The reason why I came to Bangladesh was to get to know more about self-organisation in slums. As soon as I reached Dhaka, I realised self-organisation is not only an issue in the slums of the city: it is inescapable, it is everywhere, but in a different way than it may be perceived by the western observer. For instance, people do not seem to queue in places where I would expect them to do so (e.g. at the immigration desk, at taxi stands, etc.). Then there are the countless street vendors trying to sell their goods at the top of their voices from improvised, apparently informal, little stalls to the passing crowd. Finally I need to mention crazy, bustling traffic that does not seem to follow any rules. At first sight, this all seemed like chaos to me.
After some time in this city, I got used to these things and I started to understand how they work. I realised that there is some order within this, at first perceived, chaos that is attained through self-organisation. Of course, there has to be! Without it, the initially described situations would grind to a halt or end in frustrated violence. To a certain degree, it is the power of the strongest (e.g. the most committed person in the queue, the loudest street vendor, or the biggest car) mixed with mutual respect that drives the outcome of these encounters. The chaotic system self-organises itself to attain a kind of order that I, as a European, was not used to.
After this first insight, I was even more curious to find out more about the self-organisation within Bhola Bosti (bosti means slum in Bangla): the slum I intended to research. I want to find out about the actual role of horizontal networks that are, according to some authors, crucial for slums to get along. In order to test the hypothesis that hierarchical factors play a major role especially when it comes to overcoming the limitations of self-organisation (“shadow of hierarchy” after Scharpf 1994), I need to know more about how this social structure contributes to making the slum dweller somehow more resilient to the main risks they are exposed to: eviction, fires and water-logging (McNamara et al. 2016). In this regard the social structure is seen as reflection of self-organisation and hierarchy. My approach has been so far mainly to gather first-hand information about the everyday life of the slum dwellers using unstructured interviews. Unstructured, in this case, means to let people talk about their issues without giving them too many structuring questions. By doing so, the slum dwellers get to talk about how they get on in their own voice. This is particularly crucial when it comes to talking about their everyday life. To get access to the slum dwellers more easily and to gather “expert” information, I have been conducting structured interviews with NGOs that are active in the slum.
Through talking to NGO workers and an initial survey of slum dwellers, it is already clear that there is a set of hierarchical relationships operating within the slum including community leaders. The slum dwellers have a strong community identity due to their collective origin of Bhola Island (hence the name Bhola Bosti). It has been a set of environmental threats to their livelihoods (such as river erosion) that has been driving people to the slum. But, living in the capital Dhaka does not always mean a better livelihood. Many migrants still live in precarious conditions. These risks and the neglect by society demand some kind of organisational structure of the slum dwellers, to maintain their livelihoods and to meet their basic needs (e.g. sanitation, sewerage, electricity, etc.). My experiences so far have given me the impression that Bhola Bosti strongly relies on its hierarchical structures to meet the demand of its dwellers for basic services and on self-organisation when it comes to livelihood. Although the hierarchy seems to benefit the slum at first sight, it is difficult to believe that there are not also negative effects for the slum dwellers. To get to the bottom of this, I want to do more interviews with the common residents of Bhola Bosti.
For now, I only have a very one-sided view from the interviews with NGOs, the community leaders and their related persons. Furthermore, I had to switch my approach from simultaneous translation to recording the monologue of the interviewee for transcription into English afterwards. It appeared as though people feel interrupted when a person is continually translating what they are saying. It also fosters a more rigid ‘questioning-answering’ feeling during the interview, and therefore does not match the idea of an unstructured approach. However, my first attempt of testing this new approach seems to deliver very good information. Even though the conversation has not been transcribed yet and, for now, I can only guess at what they were saying.
In addition to this insight into the social life of Bhola Bosti, I came to know the place very well. This is not very surprising since the slum is squeezed into an area of a football field between a drainage channel and several high-rise buildings. Considering that at least 2,000 people live in this small space, it is self-explanatory that the houses have to be multi-levelled and that paths are narrow. Two small paths with barely enough space for two people to pass, lead into the slum and connect on the other side. Since the slum dwellers use the wall separating them from the adjacent drain as support for their second story, the path along the wall is completely dark besides sporadic light bulbs. This path gives more the impression of a creepy basement than a “public” thoroughfare. The second path is approximately the same size but the atmosphere is completely different. You can actually see the people passing you, and it seems that people are more comfortable in this part of the slum. It will be interesting to know more about the social status of people living in both parts of the slum, while delving deeper into the everyday life of an average slum dweller.
About the author:
Uwe Roth is currently doing fieldwork for his Master’s thesis (Resilience in the shadow of hierarchies. A qualitative study of self-organisation in Bhola Slum, Dhaka) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He studies Human Geography at the University of Bayreuth and writes his thesis under the supervision of Prof. E. Rothfuß. At site he collaborates with GIBIKA (icccad.net/gibika/), a project within the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD).
More information about Bhola Bosti and references:
Lund, Erik (2013): The Slums of Dhaka: Bhola Slum. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5YKq6ZIoA8
McNamara, Karen E.; Olson, Laura L.; Rahman, Md. Ashiqur (2016): Insecure hope: the challenges faced by urban slum dwellers in Bhola Slum, Bangladesh. In: Migration and Development 5(1), 1–15.
Scharpf, F. W. (1994): Games Real Actors Could Play: Positive and Negative Coordination in Embedded Negotiations. In: Journal of Theoretical Politics 6(1), 27–53.