Dhaka city has three underpasses for pedestrians to cross busy roads, but none of them serve their true purpose. Over time, they have deteriorated and become a squalid harbour for fringe businesses iniquity.
Hawkers and beggars crowd the underpasses by day; as night falls, they are dominated by drug addicts, hijackers and sex workers – all looking to accost any unwitting passer-by who happens to use the underpass.
Several years ago, ATN News authorities took the initiative to clean up and secure the underpass at Karwan Bazar intersection. The underpass was decorated in the theme of a butterfly. It would be adorned with large-screen LED TVs and paintings, fitted with round-the-clock security and CCTV cameras, and dustbins were placed throughout the underpass to discourage littering. The underpass was renamed Butterfly Cave. The Dhaka North City Corporation executed the project with aid from the IFIC Bank.
Today, nothing remains from the well-conceived initiative. The western side of the underpass has become a derelict dumpster for all intents and purposes. Inside, it is dark and damp, even when it is bright and sunny outside. Several beggars squat, clamouring for alms in their guttural pleas to every passer-by. There is no sight of the LED TV, neither the CCTV cameras, nor the security guards. On the eastern side, nostrils are assailed by the nauseating stench of urine, faeces and more waste.
The Gulistan underpass is an electronics market for all intents and purposes Aditto Rimon/Bangla Tribune
The hawkers have but one response to queries – they occupy the underpass out of necessity. Whatever meagre amount they earn purveying products beneath Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue, is used to sustain their families. But the trade is not so simple – they have to pay an informal “toll” just like every other road in Dhaka.
But who collects the tolls? Who rents out a public service for entrepreneurship as if they own it? No hawker will reveal the name. They know that if they spill the beans, they will have to find somewhere new to ply their trade from the next day.
Shamim Ahsan, a commuter in the area, takes the underpass frequently. He said: “There are many like me who use it regularly. The stench on the east side is atrocious. And drug addicts frequently huddle and block the paths to take their daily dose.”
At night, drug dealers and consumers alike flock to the underpass. Sex workers also inhabit the underpass, hijacking becomes a very palpable threat. In addition, it also houses several homeless families.
Jashim Uddin is the head of one such family. He came to Dhaka after river erosion claimed his home and lands in Rangpur. All able members of his family work at Karwan Bazar throughout the day and curl up in the underpass at night. The other families have similar stories to tell.
A cannabis user retorted sharply when asked if police ever charged them.
“You only see what we are smoking. Have you seen what goes on inside? Are we harming anyone?”
When he was told that they were crowding the entrances, he replied that little to no people use the underpass at night.
The Gabtoli underpass is the only one to have escaped the fate of being a squalor Aditto Rimon/Bangla Tribune
The Gulistan underpass is a full-fledged electronics market ruled by entrepreneurs. It is fully air-conditioned, but the facilities are never used. It has eight entry points to allow people from all corners of the intersection to use it. Regardless of all the entry and exit points, it is nigh-impossible to move through the underpass as shopkeepers keep their stock in the passageway. The crowds are vulnerable to pickpockets; so far too many people still cross the roads and avoid the underpass.
Jan-e -Alam, a student of Tejgaon College, said: “About two months back, I came to Gulistan at night to go out of Dhaka. I took the underpass to cross the road and was accosted by a guy. He begged me to buy his phone for Tk5,000, claiming he needed money for his sister’s medical bills. I told him I had just Tk2,000, a quarter of which would be spent as bus fare. He would not relent, and I paid up. He took off as soon as I handed him the money. When I later checked the phone, I found that it was not the phone he showed me. This was a dead handset. I had been scammed.”
Johirul Islam, a bank official, said: “I went to a restaurant for dinner with my younger brother. When crossing the underpass, several sex workers started heckling us. It was so embarrassing, especially with my young brother accompanying me.”
When contacted, Dhaka South City Corporation Chief Resource Officer Kamrul Islam Chowdhury said they had already taken permission to evict all shops from the underpass, but the eviction is on hold due to a writ filed with the court by several shopkeepers.
Kamrul also said previous attempts at eviction were thwarted by the hawkers. The city authorities sealed the underpass for some time, but later reopened it.
Yusuf Ali Sardar, chief revenue officer in the DSCC, contradicted his colleague, saying that 104 shops were permanently allocated back in 1996, leaving no room for eviction.
All is not lost, though. The Gabtoli underpass is clean and sleek for now. A dozen of recycle bins are tactically placed throughout it to address the issue of rubbish. The entire underpass is decorated garishly. The Dhaka North City Corporation took charge of its beautification and opened it to the public in December 2014.