The lowest of the Hindu castes, these “untouchables” ﬁght for a voice
The Pongue Sweeper Colony, a dense network of one-room shanty houses built from scavenged bamboo, wood, and corrugated metal, sits on what is essentially an oversized ditch between the Dhaka Orthopedic Hospital and the World Bank in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The ground in the slum is wet and stagnant, the homes built on bamboo poles two or three feet oﬀ the ground. Often, more than one family lives in a single house, without electricity or sanitation. They share latrines dug into the earth and get their drinking water from a small pipe that winds its way through the reeking debris.
Most of the one hundred and ten families there are “sweepers” – cleaners of the city’s roads and sewer systems. They are Dalits, the lowest of the Hindu castes, for centuries “untouchable.”
N. Sree Ramu, the twenty-eight year old Joint Secretary of the Bangladesh Dalits Human Rights (BDHR) organization, lives here with his wife and three year old daughter. While showing me around he told me that his family and most of the others in the colony have been there since the government of Bangladesh plowed over their old shanty houses and relocated them from another part of the city in 1993 – their fourth relocation since 1979.
The government had again given an eviction notice to all the families of the colony, but Ramu said that they have nowhere else to go and each family has been paying two taka (about three Canadian cents) everyday to local police so they can stay.
They have few options, and by birth are subject to numerous forms of discrimination – segregation, restrictions on livelihood and access to services, land grabbing, destruction of their houses, intimidation, violence and sometimes rape and murder. Local musclemen sell drugs around the main entrance to the colony and collect “tolls” from colony members for access to their own homes.
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