested, positively serious, you draw up close and ask:

“You mean if the majority in Dhanmondi approve of trafficking in children in response to the lucrative demand for child camel jockeys and child pornography, the rest of Bangladesh should go along?”

An extreme analogy? Yes. A cruel analogy? Quite so. It leaves me aching with the wish that people would finally get it straight. That democracy does not mean being able to act the Cowboy. That if we tolerate the Cowboy in Dhanmondi, watch out Gulshan, Banani, Uttara! Watch out Chittagong, Khulna, Jessore, Faridpur, Barisal et. al!


(C) Copyright The Daily Star. The Daily Star Internet Edition, is published by The Daily Star