Skipping meals to survive the shutdown | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 04, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 08:00 PM, April 04, 2020

Skipping meals to survive the shutdown

The grim reality in Rajshahi city slums

It was a depressing Tuesday for Kanchan. For breakfast she had leftover rice from the previous night, and did not eat a single morsel till dusk. She then prepared a meal for that night and the next day, calculating and measuring so she has enough food for the days to come. 

The elderly woman residing in a slum of Rajshahi city's Bhadra area, who could barely remember her age, would have managed three meals on a regular day by selling scraps she picks up around the city roads.

But due to the shutdown, she cannot go out into the streets and so, must skip meals.

"I've been doing this for the last three days, after my rice stock started shrinking," Kanchan said. "When there'll be nothing left in a day or two, I'll have to starve for the whole day."

Kanchan, her neighbours, and those living in other slums had not received any government food support till Wednesday, six days since local administration began distributing daily essentials among those who are outside government safety-net programmes.

Those who had been deprived include 150 families of Bhadra slum, 35 families of Balia slum, and 400 families of Rabidas and Horijon communities living in two slums of Daspukur area.

Upen Rabidas, vice president of Rabidas community development committee, said the slums of Bhadra and Daspukur are major ones in the city. Slum dwellers, who usually have different means of earning money, have no work during the shutdown.

Kohinur, a resident of Balia slum, said authorities overlooked the slum dwellers while distributing 90 tonnes of rice and Tk 50,000 cash allocated by the government.

They were also ignored while the corporation completed distributing 100 tonnes of rice, which were bought through donations, among 20,000 people, she added.

Contacted, Rajshahi City Corporation (RCC) Chief Executive Officer Sharifuddin said they somehow unintentionally missed the slums, and they would be included during later phases of food distribution.

He said the corporation will be providing food support to most of the city's one lakh ultra-poor people in three phases.

After this discussion, authorities, an NGO and army carried out some distribution efforts in the three slums on Thursday, but many are still deprived of relief materials.

According to 2014 data of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the city has at least 105 slums, where 39,077 people of 10,202 families live.

Seventy per cent of slum dwellers were not brought under government safety-net programmes, while 80 per cent of them have no idea about the programmes at all, said Shahidul Islam, regional coordinator of Bangladesh Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge, quoting one of their research.

RCC has no data on slum dwellers, and one of their survey activities on slums has been paused due to the outbreak. Corporation officials, however, think the number of families in those slums have increased in recent years.

Living in tiny shanties equipped with poor hygiene facilities, slum dwellers are at a high risk of contracting coronavirus. Sadly, practising social distancing is almost impossible, the dwellers said.

Right now, they are more worried about managing their meals than the pandemic.

After visiting Bhadra slum on Wednesday afternoon, this correspondent saw Manjila Begum preparing drumstick for cooking her curry at lunchtime.

"We have nothing for lunch; the drumstick is for dinner," she said while talking with others who were huddled up.

"I'm afraid of the coronavirus, and I heard about keeping distance," Manjila said. "But tell me, how will we maintain distance in these cramped spaces?"

Md Khalil said he lives with his seven family members in a 70 square feet shanty. "We can do nothing. We just wear masks to be as safe as possible."

From a distance, Golapi was seen sitting at her grocery and tea shop, despite authorities calling for keeping shops shut. "I close the shop when they [authorities] come to raid the area, and open it back up when they go away," she said. "I have no other way to live." 

Authorities raided her shop at least five times since the shutdown, but she had not seen anyone visiting the slum with relief materials till Wednesday.

She said her income slumped from Tk 500 to Tk 100 a day. "Whatever I get is still helpful for managing essentials."

During the visit, some youths brought a dish full of 120 lunch packets. Before they could even start distribution, around 30 slum dwellers snatched them away.

"Most of these people are starving. Distributing food among them is tough," Rakibul Hasan, one of the youths said.

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