Dhaka None of these cities on my route the last ten days are small: Bangalore (6.2M), Chennai (4.3M), and Kolkata (7.8M). Yet, Dhaka with 6.7 M seems something very different moving from India to Bangladesh, as if I were rolling backward in time several decades. At some level this is a surprise because one expects the Bengali culture just shifted over a bit when going east. But going from Kolkata and West Bengal to Dhaka and what was East Bengal until the India and Pakistan partition by the British 60 years and then the war and split off of what was then East Pakistan into what is now Bangladesh 37 years later, largely confronts you with the fact that governments and politics do make a difference.
This city is huge; the roads are jammed from dawn until whenever with the constant bleep of car horns everywhere. At night though this bursting city is dark, not in deference to al Gore and environmentalism, but because the power grid and the cost simply don’t allow the choice of leaving lights on, it seems. I walked the busy street thronged with people but in the dark except for the occasional shop or reflected auto lights. Barring the people and noise, I felt like I could have been camping away from the city lights. In the block before my lodging on this wildly busy street I picked my way on the pavement around more than 100 men sleeping before 9 PM in that one stretch who were curled up in some cases in the baskets that they used to haul goods in the nearby market.
Signs warn about the contaminated water in this seeping city built around the delta tidelands and the river Buriganga. A plastic bottle of water where I ate in a kebab shop advertised boldly that it was “arsenic free,” giving me thankful pause.
All of that though is simply life on the road as in some ways is the devastating poverty and deprivation around every corner of this developing country and its capital city. What makes me queasier as an organizer is wondering if this is even a place where we can readily work. Rabial Mallick in Kolkata had forewarned me of the contradiction when he had travelled here in the past. At one level he had said that some of the giant NGO’s are so bursting in resources that they occupy entire buildings with 20 floors or more. On the other hand he had experienced the frustration of training organizers over months and then seeing all of the work drained away when none of the organizers could find the resources to develop organizations or support their organizing.
The signs of instability, unrest, and even violence seem everywhere as well. Not in an ominous way that one can feel on the streets where people are welcoming, curious, and even friendly, but in the way that the drift of conversation with others can’t conceal and the newspapers can’t hide.
Two youth wings of the dominant political parities killed a student at the medical college who was an officer of one of the groups leading to the school being closed as I arrived, leading the closure of the school for days. Whoa!
A group broke into a press club in a town outside of Dhaka and severely beat four reporters because they were unhappy with a recent article in a local paper about their faction. Damn!
A photo in one of the Dhaka papers ran showing some of the 800 held since their arrest in another political spat. Huh?
In the recent close election between the two contending parties and the daughters of their long time leaders who faced off against each other, there is now a dispute where one is trying to throw the other out of government housing. Yow!
The government announced yesterday a crackdown on 150 NGOs it accused of taking money from outside of the country from the Middle East and Europe. This was covered with the typical “combating terror” blanket and perhaps with good cause for all I know, but such an action is certainly chilling. Additionally, letters were sent to local NGOs, who are involved according to The Independent “…in commercial ventures, microcredit programmes, running educational institutions…” to explain why they are engaged in such activities “…which, according to NGO rules, are beyond their area of function.” Once again all of this may indeed be designed to curb specific abuses that are substantive or technical and beyond me, but in trying to suss it out on the ground, it was hard to see this as a propitious time to begin our work.
Dhaka is intriguing and challenging in a first sip. Will take a lot of looking and preparation though before I feel we can reasonably take a deep gulp.