Thursday, January 25, 2007

Recycling Bangladesh-Style

Yesterday during my usual taxi ride "home" to the guest house from my research office at Grameen Bank, the driver and I got stuck in a bigger-than-usual traffic jam. We were on Begum Rokeya Sharani road at a point where it passes by a small lake (unnamed on my map) that is separated from the highway by a high concrete wall. As we sat there unmoving, I peered out of the open vehicle trying to figure out what was going on.

The first thing I could see was a giant pile of construction debris in front of the roadside wall. Climbing all over the pile were men, boys, and even a few women in saris, all beavering away at separating the large chunks of debris into portable pieces. A few had sledgehammers they were using to break individual bricks from big pieces of tumbled-down brick wall. Others were smashing wooden wall frames into separate bits of wood or breaking large pieces of corrugated tin off even larger sheets that had once been roofs. They then loaded the salvaged bits onto hand-carts or the backs of rickshaws to be carted away, presumably to become part of some new construction project.

As we inched forward, I realized that the scavengers were only a small part of a much larger crowd gathered on the site, most of whom were simply standing and watching the goings-on. And in the middle of the crowd were two large demolition machines, something like bulldozers, in the process of tearing down a series of shed-like storefronts that had been erected along the road in front of that high concrete wall.

One of the machines, piloted by a man in a green uniform, was actually maneuvering on top of what once had been the row of buildings, now collapsed into a high pile of brick, concrete, wood, tin, wire, rocks, and other materials. The other machine stood by, waiting to swing into action. Jutting from the top of the pile was a broken piece of sign from one of the storefronts; it read "GINEERING SYSTEMS."

As the crowd quietly watched, what had been a tiny business district--one of what seems like fifty thousand such that constitute Dhaka's economy--was reduced to rubble by the men with the machines.

I realized I was witnessing something I'd read about in The Daily Star: an ongoing government crackdown on illegal squatters who seized slivers of vacant land--road margins and medians, parks, river banks, even sidewalks--to set up little businesses. For years, the squatters have either gone unchallenged by local authorities or been permitted to remain in place because they pay the police a regular portion of their earnings. And as the scene I saw illustrates, the squatters don't just set up a pushcart or a folding table with a few items for sale, as they might in New York: they build structures, in some cases substantial ones, which they proceed to occupy for years.

Now the government is moving to evict the squatters from selected areas, a move loudly applauded by the editorialists of The Star. If the drive continues, they say, Dhaka streets will be more attractive, less crowded, and less chaotic, and one source of corruption for the police force will be eliminated. (I don't know where the proprietors of the illegally-housed businesses are supposed to move or what will happen to them now that their businesses are destroyed.)

It's normal in Dhaka for property rights to be enforced weakly or not at all. One day while Professor Yunus and I were talking in his fourth floor office, he pointed to several blocks' worth of buildings visible just outside the window--typical-looking concrete structures, three to five stories' tall, containing apartments and offices. All of them, he said are built and owned by squatters. The land is nominally owned by the government, but at some point people simply plopped themselves down there and started building--first small, then tall. For all intents and purposes they now "own" the properties, but they have no deed or certificate of ownership, and theoretically could be thrown out at any time.

It all vividly illustrates economist Hernando de Soto's point about how the failure to rationalize property title is one of the things that stunts the growth of the developing world by making ownership rights insecure, easily violated, and difficult to capitalize. (No one will give you a loan to repair, refurbish, or improve a property you may not really own.) This partially explains the decrepit appearance of most of the buildings in Dhaka.

Today I again rode past the demolition site and found that more than half of the debris pile was already gone, carted away by enterprising Bangladeshis (including, maybe, some of the squatters whose stores had been torn down). Some of the remaining material had been stacked into neat piles--pyramids of bricks, for example--by people who were now waiting for their friends to come by with carts or trucks.

A funny sort of efficiency marks an ultra-poor economy where even a used brick has enough value to be worth salvaging: Very little goes to waste, and the reuse happens not through any kind of organized planning but just through the self-interested actions of ten million residents of Dhaka who are always on the lookout for an opportunity and are ready to scramble as soon as they spot it. What a city.

P.S. I assumed that the guys operating the machines were from the Dhaka police. But when I opened this morning's Star I saw a photo of the operation in progress, and the caption identified the enforcers as a team from the army and air force--no kidding. When the hotel manager heard me exclaim over this, he told me, "Police cannot do this. The people who own the properties are too powerful. Only army can dare to offend them." Again I say, what a city.

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