Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Calcutta, Dhaka and the Poor

Calcutta, Dhaka and the Poor

by Denis Murphy
Saturday, 02 May 2009

There have been huge changes in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and Dhaka, though the symbols of poverty remain: the rickshaws, pavement people, forlorn beggars and vast stretches of slums.

In Dhaka I came upon an old woman and a baby squatting by the side of the path. The woman was bent over the baby and had it wrapped in her faded red sari. They looked inconsequential, the two of them, like a bag of old leaves you could pick up and walk off with easily. There was no tin cup for begging, and they weren't there the next day. I watched a line of rickshaw drivers pass by. In Dhaka the rickshaw is pulled by bicycle power. The drivers were all small, dark and looked as if they had just been condemned to death. They work on average 12 hours a day in traffic so chaotic it makes Manila's look genteel.

In Howrah, Calcutta's sister city, we met a group of outcaste people-scavengers, sweepers, garbage men-who live near a giant garbage dump. We talked about their eviction: the High Court had ordered the outcastes be removed because of the pollution caused by the dump. About a hundred men stood around us talking while clouds of flies landed on their hands and faces. No one moved to brush away the flies, even from the faces of the babies that some of the men held.

The danger for visitors in seeing such poverty is that we may believe we are dealing with people who are somehow less than human, who only think of food and have no hope in life, or pride in their culture and history. We may believe they are unable to work in organized ways to change their situation, and that they have no sense of justice and human dignity. I was lucky enough in Calcutta and Dhaka to have friends who allowed me to understand a little more about these poor men and women.

In Dhaka I was able to talk to six Bengali Muslim women working with an NGO called Shelter for the Poor. They were organizing the slumdwellers of Dhaka to get land tenure security for their families. According to the United Nations' Habitat such security of tenure or freedom from eviction is a necessary pre-condition for urban development. The women said other NGOs offered water, light and health programs which were good, but if there were evictions, they would lose all those good things. "Land, land," they said, "that's what we need."

All six had taken part in protests against evictions. In one protest rally 100,000 persons employed a Mahatma Gandhi-like method by sitting down in one of the main intersections of the city. The police beat the protesters. Two of the six women showed the welts left by the policemen's lathi canes across their shoulders and legs. This was several years after the event. The women were thoughtful, funny and seemed to enjoy one another. Heh, I said to myself, these are not the fatalistic stereotypes we imagine the Dhaka poor to be.

The outcastes of Howrah said they had already taken a petition to the High Court signed by 250 of their 400 families. They wanted the Court to explain why it ordered them removed and the garbage left untouched. They will not go to their Member of Parliament who they found cared nothing about them; but they will see the mayor and if they get no explanations, the leader said, "We will fight under the banner of our organization." I was told their organization was a national federation of outcaste people. "We will rally and send petitions and keep after the government till they talk to us."

"We have lived here 70 years," they said. "We have city water pipes and two schools and 200 - 300 of our children go to school. We want a space in this world. We need it more than the garbage dump does." Such is not the talk of fatalists.

I think if we were able to go deeper in our relationship we would appreciate how much they love their children, their Muslim beliefs and have hope in India and Bangladesh.

Traditional culture is very much alive. At an anniversary celebration in a rural village a 45-minute drive from Calcutta, poor women recited the 100-year-old poems of Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Both Calcutta and Dhaka are parts of historic Bengal. A seven-year old girl performed classic thousand-year-old Indian dances later in the program.

It would definitely help human solidarity in Manila if the well-off could come to know the poor a little better than they do. Ignorance of one another creates stereotypes that have little to do with reality, but set people against each other.

If we know the poor people of Tondo, Payatas or the esteros, we'll marvel at their determined efforts to raise their families. In crowded huts with leaky roofs, and the smell of the garbage pile never far away; with so little food each day that the children cry for more till the mother has to slap them to make them stop, with no place to escape from the noise and crowds and the demands and threats of the world, they keep at it day in, day out, working and nurturing, hoping their children will be better off than themselves. Looked at it this way, their lives are gallant. They believe deeply in God. The slums are abrim with love; they are special places of love, not the urban jungles some people talk about.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is

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