People talk all the time about those from the lesser economic classes. By that, what is meant in Dhaka's shushil calculations are rickshaw pullers. They are by all means the most oppressed by the economic structure and are on the last rung of the economic ladder propelled by physical labour, though when they try motorized rickshaws, everyone minds.

So the obvious connection is physical work. Since the middle class hardly interacts with the labourers of the daily wages variety unless they are building a house which is rare- they buy an apartment-the chances of the two classes encountering each other is low. The rickshaw puller has therefore hogged the entire space of the imagination of urban poverty.

But clearly there are many types and kinds of the urban poor and while the rickshaw man does occupy the middle bottom space, others are not better off by far. Poverty grinds them and though most are not crushed by it, the small time vendor and the CNG drivers are two kinds of fishes who seem to have escaped our scrutinizing eyes.

The rickshaw puller makes us feel better as we approve of his poverty status and it matches our imagination of what the poor should be like. Others we are not sure and hence we in an odd way may be disproving them.

I am particularly fascinated by the stories of the CNG workers because they seem to be an intermediary poor where many kinds of people particularly those who have been hit by misfortune of one kind or another also gather. Who are they?

The failed migrants

It's interesting but the number of failed migrants who land back home without the promised prosperity often end up as CNG drivers. Their tales are many but as is well known, they are often victims of fraud and money lost due to either over spending by family members or bad investment. Some of the tales are black funny but all too real and sad.

Ratan Miah told me as we sat stuck in the traffic jam past Hatirjheel that his wife had taken the money, invested in fisheries and now with her brothers were running a successful hatchery. They had done so well that she had even opened a residence in Dhaka and he lives there. He had become a "ghar-jamai" and he hated that.

But years in the Middle East had addicted him to creature comforts and he couldn't do without them. So he lives with them and has no patta but can't move out. He is not poor certainly but not better off either. He advised me not to marry 'selfish women with large families and scheming brothers' which given my age and status seemed a bit late in the day.

The part time fighter

Motaher was on an evening shift which was not even known to the owner because he shared the hours with the driver who had found a better paid but short term employment. But he didn't want to give this one up so he was on a shared income scenario. Motaher drove anonymously and finished the hours and took it to the real contract driver who then took a percentage plus the deposit and let him go.

"The income is not high but I am from Naogaon. I am learning the streets of Dhaka and how to navigate through jams and streets. That's good. Once I am strong in about 3 months, I will get my own. And that man's other job will be over by then too so I have to leave anyway. "I truly liked his spirit, coping and negotiating with the challenges of leaving high poverty behind. As I got down, he asked me if I knew how to go where I was headed. I nodded, smiling. He buzzed off.

The mess man

Anwar has been a CNG driver much of his life. He has been in the city for over 30 years and built his life here. He lives in a mess, a room shared with three others. He has his breakfast and dinner there and pays Tk 5000 for all of it. A bua cooks for the other residents of the mess, almost ten of them. He has lived in such situations most of his adult life and knows he has no other options than being a CNG driver. And he has no regrets.

His family lives in the villages and he goes there at least for a week every three months, often making quick weekend trips as well. His greatest pleasure are his children who have done well in skills and working. They are not peasants but mechanics. Soon, he hopes, he will be able to make connections to send the eldest to the Middle East.

Whatever he has saved, it's for them. He can afford to rent a place for himself or move into better accommodations but he won't. He doesn't want his son to come to the city and be a CNG driver so his dreams drive him on as he whirrs through the city and keeps them alive.

He looks at me and smiles.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts