Anwar Ali, an environmental refugee, paddling rickshaw on the streets of Dhaka. He lost his home to cyclone Sidr that devastated much of Bangladesh's southwestern coastal area on 15 November 2007. Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
DHAKA, 13 March 2008 - Mohammad Anwar Ali had never travelled beyond Satkhira District, southwestern Bangladesh, but then he never had to. In Aat Ghoria, a tiny village on the outskirts of Satkhira town, he was content living with his parents, wife and three children.
"We lived in two houses. Mum and Dad in one house. My family in the other," the 35-year-old said. "But it was a joint family. We earned together and spent together."
Despite their poverty, they managed to get by on the meagre earnings he and his father earned as day labourers. On a good day, the two men were able to earn close to US$3 a day - enough to put food on the table for the family.
That all changed last November, when Cyclone Sidr devastated large parts of the country's coastal area, devastating agricultural land, killing over 3,000 and rendering millions more homeless.
"Suddenly we found ourselves in the midst of a dire situation," Ali said, recalling the sudden lack of food available at the time.
"I knew it would take days for relief to come. The kids would not survive till that time. So, on the second day, I bade goodbye to my kids, wife and parents and set out for Dhaka. There are jobs for us in Dhaka. We could peddle rickshaws, draw carts and work on construction sites," Ali said.
Ali was not alone in this belief, with scores of cyclone survivors moving to the capital to do exactly the same thing, taking up whatever jobs they could to provide for their families.
Ali initially worked as a coolie [loader] at Dhaka's Badamtali river port, carrying bags of rice and wheat weighing up to 100kg on his back to a nearby warehouse.
"It was a back-breaking job. But the rate was good -10 taka (0.15 US cents) per trip. I made 12 to 15 trips a day. I then changed jobs from that of a loader to a rickshaw puller. Peddling rickshaw is easier and it pays more. The rickshaw fare has increased in recent months and I earn about 200 taka ($3) a day," Ali explained.
Today he spends about $1.5 on food, shelter and daily living in Dhaka, sending the rest back home to his family in Satkhira every 10 days.
Trying to escape hunger
There are tens of thousands of people like Ali today thronging the streets of Dhaka; a fast expanding mega-city reeling under the pressure of over 10 million inhabitants.
With a very small job market and barely any scope for self-employment, rural people are swelling the ranks of the city's economic migrants.
But it is not just cyclone victims that are migrating to the nation's largest metropolis in an effort not to go hungry. Many come from impoverished areas of the country, especially northern districts.
Golemon Bibi (50) and Mohammad Bachchu Mia (38) are from Chilmari sub-district of Kurigram District in the north.
"There is no job in my locality. I used to beg in the village. Nowadays people do not give alms. I don't blame them. Most of the people are as poor as I am. They cannot arrange food for their own families. How would they give [to] others?" Golemon Bibi, who arrived last January, asked.
"In Dhaka, one does not die of starvation. People are kind. They give coins. They also give food. People here are rich. Richer than the richest in the villages," she observed.
Arriving last week, Bachchu Mia, currently works as a rickshaw driver, but yearns only to pay off a $22 mortgage on his land before returning.
"Once I save that amount, I will go home and never return to Dhaka," he said - a sense of frustration clearly detectable in his voice.
Lack of data
Yet despite their numbers, the plight of such migrants and the true scale of the problem remains largely unknown. In fact, the government does not maintain any records on their numbers, nor do Dhaka authorities have a real grasp of how many people are arriving from the countryside daily.
"Rural-urban migration is a continuous process and has been taking place since the dawn of civilisation," noted Atiur Rahman, chairman of the Department of Development Studies at Dhaka University, and an eminent economist.
"Cities offer various sources of earning both for skilled and unskilled people. There isn't much opportunity in the villages other than agriculture, fisheries and livestock raising. With the introduction of modern equipment, machinery and labour-saving technologies, these sectors do not need many people. Modernisation of agriculture is shrinking the rural job market. That is why people are rushing to the cities," he explained.
"The back-to-back floods in August and October followed by the havoc created by super cyclone Sidr in November have only hastened the process further," he added.
But Rahman also saw a positive element in today's migration.
With cyclone relief operations in full swing and a vulnerable group feeding programme providing assistance for the next three months, it is primarily women, children and elderly people that are living on relief now, he said.
"The young are coming to the cities, which mean these people do not want to live on government doles [handouts]. They want jobs, not relief. Who will create jobs for them is another matter though," he said.
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