Guaranteeing the rights of the slum dwellers
Md. Zahidul Islam
If you have ever been to passport office of Agargaon or adjacent areas, surely you have noticed a slum near the passport office. It is familiar to most of the people as Agargaon Old Market Basti or Passport Office Basti. It covers almost one and half acres of land sheltering about two hundred families -- more than one thousand uprooted, displaced helpless people. These people have been living here for more than 25 years. Most of them took shelter here after they had lost their homestead and belongings to river erosion. The others are basically landless cultivators coming form different nooks and corners of the country. They maintain their lives by running various valid jobs. Some of them are small shop-owners on the road adjacent to the Basti, some of them day labourers, rickshaw-pullers as well garments workers. In fact, through their consistent effort, they all have been struggling to lead a good life.
This write-up is, however, not just to state their life struggle, but to focus on the most grave situation awaiting for those slum dwellers. They are again going to be uprooted or displaced from their shelters. And it is very ironical that this time they are going to be displaced not by river erosion, flood or drought, but by the human authorities. Yes, the government is going to evict the slum on any day now. And it is going to be done lawfully. You may ask how?
Hence, a brief mention of the background of abovementioned story seems quite pertinent. More than one year ago the inhabitants of the said slum came to know from a reliable source that Housing and Public Works Department of Bangladesh Government has decided to evict the slum dwellers. On query they obtained two letters one requiring deployment of police force and the other requiring the cutting of electricity line. The letters also indicated that the slum dwellers would be evicted and all the structures therein and belongings of the residents will be bulldozed.
After obtaining the letters, Nurul Islam Mistry and Parveen Akhter, on be-half of the residents of the slum approached Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) for legal aid. Considering the nature of the public cause and state of the slum dwellers BLAST and ASK came to give legal assistance to them so that their fundamental human rights are not violated.
On 26.09.2004 BLAST and ASK jointly filed a writ petition before a vacation bench invoking the Article 102 of the Constitution which was registered as Writ Petition No.5588/2004. After motion hearing the vacation bench stayed the eviction order, and ordered the authority not to disturb the dwellers for next three months, although the slum was partly evicted before the stay order. However, after the order the authority stopped the eviction process. The slum dwellers then took a sigh of relief that they were now under the protection of legal arms.
Following this High Court order the slum dwellers have passed the last one year with a hope that better days would come. But unfortunately no better days have ultimately come for them. Conversely, the legal arms have refused to protect their rights.
The fact is that on 29th August 2005, after full-length hearing, the learned Judges of the High Court Division delivered the judgment discharging the Rule and directing the respondents to start the eviction process after 30th September 2005, and thereby vacated the stay. Thereafter the petitioners prefered a Provisional Civil Petition For Leave to Appeal along with stay application against the said judgment which has also been refused. Eventually it goes that now there remain no obstacles before government to evict them any time after 30th September 2005.
However, while writing this I have not got any copy of the judgment as it is yet to be signed. So, it is not possible to see on which grounds the Honourable Court has refused the Rule. Hence, as an alternative means I talked to the petitioners of the case from where I learned some arguments on behalf of eviction of the slum, submitted by government parties. According to government assertion, huts shown by the petitioners as slums are actually so many shops remaining on the government acquired land from where various illegal and unauthorised businesses are run in the shadow of slums. So, in fact, they are illegal occupiers of government land. And these illegal occupiers, involved in illegal activities, need to be evicted to keep law and order situation under control. Furthermore, they are threat to safety and security of the VVIP participating in the upcoming SAARC conference. In a word, government tries to prove that the slum is not really a slum but a place for conducting illegal and subversive activities.
Whatever may be government's arguments, it is clear like daylight that Agargaon Basti is a slum recognised by the government itself, as various programmes e.g. informal education programme, primary health care and family planning programme, sanitation and micro credit programme etc have been undertaken here with the prior knowledge, awareness and cooperation of various ministries and departments like NGO Affairs Bureau, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs etc. Again, as per safety and security matter, the government fails to show that actually there exists any insecurity due to the existence of the slum. In the same way, government fails to link any slum, let alone the Agargaon Basti, with the recent bomb blasts or terrorist attacks.
Before writing this article, I talked to the secretary of the Daridra Bimochon Baboshai Bohumukhi Smabay Samity Ltd, a registered organisation of the slum-dwellers. He tells that there is no record of illegal activities or drug business or smuggling in the Basti. He informs that police frequently visits the slum but there is no bad record in police book. Of course, he admits that there have been some arrests on false accusation of those who protest government initiative to evict the slum. Finally he adds that if government has any proof that the slum dwellers are engaged in any subversive activity, then it should take specific action against those so-called culprits. He asks, is the eviction all solution?
I don't know what will be government's answer to this question. But the government must consider the fact that the eviction of the slum may eliminate the anticipated threat to security, but it will simultaneously violate the fundamental rights of equality under law and equal protection of the law and the right to life as guaranteed by the Constitution. Is not the government responsible to uphold these rights of poor helpless law-abiding slum dwellers who have been denied the blessings of nature?
It is true that the government may evict the slum on any day after 30th September 2005. And the government seems waiting for such an occasion. Unfortunately after this judgement such destruction will be 'lawful'. But it is also true that 'lawful' act does not always mean justice. Example is the present case. Destruction or eviction of Agargaon Basti will no doubt frustrate the natural justice. If the government thinks that the eviction is essential for greater national interest, it can take necessary steps to rehabilitate those slum dwellers.
In fact, government should think deeply before taking further action regarding Agargaon slum. The democratic government should not ignore the matter that future lives of more than one thousand men, women and children are depending on a single decision of it. The time is very limited. Government has to take its decision before the sky of Agargaon becomes heavy with the cries of thousand innocent helpless people.
The author is a legal researcher.