Dhaka north and south city corporations have more than 3,000 slums crammed with over 6 percent of the city’s population
From the other side of the canal, Maleka Begum was yelling and throwing her arms over a boundary wall.
Maleka was angry as the food supply was drying up at her home, but authorities did not allow her to cross the bamboo bridge outside Dhaka's Motaharer slum on Thursday, which was locked down on Wednesday after a resident had tested positive for the coronavirus.
"I am a housemaid by profession. I do not have a husband or a son, and I did not receive any relief," she shouted out.
Complaints from Maleka and other women turned into a clamour, amid which Taslima raised her voice to say that she and her daughter could not go to their village home after the closure of offices and transport services on March 26.
"No one, not even anyone from the houses where we used to work, has come to our help. We will die of hunger," Maleka added.
Across the bridge, heavy wooden structures stand guard to stop anyone from entering the slum in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar of West Agargaon.
The man carrying the virus is a cleaner of the nearby National Institute of Laboratory Medicine and Referral Centre.
"After testing positive, he has been staying in a room, separate from his family, inside the slum and using a separate bathroom," said Momin Uddin Lalu, one of the volunteers working under the local administration to keep a close watch on enforcing the lockdown.
The man was found Covid-19 positive when every staff member of the referral lab was tested in a cautionary move, said Dr AKM Shamsuzzaman, the director of the institute.
The police were monitoring the lockdown while army personnel were patrolling the area from time to time.
While the restriction on movement was imposed to contain further spread of the virus, the slum dwellers are in a dire need of immediate food support. Otherwise, there is a risk of gatherings taking place if they demonstrate their outrage en masse, as they did on Thursday.
Forkan Hossain, local councillor of Ward 28 under the jurisdiction of which the slum is situated, said, "We do not have a sufficient fund to give food to the slum dwellers. We have contacted the [Dhaka North] city corporation, and a few NGOs to get food.
"We will give them food on Friday morning."
Two days back, food items were distributed in several slums when many from the Motaharer slum also got food, Forkan added.
Jan-e-Alam, officer-in-charge of Sher-e-Bangla Nagar police station, said, "The police are not responsible for supplying food to the slum dwellers. We do not know who are coordinating the food distribution process."
Motaharer slum has around 1,200 residents. Five more similar impoverished settlements in Ward 28 are home to about 10,000 people.
Dhaka north and south city corporations have more than 3,000 slums crammed with over 6 percent of the city's population. Jobless, they need food, and if they do not get it, they are likely to refuse to comply with the obligation to stay home.
'Not voters of the area'
As of Thursday, free food distribution was done on a limited scale. Many slum dwellers said they received food only once over the last two weeks, while others said lists of their names had been submitted and they were still waiting for relief.
Shawkat Ali, 50, of the city's impoverished neighbourhood Meradia, said he had submitted a list of his 50 plus tenants, mostly day labourers, rickshaw-pullers and housemaids, to the local administration along with other landlords there two days back.
"Here, people are facing a desperate situation over the lack of food," he said.
Lipy Begum, whose father-in-law has 15 tenants living in tin-shed rooms in North Bhasantek, said she had tried to give a list of them to the ward 15 commissioner's office, but it was turned down because they "are not voters of the area".
One of the tenants, Anna Begum, a voter of the area, had an argument with a staff member of the local office later, and she got a package of 5kg rice, 2kg soybean oil, 4kg potato, 2kg pulses and a packet of salt and sugar each.
"How long will that last for a family of five?" said Anna, who got free food from her landlord for the second time. Both her son, who was a construction worker, and she, a housemaid, have been sitting idle without work. The family has two children as well.
Mina Begum, from Jahangirer slum, got a package from the local authorities this week for the first time. "It was a package of 3-4kg rice, 1kg pulses, 2kg potato and a packet of salt. It was exhausted in two days," she said.
Mina's family has five adults including her and two children. All are presently jobless except her, who has been working as a cleaner in an apartment block.
On Thursday morning, Mina had two rotis with some pulses. She would have to work from 9am until 5pm, and her only meal in between was another two rotis with pulses, which she brought along with her from home.
For dinner, her family will have some khichuri (hotchpotch). "What to say about our ordeal? We always live from hand to mouth. You cannot imagine when things get worse from that," Mina said.
The slum is on a piece of khas land. About 400 families live there in shanties so that they do not have to pay rent, and the utility lines are drawn illegally.
Most of the dwellers are labourers, rickshaw-pullers and beggars.
Meanwhile, residents of the biggest such settlement, Korail slum, where nearly 25,000 people live, are getting food regularly from the city corporation and other voluntary organisations.
For example, Jaago Foundation is distributing food there every three days.
Rushing to get food
On Thursday afternoon, about 100 people queued up near the main entry point at Mohakhali wireless gate area when asked to get relief items. They were rushing to get food.
"We live a miserable life here. All our sources of earning have vanished, but the stomach grumbles when empty," said 32-year-old Kohinoor Begum. She has three children.
"Hunger will kill us before the coronavirus," she said.
The crowd was repeatedly told to maintain social distance, but nothing seemed to budge them.
According to the Dhaka North City Corporation, it can manage food for 7,000 people of Korail slum from its allocation. The rest are getting food from voluntary organisations.
Mofizul Islam, a councillor of the city corporation, told The Business Standard that it was a challenge to manage food for slum dwellers.
"I urge the voluntary organisations to continue their support," he said.
Responding to a query, Sumaiya Afrin Ahona of Jaago Foundation said the organisation was giving food to at least 5,000 people.
"As we operate a school there, it is easy to make a list of them, and call them to collect food," she said.
At Kallyanpur slum in the capital, its 2,000 residents are yet to get any relief from the city corporation. Some small organisations have been distributing food, but that is irregular and inadequate.
Meanwhile, 10 volunteers are working there to check if anyone develops symptoms of the coronavirus, as part of an initiative launched by the Human Aid Foundation.
"The slum people are more prone to coronavirus infection, so we are keeping a watch on their health condition. If anyone develops any symptom, we will immediately inform the local authorities or the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR)," said the organisation's founder Dr Sheikh Moniul.