In April, earlier this year, I travelled to Dhaka city, in Bangladesh, for the 10th International Community Based Adaptation conference. The conference focused on ‘urban resilience’ practices at the community level, touching upon various challenges of urban development – poverty, inequality, increasing migration, urban governance etc. The fact that an international conversation focused on urban resilience was held in Dhaka (with a population of 6.7 million people [census 2011]), Bangladesh, one of the most climate vulnerable countries of the world, was particularly powerful. The conference included a 3-day site visit to different urban resilience ‘projects’, where local and international NGOs work at the community level to increase community resilience capacities.
One such project was a CARE Bangladesh site, where CARE worked with the garment and textile recyclers in a slum in Tongi, Gazipur. Tongi is primarily an industrial township, with metal industries, garments, textile, paper and pulps, jute, pharmaceuticals, food manufacturing factories and so on, producing industrial goods worth USD 0.2 billion annually. However, industrialization in Tongi came with its share of pollution and environmental and ecological degradation. Moreover, large industries and factories became drivers for massive urban migration resulting in an increase in slums where new workers found housing. As we walked into the narrow streets of the garment recycling community in Tongi, a sultry summer weather looming above us, the real challenges of working in cities, in urban poor communities, and in poor countries became altogether more apparent.
We walked into the Tongi garment recyclers community from the main road, adjacent to the garment factory. A series of industrial sheds were lined up on either side of the street, and workers, mostly women, huddled together at the entrances of these sheds to sort out and thread the garment waste. These sheds were mostly corrugated tin structures, with very poor light and ventilation, hence workers mostly worked around the doorway, leaving the remaining area for storage. On extremely hot days, groups of workers were seen working outside their sheds under a temporary awning for some relief from the heat. The garment recycling industry (in most slum areas) is monopolised by two maybe three big business owners and any new entrepreneurs wanting to participate in this market, is typically bullied, threatened or even killed (in extreme cases), to prevent them. Workers are therefore employed by private enterprises, and paid by the day, by weight of recycled material.
As we walked through the industrial sheds and into the residential neighbourhood, we saw varied housing types, from permanent structures made of brick and tin roofs, to temporary structures made of bamboo scaffolding, plastic sheets, and corrugated tin sheets. Families and individuals who came in later, built structures on the marshy wetlands, propped up on stilts; these were commonly called ‘hanging homes’. Bridges were constructed as streets to access the different homes and a whole community lived above water, managing to stay afloat during the days and months of heavy flooding.
Most homes in the community lacked access to safe drinking water. Metal and plastic pipes ran along the streets with shared water taps for drinking and other domestic purposes. This water often came from extremely contaminated sources and was not fit for drinking. There were paid, shared bathrooms and toilets (10 takas for a bath, 5 takas for using the toilet) and these were commonly managed by ‘slumlords’ or employers of the recycling establishment. Almost every household had an electrical connection, and each appliance (bulb or tube light, fan, television) was counted as a single connection and with different costs; interestingly most households had a TV connection. Slumlords, business owners, and political parties all seemed interlaced in networks of power, and communities got access to services, housing, and governance through constant and careful negotiations.
Workers sort the good cotton from the bad, and sell it back to textile companies. The bad cotton (which is still usable) is sold to bedding makers to use for cheap mattresses, pillows and quilts; these are typically bought by individuals from a similar income group as the recyclers. The unusable fibres and garment waste is finally used up to start a fire, for cooking purposes. This level of constant exposure (at work and in the domestic space) leaves women with perpetual respiratory disorders with few alternatives. By the time we left Tongi my throat was choked with microfibers we were constantly inhaling, while there. It was heartening to see the choices people make to gain a sense of security in everyday life, while living on the precipice of insecurity recognized, deliberated, and represented globally.
After the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April 2013, Bangladeshi garment factories came under severe scrutiny by labour rights organizations, aware and conscious consumers, and international brands concerned about their brand image. Clothing companies essentially made two choices – either boycott the Bangladeshi garment industries, or enforce local companies to adhere to fire and building safety regulations. More companies chose the easier option, boycott Bangaldeshi garment industries, costing many workers their livelihoods. However, the few companies that took progressive steps towards better regulations spurred a revolution around labour rights, safe working spaces, and adequate incomes – consumers and workers became aware of their rights, and demanded more accountability.
Albeit, the recyclers, heavily invested in the environmental and economic viability and sustainability of the garment industry, seem to be invisible to this global scrutiny. Little attention has ever been given to the rights, working and living conditions of the recyclers contributing quite significantly to the overall life-cycle of clothing, and how it comes to impact their lives? Is recycling industrial waste under environmentally safe, and equitable ways not the duty of clothing companies? However, this is a messy geopolitical debate to engage in. A friend told me that garment companies in Sri Lanka, for example, incinerate their garment waste, increasing emissions at the local level, but ensuring a transparent process for global clothing companies (albeit, boycotting processes).
The apparent absence of the state in provisioning any form of development for garment recyclers in Tongi, shows that the former will probably be the easier choice most companies will make – either boycott Bangladesh or boycott processes of sustainable recycling. While workers continue to live in these settlements battling eviction on an everyday basis, with either unsafe or expensive access to urban services, exploitation in the work and domestic space, extremely toxic work environments, and high exposure to climate risks. What then is a priority for those working to improve, or enhance a community’s, or individuals’ resilience capacities?
CARE volunteers worked with community members in Tongi, women and men, to empower them and build a knowledge base for resilience actions and practices. Community members created vulnerability maps of their settlements, identified ways of managing climate risks, and developed networked methods to respond to frequent disasters such as flooding, and fires. Women became more confident of their contributions in the work and domestic space, and spoke to an enhanced sense of identity and role in their households. An overall sense of cohesion in the community came to be seen; beautiful and yet so uncanny. The context of exploitation, and increasing insecurity (due to climate change, and the socio-political context) continues to perpetuate, mostly unchanged, and beyond the control of an individual or a community to influence.
How then do we understand community resilience? And, who comes to own resilience? Most approaches to urban resilience acknowledge the large and increasing development deficit, claiming to address these gaps while addressing climate change. Development is owned, managed, monitored – is resilience owned, managed, monitored? Social cohesion is the foundation for equitable and inclusive resilience, but what if our imagination of cohesion is limited by the acceptance of exploitation due to social and political insecurity? Then, do efforts of development, and in this case urban resilience, perpetuate systems of inequality by working around, and never questioning, the spectral presence of the state?