I’m writing this to the metronomic thud of sledgehammer on concrete, which is coming from directly below my desk, and causing my water to resonate ever so slightly with the vibrations. Our office is being demolished.
Since the military coup on January 11th and the declaration of State of Emergency, the interim military-technocrat administration has implemented many changes to Bangladesh, some of which are very popular, such as going after corrupt politicians and putting them in jail, some of which are concerning, such as suspending some fundamental human rights, and allowing the security agencies to operate with impunity – 60,000 officers have made 95,825 arrests since January 11th, for which they need no warrant, and there have been at least 50 deaths in custody – and others which are disruptive and designed to show who’s boss in the streets, where real life takes place.
There has been a mass demolition and eviction drive of illegal structures on public land, all across the country. Huge slums were cleared almost over night in the cities, the thousands of little kiosks and stands that obstructed pavements are nearly all gone, and in Sylhet at least, almost every main road has suddenly grown a few feet wider, as workers have systematically moved along hammering off everything that has encroached beyond the legal limit of construction. In practice that means nearly every building, for, as I understand it, most property owners were illegally adding a little extra to their property and paying a little backhander to the city officials. So, new administration, no more corruption, and no more illegal buildings.
A lot of the work has been done by now and as the dust settles, it has made an improvement to traffic levels at least, as pavements have appeared. Sylhet has become even more ugly as most buildings have lost their facades, and you have steel wiring jutting out from everywhere that used to support concrete, but for the most part the biggest problem with this initiative has been the fact that the administration has demolished the homes of the poorest people in Bangladesh, destroyed their tiny shops and shacks, and not given them any support or provided any alternative home or source of income.
So a lot more people have been forced in to begging, or moving their families and scant possessions in to slums that would make a rubbish dump look like a botanical garden. It’s not good, and even the administration has been forced to admit its errors.
But until this week, we hadn’t been personally affected. And then about five days ago there was a thick red line crudely painted on the front of our building, only about 2 feet away from the edge, which denoted that it was going to be lopped off within 72 hours. That’s your warning.
Our landlord had built a little bit over the street, too close to the drain apparently, and so just that bit was going to go. Of course, this was the exterior wall, and directly through where my desk sits, so even though 90% of the building would remain, it would still be uninhabitable. My first thought was that we should call a lawyer, check the small print, suspend the demolition until we’ve found somewhere else, and then possibly sue our landlord for compensation etc. And then my second thought was that I’m in
Bangladesh, and this would all be pointless. We just had to move.
I have been in Dhaka for the last few days attending some VSO meetings, and wasn’t sure if the office would be here when I got back. It was, although after this morning the bit directly below our office (we have about 100 square feet on the first floor) no longer exists, and my whole side is supported by two crumbling columns. It’s absurdly unsafe, but in Bangladesh, as I’ve already written, there’s no such thing as health and safety. Your either healthy or dead, safety doesn’t come in to the equation.
The guy who ran the little shop downstairs has already left, to what I’m not sure. And we are struggling to find an office again that we can afford, as all the rents have gone up since the demolition drive started.
But at the same time, this is what drives me mad about Bangladesh, there’s no little urgency or sense of planning ahead. Three of my colleagues are out in meetings today and I have to go to a school in half an hour. And our accounts manager, who has virtually nothing to do anyway, has spent the whole morning sitting on the sofa reading analysis of the cricket world cup. I’ve pointed out to him that we have to find a new office as soon as possible, and he said that he’s looked and couldn’t find one. I said that maybe he should look again, instead of reading the papers all morning. He said that he had receipts to file from a conference yesterday. I know that there are five or six receipts; arguably 15 minutes work if he did it slowly. And he’s done it, and now has nothing to do until our director comes back.
There is such a strict hierarchy in the work culture here, and so little sense of taking the initiative, that I am sure – and I really hope I’m proved wrong, by Monday I will have a phone-call saying there’s an ‘emergency’ and we have to put all of the office on to a rickshaw before the building collapses, or something along those lines. Almost every fortnight we have to drop everything because an ‘emergency’ has occurred, and it’s always something that had just been forgotten and had crept up on us. And now, ironically, we have a real emergency in the shape of three blokes with sledgehammers downstairs, and no-one is doing very much about it. Bloomin’……..