The allure is a free pass to extort
For the past month, every lamppost, electric pole and balustrade in the neighbourhoods in Dhaka-14 constituency was strung up with technicolor posters of at least 33 politicians vying to be the oarsman of one boat -- that of the seat left empty by deceased parliamentarian Aslamul Haque.
Yesterday, Aga Khan Mintu beat the odds, when he was nominated the Awami League candidate for the seat. The veteran politician is the president of Shah Ali unit Awami League, a former councilor and a chairperson of Muktijoddha Market, a gigantic, crumbling retail behemoth which greets incomers into the neighbourhood of Mirpur-1.
Dhaka-14 consists of areas under Shah Ali, Rupnagar, Mirpur, part of Kalyanpur, and Darussalam police stations, and a section of Savar's Pakundia union.
Among those that Mintu defeated are deceased parliamentarian Aslamul's wife Maksuda Haque. In a political atmosphere where widows are often passed down the mantle, her contestation was expected -- but it seemed like every other ward councillor, and the heads of every single neighbourhood AL unit made a mad dash for the seat in parliament.
But why was this of so much interest? The aspirants themselves say it's because Dhaka-14 has the largest extortion rings in the city -- two highways into Dhaka and two rivers, which makes this seat a trading hub.
All candidates interviewed said as much: There are so many applicants because a large section of the people vying for the seat are involved with extortion themselves, and before Aslamul's death, had been among his network of collectors.
Among the hopefuls were some odd ones -- like Germany-residing Zillur Rahman, the senior co-president of German Awami League whose posters were being hung up on the streets of Avenue 3 of Mirpur-1 outside the ward councillor's office.
When the people stringing up the posters were asked why someone from Germany is looking to represent a seat in Dhaka, they said, "If he is chosen, he will move back."
Some of them were not even from the locality. For example, Ekhlas Mollah has always vied for Dhaka-16, including in the last elections but this time, he attempted to buy a form for Dhaka-14.
Moinul Hossain Khan Nikhil had vied for Dhaka-15 last time and Abdul Kochi Mannan vied for Dhaka-16, but both reached out for the empty seat of Dhaka-14.
Many reaching for the ticket do not even hold posts in the ruling party.
Two of the four highways entering Dhaka enter through the Mirpur-Beribandh and Gabtoli-Beribandh checkpoints. These roads directly link the capital with Benapole, the district historically identified as the capital's phensidyl dealer and gold smuggler.
Just last week, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police's (DMP) detective branch (north) recovered 5,000 yaba pills from the Gabtoli terminal area.
"We often recover drugs from these two points. We usually intercept marijuana here," said Mahtab Uddin, deputy commissioner of DMP Mirpur division.
A large chunk of the country's fresh produce arrives in the constituency via these highways, creating a bustling informal economy centring around wholesale markets.
Let's go to the wholesale market beside the Shah Ali Mazaar graveyard. The councillor of ward-8, Kashem Mollah, confirmed that the market is located on the land owned by the Mazaar.
"About two years ago, three plots of land were leased out to three wholesale markets by the deceased lawmaker Aslamul Huq. The big plot has about 150 shops, while the other plots have around 50-60 shops each," said Morshed, the manager of Shah Ali Mazaar.
"We get Tk 15,000 daily from the big plot, Tk 10,000 daily from the middle plot and Tk 5,000 daily from the smaller one," he said.
Speaking to the traders, however, the math doesn't add up -- the traders seem to be paying far more than what the daily rent is from the mazaar.
A vegetables trader at the market said he has to give Tk 1,500 every day. Another roadside trader said that he gives Tk 2,000 every day. Both requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. This would mean that the plots with the 50 shops raise Tk 75,000 daily, while the plot with the 250 shops raise Tk 225,000 daily.
The rent paid to the mazaar is a pittance in comparison to what is being raised each day.
Traders and arotdars (owners of warehouses) said they hand over the money to the Hazrat Shah Ali Paikari Kacha Maal Aarot.
Meanwhile, Morshed too confirmed that he gets his daily rent from the president and general secretary of the association.
A local councilor from the constituency, three arotdars, three staff who also requested anonymity confirmed that the association members are indeed Aslam's men.
There is more. The entire west periphery of the constituency is cradled by two of the most encroached-upon wetlands in the country, the Buriganga and the Turag rivers.
Land from the Turag river was infamously grabbed by the deceased parliamentarian, Aslamul Haque himself, found a probe led by the National River Conservation Commission (NRCC). The report found that Haque had filled up more than 54 acres from the Buriganga river and wetland to construct a power plant and a private economic zone in Basila.
The River Commission's annual report also stated Tamanna Park and Netherland Picnic spot as being land belonging to the river that was encroached upon.
Meanwhile, according to 2019 data from the Aminbazar Union Land office, approximately 28 acres of wetlands, khas land and land belonging to the Buriganga river are in the possession of grabbers.
"None of this land-grabbing can be sustained without the explicit patronisation of the ruling MP," a candidate-hopeful had said last week. "Local ward councillors intervene to grab the land," he added.
When asked about the extortion, Aga Khan Mintu said, "I believe in transparency. I know about allegations of extortion, but I do not know who does it. There are no allegations against me."