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Of slums and color pencils

“Abrar kotha shunte ba bolte pare na,” said his grandmother when she saw us trying to explain to him how to draw and color a mango. This caught us unawares because from the look on his face and the way he responded to us, no one could tell that he didn't actually understand what we were saying to him. In the seven years of his life, he had never held a color pencil in his hand and was having trouble positioning it in his fingers. But when he discovered that the mango outline on his paper was slowly being filled in with color, his eyes lit up and he was beaming and nodding at us with flashing teeth. Abrar, his mother, father and grandmother live in the slum behind NSU, Bashundhara. His father is a sanitary worker and he spends his days with his grandmother as both his parents are out working most of the time.

On Friday, September 23, 2011, Youth of Bangladesh had organized a volunteering event, “Nutrition for the Infants” which aimed at making the families living in slums more aware of nutrition and hygiene for their children by visiting their houses and talking to them. A survey was held asking them about their basic hygiene habits and was followed by a painting session where the teams taught the children to draw and recognise nutritious foods and awarded them with biscuits and chocolates as prizes.

The living conditions of the families in the slums are horrible. These children marvel at owning one color pencil. A small tin shed is their home and they own half a set of clothes. While a passing garbage truck induces an almost involuntary grimace in most of us, their houses are located in areas that smell like faeces. Their bathroom consists of four tin walls surrounding a suffocating amount of space on the ground and three deep tube wells in the ground make up their water supply. With their stomachs swollen because of malnutrition, they do not know what their next meal is going to consist of.

Yet, these children portray more happiness and enthusiasm at the prospect of getting a piece of Vitamin-C tablet they think is candy while the debate rages on regarding white chocolate and dark chocolate. The parents of these children show swarms of young teenagers more respect than we show to respectable senior citizens of the country, going as far as scolding their children if they took anything from us with their left hands.

These families aren't the only ones who could learn things from us; we have got a lot to learn from them too.

By Neshmeen Faatimah

Poverty isn't an excuse

There comes a time in a person's life when the tendency to remain politically correct leads him to abandon the pursuit of truth. This in turn feeds into the growing problems that he or she faces on a daily basis. Now, is such a time. For far too long, we have been lead to believe that sympathising with the poor means making allowances for them that we otherwise would have not. But when it comes to us being taken advantage of us, it's high time to draw the line.

The old adage goes on about how the rich have sucked the blood out of the poor for decades. However, historians have failed to point the reversal in roles over the years. It seems that poverty has a strange allure to it, romanticising the crimes of delinquents, petty or otherwise, garlanding it with whispers of bravery and a twisted sense of humility. Robin Hood is a true case in point. Rob from the rich, give to the poor. What applause such a concept brings. But can such an act honestly be justified in good conscience?

The two above paragraphs of digression only serve to set up the problem being addressed today; rickshaw-pullers. According to a research by Japan International Cooperation Agency, on average, a hard-working rickshaw puller can draw 14,000 taka monthly as salary, eight times the wage packet of a garment factory worker. A rickshaw-puller who works less can still get a monthly reward of 6,300 taka while one who hardly works manages to scrape 3000 taka a month. The two Eids present a different story altogether. So, when you see the rickshaw-pullers with their feet up, refusing to go anywhere, there is a reason for it; they probably earn more than you.

Rickshaw-pullers always have some legitimate reasons to hike up their fares on a repeated basis. When we say legitimate, we are stretching it a bit, considering the sympathy and political correctness factor. Fares increase when there's too much sunshine, too much rain, too much traffic, holidays, when food prices go up and sometimes on Monday. Basically, if an Earthquake does happen in Dhaka, as predicted, the first thing to go up would be rickshaw fares. Why? Oh, broken roads are harder to negotiate and yada yada.

Rickshaw-pullers are also responsible for causing almost all the tailbacks and congestion plaguing the city. They adhere by no rules whatsoever and park wherever they damn well feel like, creating double lines and going the wrong way. They are a nuisance on more levels than just that one. They also ride like the possessed, ending up scratching cars leading to a huge expenditure for the car owner. A rickshaw-puller, after scratching your car, can only always produce no more than 200 taka. And since he's helpless, the general public would want you to forgive and forget. Will the general public compensate you for the 15,000 taka damage? No, they will not. When the idea of rubber-covering was mooted to stop the damage from the metal-ends protruding from the middle of a rickshaw's wheels, it was immediately shot down. Such rubber-coats would set back rickshaw owner's 10 taka a pair. It was deemed to expensive. Now, someone with 10 rickshaws, usually gets 90 taka per day from each vehicle. That's 900 taka a day. That's over 25,000 taka a month. Furthermore, no extra wage is paid to the pullers. Such a person could surely spend an additional 100 taka to make sure their rickshaws don't cause all that extensive damage.

The argument of manual labour is largely flawed. We are all manual labours in some way or the other but we don't ask for a pay raise every time it rains. A comprehensive ban on rickshaws from all major roads will ease traffic to a certain extent while forcing the practice of extortionate fares. Like the New DOHS system, rickshaws will have licenses provided by areas they operate in and can operate there only. With 4 lakh illegal rickshaws plying the streets, a conservative estimate at best, it would help ensure that illegal rickshaws decline in numbers. Creation of rickshaw parking areas would ensure that rickshaw-pullers don't sit and snooze wherever they please. Yes, as bad as it sounds, a gathering of rickshaw-pullers can make a pretty uncomfortable surrounding; therefore they should have designated areas.

With 52% of rickshaw users being students, it would mean a little more walking for the youngsters. But how bad can that be? The rest of the world does it without complaints. before the sympathy bug bites you, look at the other side as well.

By Osama Rahman
Photo: Sabhanaz Rashid Diya
The opinions of this writer are his own. Love him or stone at your discretion.



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