Our homes are their homes. Our capital city is their colony. Our blood is their food. Our lives are their prey. As the city expands, so does their habitat. They breed is direct proportion to the booming development. They are our closest neighbours, our worst enemies. They are mosquitoes, our companions.
But who is their patriarch? Those who are responsible for this unplanned urbanisation are their fathers. Mosquitoes may be responsible for the dengue epidemic, but it is this unplanned and inhuman urbanisation that is responsible for the Aedes mosquito.
A capital city is a country’s facade, a face that reflects the country’s rulers. While 90 per cent of the families of Bangladesh’s ministers, secretaries and wealthy persons live abroad, their power and their business lies in Dhaka. They have homes here too. Yet just look at in what condition they have kept their hub of power!
Excesses never bode well, but just look at to what extremes the capital city is being taken. Land, forests, water bodies are being gobbled up. Dhaka’s limits are being stretched to Cumilla. Cumilla is being stretched to Feni, and Feni is being pushed up against Chattogram. Dhaka has encroached upon Narayanganj and Munshiganj. It has crept up onto Savar and Manikganj too. It is a mega city, but the government hasn’t bothered to ensure the health system that goes with a mega city.
There are flyovers, the metro-rail and high rise buildings shooting up everywhere. Expenditure is breaking world records. Infants are being born, growing up and going to school, but the construction never ends.
Now it is learnt that the water which gathers in the cracks and crevices of the construction sites, are breeding grounds for disease like dengue and chikungunia. The dengue disaster in Delhi is blamed on the construction of the new apartment complexes. Mosquitoes breed in abundance in the water tanks used for the construction work. It is the same here. Added to that is the water that stagnates in the ditches and depressions where the flyovers and the metro-rail are being constructed.
When it comes to public health and money, it is the mosquitoes and politics that win. How does politics enter the picture? Politics creates the government. That government allocates around Tk 18 billion for the ineffective BTV. It allows millions of taka in banks loans to fall into default. But when it comes to hygienic housing and health care, the allocations run dry.
The politics of the government that is corrupt even when it comes to eradicating mosquitoes, can hardly be expected to be effective in killing the pests. The mosquitoes carrying the deadly virus breed in Dhaka’s slums where the poor live. The political economy, by which the poor people are ruled, is an economy that is adverse to the people, much like the diseases and epidemics.
The poor suffer the most. They become even poorer, when they fall ill and have to spend money on treatment. Dengue and chikungunia love the poor, but the hospitals don’t take them in. A street child suffering from dengue was turned away from a government hospital in the capital city.
The population of greater Dhaka is about 25 million. Even in this country of such excellent good governance, it is impossible to protect the public health of such a densely populated capital city.
Back in the fifties when Dhaka was a small city, people would use mosquito nets even during the day. Poet Buddhadeb Basu even described those mosquito-infested days in his memoirs.
It was only one health minister, Habibullah Bahar, who managed to free Dhaka city of mosquitoes. But that Dhaka city is like a festering boil. Whether you emerge from a poor slum or an upscale building, you are greeted with garbage and filth all around. The city’s grievances grow by the day and it is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. This outburst sometimes takes the form of mob lynching, sometimes in the dengue epidemic.
The World Health Organisation keeps tabs of everything. According to them, 34 per cent of the people in South Asia reside in the cities. And the United Nations states that 40 per cent of South Asian city dwellers reside in slums.
When there is such economic disparity, such an imbalance of power, and such a gaping lack of rights, it is only natural that the poor will suffer extreme health problems as compared to the rich. New townships are sprouting up at the costs of rivers, forests and nature. All civilisations sprout from rivers, but our Dhaka has now turned its back on the rivers. Rivers are no longer the source of life, these are now national sewers.
Anti-people development, disease and the VIP community all go hand in hand. History shows how they have been in nexus from birth.
The sultans, rajas and zemindars of Bengal would excavate and dredge the canals, lakes, ponds and even rivers of this land, for irrigation and clean water. The aristocratic nawabs of this country were wiped out by repeated raids of the Marathas during the rule of Nawab Alivardi Khan and then by British occupation after the defeat of Sirajuddowla.
It took nearly 50 to 60 years to usher in new governance and this, in turn, took toll on the water bodies. With no care and upkeep, water stagnated here and there, breeding mosquitoes and leading to malaria. There was an outbreak of cholera too. Many people died, famine emerged. The English marine engineer Sir William Wilcox described all this in his writings of 1930.
When the British took over, they built faulty embankments without renovating and restoring the old ones. The rivers flow from north to south, but they built the railway lines and roads from east to west because the capital Calcutta was in the west. So the flow of the rivers was impeded and after floods there was water logging.
These trapped pools of water were mosquito breeding grounds and contaminated water was a carrier of cholera.
In the Middle Ages, many people would die of the plague in European cities. But cholera, malaria, Ebola and such diseases broke out in Asian, African and Latin American countries while under the surge of development by the European colonists. That colonial flurry of construction roads and bridges continues.
Permanent arrangement was made for the mosquitoes to stay and for that British occupation. The landlords were suddenly VIPs. They were not accountable to anyone except the English masters. The British criminals could not be tried in the local magistrate courts. The rulers were not elected and the people were too suppressed to speak out. Things were much like it is today.
These colonial rulers had no interaction with the local people other than to collect taxes. There was no need to protect the lives of people in such a populated country. All that was needed was arable land. Even when vast numbers of the population were wiped out in 1769 and in 1943, tax collection remained at an all-time high. What we called revenue then, can be called growth today.
When colonial development was at a height, there was malaria, cholera and famine all around. In such times of disaster, the businessmen are benefitted even more. In present times, the mosquito net and mosquito repellent traders and the hospitals are doing brisk business. It is like when militancy abound, business shot up for metal detectors and other security devices and facilities. During the famines, the food stockists become wealthy and are termed as philanthropists. This is disaster capitalism and we are victims of this.
These epidemics and famines have revealed a strange phenomenon. People gazed helplessly at the food godowns and shops, while dying of starvation, but no one had the courage to snatch the food. Yet three years after that, the comatose people did not hesitate to slaughter each other in the communal riots.
Had the resistance come earlier, perhaps these riots and famines would not have even arisen. Today our country seems to be in the grips of local colonialists. They make money and wield power in the country, but stash their wealth and future overseas and in Swiss banks.
Many of us will die. Many of us will not live a real life. But what about the future generations? Will they not learn the correct lessons of life? At the most 50 per cent of resources are lost to corruption, but erroneous policies destroys it all.
Unless we can change the economy, the development policies and the politics under which we are at present, then viruses worse than dengue emerge. We will be hit by the Zika and Ebola virus. Nothing less than a massive revolution will then be able to eradicate the mosquitoes.
* Faruk Wasif is a writer and assistant editor at Prothom Alo. He can be contacted at email@example.com. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and was rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir