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Bangladesh’s city cleaners survive amid filth, uncertainty

Descendants of Telugu migrants from India, they are ‘historically repressed, betrayed and exploited’

A woman draws water from the only hand pump available to 126 Telugu families -- mostly Christians and Hindus -- in their new settlement after they were evicted from their homes in the Outfall Colony in Dhaka’s Dholpur area in February

A woman draws water from the only hand pump available to 126 Telugu families -- mostly Christians and Hindus -- in their new settlement after they were evicted from their homes in the Outfall Colony in Dhaka’s Dholpur area in February. (Photo: Emran Hossain/UCA News) 

Published: August 23, 2023 11:46 AM GMT

Updated: August 23, 2023 12:41 PM GMT

Raju Rao did not expect to receive a tip for doing his job as a cleaner at a local school in Dhaka, but he feels grateful for the small mercies of life.

It was a Monday and a second grader had vomited in the classroom. Rao removed the vomit from the floor and also washed the small girl.

“I became worried seeing her condition and talked to her, trying to understand if dengue was the cause of her sickness,” Rao told UCA News on Aug.21

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For his effort and show of compassion, Rao was paid 100 taka (less than one cent) as a tip.

"That made me happy," said the temporary worker at Ideal School and College at Banasree in Dhaka, who earns 17,000 taka ($155) a month.

It’s rare that people like Rao, who belongs to a small Telugu-speaking community, are treated with sympathy by mainstream society in the South Asian nation.

The ancestors of Telugu people in Bangladesh came from the southern India area, currently covered by Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states.

The British brought them in the second half of the 19th century to work in the newly built railways, tea gardens, and at the municipal corporation of Dhaka.

Historical accounts say it was not easy to find cleaners at the dawn of urbanization in the agriculture-based Bangladesh economy.

Stateless and poor

The Telugu migrants -- mostly Hindus and Christians -- were promised accommodation and job security. But more than a century later, they remain second-class citizens.

Dhaka has some 10,000 Telugu people, according to Kamal Sardar, who leads a forum for the Telugu community. 

Telugu people are also settled in Pabna and Sylhet, where they are engaged in tea gardens, he said. 

But most are poverty-stricken like Rao.

The 100 taka tip helped Rao buy fruits for his four-year-old daughter, who had a fever for the past two days.

“Buying fruits for my sick daughter is a luxury,” Rao said.

Only last month he borrowed 12,000 taka ($110) at a three percent interest rate when his daughter fell sick during the ongoing dengue epidemic in the capital of Bangladesh.

The Telugu people are treated as outcasts for cleaning up the filth in Dhaka.

“Telugu people have been historically repressed, betrayed and exploited,” said Mesbah Kamal, who teaches history at Dhaka University.

The sign of the cross is painted on a shed, which was used as a church by a community of Telugu-speaking Christians, who were evicted in February by the Dhaka city corporation. Although their homes were razed by the corporation, Christians resisted the demolition of their church. (Photo: Emran Hossain/UCA News)

Evicted at short notices 

They often face arbitrary evictions as the one seen last February.

Rao’s family was among the 126 Telugu families evicted from their homes in the Outfall Colony in Dhaka’s Dholpur area by the Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) to make space for a car garage.

The city corporation gave them just 48 hours to leave, offering no alternate place to relocate themselves.

It was only after the intervention of rights groups that their demand for full rehabilitation was accepted.

“The eviction hit us very hard and in so many ways,” said Rao.

The new place that the city corporation offered them did not even have access to basic amenities such as electricity and water supply.

The 126 families were left on their own to rebuild their lives.

Each family spent nearly 11,000 taka (some US$100) on securing electricity and water connections.

Rao said the sudden eviction meant they sold most of their family belongings including tin sheets at throwaway prices.

Days later, they had to purchase the same tin sheets at three times their selling price.

“The authorities couldn't care less. A little care and management could have spared us many troubles,” Rao said.

Fighting for worship places 

Almost all the families had to secure huge loans amounting to 100,000 taka (some US$910) each at high interest rates for constructing tin-sheet shelters of an average size of 10 feet by 16 feet.

The new shelters stand cheek by jowl in rows served by 10 pit latrines and one hand tube well. The area turns all muddy during the rainy season while it is hot and humid throughout summer.

The prevalence of diarrhea, skin diseases, and other heat-related ailments was very high as Dhaka saw day temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius, touching a 58-year high in April.

“We were without electricity for six months,” said K. Ramna, a 30-year-old woman.

Ramna believes her 60-year-old mother, Silakamma, who suffered from hypertension and died in July, had succumbed to the heat.

“The doctor who last saw her said it was a heat stroke,” she said.

During summer, the tin-sheet shelters would become like an oven, residents say.

Their previous Outfall Colony, which was established in 1990 by the government to relocate the 126 families from another part of Dhaka – Tikatuli, looks forlorn now.

Its sole Hindu temple and two churches, standing wall-to-wall, along with the school building are all that stand amid the rubble now.

The city corporation wants to demolish the religious places too but the relocated people are opposing it.

“We are not going to demolish what we built with our love and hard-earned money,” said Reverend Issac Rao, the priest of the Baptist Church.

In spite of the filth in the localities, the tiny shanties of Telugu people are kept neat and clean. The curtains appear freshly washed and there’s not a speck of dust on the floor.

The entrance to each Hindu house is decorated with traditional chalk patterns drawn on the floor.

“We draw them every morning. It is a ritual for us and an expression of our love for life and beauty,” said R. Laxmi.


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