If one takes a tour of Dhaka City on any day, one will know that the hawkers are a serious problem. In all cases they have taken over the sidewalks of the city, and in many cases they have also spilled over into the roads creating unspeakable sufferings for the city dwellers. Not only are traffic congestions a regular phenomenon, but it also becomes very difficult for the pedestrians to walk from one point of the city to another.
While the explosion of the hawker population in the capital city of this country has been proportionate to population growth, the problem has been exacerbated by rural-urban migration as more people tend to seek economic opportunities. It is a common tendency for the poor and homeless in the villages to head for Dhaka to escape their miseries.
Once they arrive in Dhaka without skills and knowledge, hawkership is a natural choice for them amongst other things such as rickshaw pulling, domestic work, and manual labor. But it is a more privileged choice in the sense that it requires a certain amount of capital and connection to find and set up a shop on any sidewalk of the city. It works through an organized system of extortion to get a shop space allotted to someone and then holding on to it for as long as he can.
It is estimated that about 269,000 people and their families depend on the hawking business in Dhaka City alone, the figure for the country as a whole being around 2.7 million. The size of the hawker community may not be significant compared to the overall population of Dhaka, but its havoc is unavoidable. The old part of the city is particularly impacted because its narrow roads and high population density further magnify the horror.
The idea of evicting the hawkers from footpaths and busy intersections has stirred the city fathers to action many times since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. In the past, the eviction bids were coupled with attempts to rehabilitate the hawkers. Some of the markets in Old Dhaka were direct outcomes of eviction drives undertaken in the past.
But evictions on the whole proved to be futile with or without rehabilitation because either the old hawkers returned to their original spots or the new ones replaced them. It is because the hawkers belong to an unholy nexus amongst politicians, police and musclemen, and these vested interest groups like to keep the footpaths and intersections under illegal occupation. Just imagine how much money is made by selling onetime possessions for so many shops and stalls, and then by collecting daily tolls.
Besides, the hawkers also get the sympathy of certain sections of the society, particularly the left politicians and rights groups. An eviction drive can abruptly disrupt the lives of so many hawkers by denying them their only source of income. Thus it is a serious dilemma for the two city corporations of Dhaka to deal with such a large number of people who clutter its streets, lanes, alleys and intersections, at times choked to stagnation.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Dhaka City has to do something about its hawkers. Whether they are given alternative locations or choices, something must be done to clean up the streets to create better mobility for cars and pedestrians. It is said that where there is a will, there is a way. But Dhaka has lost its will over the years as its ways gave in to illegal usurpation. It is high time to address this lingering problem if our nation’s capital must remain a livable place to the least, at least by shifting the hawkers to certain designated spots.