Never in recent history has Dhaka city been this hungry. Even when disaster struck elsewhere in the country — when crops failed, homes washed away by rivers, villages flooded — the city always had space to take in more.
It has not always been the kindest; one had to sweat blood for food, but there was work to be found and food to be had. With steady work, one could even rent a shack in the many informal settlements around the city. Not anymore.
As the lockdown is extended until mid-April, the informal economy has come crashing down. While the rich have gone indoors, throngs of hungry poor residents lining the sidewalks for alms has become a common sight in the city.
Even a month ago, Nurjahan Begum and her daughter Morjina could be found indulging in a plate of fuchka on Satmasjid Road after a long day of cleaning homes. They got paid by the hour, and this combined with Nurjahan’s husband’s earnings as a rickshaw puller and her son’s wages as a construction worker, allowed them a home in Rayerbazar — and some occasional delights like the tangy fuchka.
Last month, she had enough money to take a few days off work, and grab a bus to their village in Kishoreganj for a holiday. She came back with bags full of fish to share with her neighbours.
Ever since the crisis struck, Nurjahan’s son and daughter have been laid off, and her rickshaw puller husband cannot find passengers. And just like that, a family that used to have some spare change to enjoy the little pleasures of life, have no idea where the next meal will come from.
At Damalkote slum, two sisters — also house-cleaners who work by the hour — cannot bring themselves to run after relief trucks. The two sisters are both widows and live together alone.
“The trucks throw out food and we have to fight for the food with others. We are not beggars. We did not beg even when our husbands died. We work for our food,” said Halima Begum.
She and her sister Rowshanara Begum bought a fistful of lentils with Tk 10 three days ago, and have been stretching that out by cooking the thinnest gruel possible.
Mariam Begum’s 9-year-old twins Mukta and Saiful are constantly hungry and there is nothing to eat at home, so the mother brought them over to Bhashantek kitchen market to beg. The two children ran up to whoever they saw, crying for food. Mariam too is a domestic help whose services are no longer needed as the city’s residents started social distancing.
“They ask for food all day long. There is none. If they can beg and earn some money, I can buy food for them,” said Mariam.
At home, a disabled husband and son along with three other small children were waiting for her to fill the pot. Her neighbour Safia Begum too waited by the roadside, hoping for alms to turn up.
“The shopkeepers are refusing to give groceries on credit anymore. The savings associations are not giving us loans. My husband worked in a factory in Jatrabari and they laid him off,” she said. People of her slum are now selling off their household possessions to buy food, she added.
A crowd of people waited for relief in front of the Mirpur-14 slum on Thursday afternoon. A police car drove up to the people, and started handing out packs, but as hungry crowds pressed against the car, it quickly drove off leaving many empty-handed. One of those left with her hopes dashed was Sabina Khatun, a day labourer who breaks bricks into chips for a living. There has been no work for 20 days and her family consists of a sick husband and two children, all of whom are waiting with hungry stomachs.
“I have no work, no food and no fear of the coronavirus,” she declared defiantly, sitting down on the sidewalk to wait for alms. That there is their predicament — the city that had drawn the whole country to it like fireflies to a light, and given them hopes of a new life, has nothing to offer now.