A few days ago, while scrolling YouTube, I found a video on a Bengali community stranded in Pakistan. The video revealed that the Bengali people stuck in Karachi are living a life full of hardships just like the Bihari community in the camps of Dhaka and other parts of the country.
Cursed by the same fate, two communities left ignored by the state are battling to survive in two different parts of the world.
In Bangladesh, the migration of the Bihari community dates back to the British colonial period. They were brought to Bangladesh from different parts of India primarily to work in the railway factories.
Hence, these communities are found predominantly near the railway stations in Saidpur, Parbatipur, Khulna and Chittagong. Despite being culturally different, the Bihari community lived in these parts for decades.
But, after the Liberation War of 1971, tolerance between Bengali and Bihari communities decreased significantly due to political reasons. Therefore, some Bihari communities were expelled from Bangladesh while others were stranded in different camps in Dhaka and other parts of the country. At present, 300,000 Biharis are living in Dhaka city, and over 900,000 in total live in Bangladesh.
Till 2008, the Bihari community lived an uncertain life in these camps due to their statelessness. None of them had citizenship of Bangladesh so they were denied every civil right. But in 2008, a young group from Dhaka Geneva camp applied for citizenship in the Supreme Court.
The court after a long haul ruled in favour of their citizenship. Now, Bihari community at least on paper are citizens of Bangladesh.
After, getting citizenship different groups from these camps started campaigning for rehabilitation. These camps do not offer basic living facilities to the residents. Inside these camps, families still live in 8 feet by 8feet congested cells which were allocated to them in 1972.
Some of these families have six to eight members. They do not have proper sanitation, pure water, gas and electricity, garbage collection or any other facility. On top of that, these people are under constant fear of eviction as the city corporation attempted multiple times to evict the camps of Mohammadpur and Mirpur.
In 2019, Biharis from few camps of Mirpur were evicted during a road expansion project. These incidents create uncertainty in the daily lives of this community.
Life in these dilapidated camps with uncovered sewerage drains, piles of garbage that remained uncollected, regular power cuts, irregular gas and water supply, flooded roads and an unhygienic shared toilets take a psychological toll on the residents.
They feel less emotionally invested in their communities and harbour increasing desires to get out of these camps. But they cannot because for years they were segregated from the mainstream society and received very little attention from the government. Besides, poverty and illiteracy have become shackles for them creating barriers to moving out.
Due to the fear of eviction, these people cannot invest their time and resources in community development like those using their resources to develop the neighbourhood in other parts of the city.
Some of these people managed to get upward social mobility but soon after they left the camps. For this reason, the turnover rate in the camps is on the rise. Recently, working-class Bengalis from nearby cities like Mymensing are moving inside these camps for cheap accommodation.
Besides, due to gentrification the property value of camp adjoining areas has increased significantly. A lot of middle-class Bengalis have moved inside newly developed apartments near these camp areas in recent years.
This influx of Bengalis near these camps added another layer of uncertainty in the lives of camp living Bihari communities.
Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, two prominent sociologist, linked socially disorganised neighbourhood with the behaviour of its residents. Their research found that crime and delinquency rates always remained higher in socially disorganised areas like Bihari camps as residents can hardly invest time, energy and money for community development.
So, it is about time that authority took necessary steps to rehabilitate this community to another place or the government gives them ownership of their lands and invest money to develop these camps so that camp residents can also work for their betterment without any uncertainty.
Md Aftab Alam, a teacher of sociology and anthropology at the Department of Economics and Social Sciences, BRAC University