The caravan of broken dreams

The Daily Star  July 12, 2020

Unable to withstand the pandemic fallout, more and more middle and low-income families leave the capital

Amanullah Ershad used to make enough to keep his two sons in primary school and pay the rent for his small flat in the capital’s Banasree.

But everything fell apart after his business of buying and selling rejected products from garment factories came to a grinding halt due to the fallout from pandemic. His due rents were piling up and the landlord assaulted him, threatening him with eviction.

With his business showing no signs of recovery, the 44-year-old man packed up his belongings and left the Dhaka with his family on July 1 for his ancestral home in Dohar.

“We couldn’t survive this. We had to go back to the village where we may have no earnings, but at least the rent is not piling up,” he said.

Like this family, many have seen their income fall drastically due to the impact of Covid-19 outbreak and started leaving the capital, abandoning their dreams of making a better life.

The economic fallout of the pandemic has slightly been less severe outside the cities, said the survey conducted among 2,317 people across the country. Twenty-eight percent of them said they became economically inactive.

The migration of people from the city has also hit the people in the business of renting out properties.

To-let signs and posters are now ubiquitous on walls and online. Rent in many places has been reduced considerably. Still, many homeowners claimed that they were struggling to find tenants.

Economists said the rapid emergence of the new-poor due to job loss and salary cuts will further deepen the crisis unless the social safety net programmes are taken to support them.

Another survey on 5,471 people found that 77 percent of the formerly non-poor group had slid below the poverty line.

This study was conducted by the Power and Participation Research Centre and BRAC Institute of Governance and Development in April.

MANY STORIES OF PAIN

Abdur Rahman used to run a small factory, making hats at a tin-roof building in Uttara Sector-9. He used to pay Tk 25,000 as rent for the space.

He lived with his wife and two daughters at a Tk-15,000-a-month flat.

He had 75 workers in his factory. After the government enforced the shutdown in late March, the orders were cancelled and he had to let go of all his employees.

“The machines alone cost about Tk 20 lakh. The workers are waiting for their arrears while the landowner is asking for rent,” said a hapless Rahman.

He recently sent his wife and two daughters to his village home in Barishal’s Bakerganj. He now lives in a small room in Turag area, paying Tk 4,200 a month.

“I too will leave Dhaka next month,” Rahman said.

The economic hurdle also pushed many university students to leave their accommodations in the city due to the sharp fall of demand for private tutors.

EXPAND SOCIAL SAFETY NET

Social safety net programmes in Bangladesh are mainly focused on the rural poor, said Hossain Zillur Rahman, executive chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC).

“The number of poor people in the urban areas has increased due to the pandemic. Programmes should have been launched earlier keeping in mind the urban people who slipped into poverty during the shutdown,” he said.

Noted economist Prof Anu Muhammad of Jahangirnagar University said the government should have introduced food and cash assistance in March. Many countries took such initiatives.

“But our government has failed to do that… The number of poor people has doubled now. The government should start food and cash assistance to the new poor immediately,” he said.

PROPERTY OWNERS ALSO COUNT LOSS

Afzal Hossain and his family own a business of renting homes in Tejgaon Industrial Area. They have 200 residential units, of which 25 have been vacant since April.

“We reduced the room rent from Tk 7,000 to Tk 5,000 and flat rent from Tk 25,000 to Tk 20,000. We still can’t find any tenants,” said Afzal.

He added that his family constructed the buildings taking loans and now the lenders are asking for payment of instalments.

“Besides, some tenants have not been able to pay the rent for three months while others went to their village, leaving their belongings and did not return,” he said.

The picture is similar in Savar, Gazipur and Narayanganj which are hubs for low-wage working people.

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