Most city tenants are reeling from the global coronavirus epidemic that has stalled almost all economic activities
Rehana Khatun and her husband had heated talks with their landlord in Ashulia, which is in the outskirts of the capital, on Monday [April 20] over a demand for payment of rent for this month.
"Without work, we now have one meal a day. Where will we get the money for rent?" she questioned him. But the landlord was reluctant to go soft on them. Rehana flew into a rage when he persistently pressurised them for at least partial payment.
"I told him, 'I cannot give you a penny because I have no money. You can kill me if you like,'" said the 35-year-old garment worker during a telephonic conversation with The Business Standard.
Rehana had been laid off by a garment factory in Ashulia in the middle of last month, two weeks before the countrywide shutdown began on March 25. The reason, as she was told, was her being absent from work for two days when one of her four children fell ill.
At the same time, her husband Robiul Islam, a house painter, found his work orders disappearing as the country began to identify coronavirus cases. The only other earning member of the eight-member family is their 19-year-old daughter Tanjila, who is also a garment worker. The family has been living on food bought with Tanjila's salary for the month of March.
Most city tenants, be they low or middle income, have also been reeling from the global coronavirus epidemic that has stalled almost all economic activities.
Repeated pressure from landlords for payment of house-rent has added to their suffering.
Rickshaw-pullers, day labourers, transportation workers and informal sector workers who live from hand to mouth have been hit the hardest.
Pressed hard for payment of rent, Jesmin, a cleaner, called her father living in a village in Sunamganj, Sylhet for money so that her family of five is not driven out of the tin-shed house they live in, in the capital's North Bhasantek area, and so that they can buy food.
The city was a beacon of hope for the couple about a decade ago that offered them job opportunities. They migrated to the city, leaving behind the scourge of poverty and unemployment. The city had jobs for them, but their income was always outstripped by expenditure with the high living cost even in slums, and without any safety-net coverage.
Jesmin is now the only earning member of the family. Her husband, a day labourer, and one of her sons, who used to work at a local shop, are sitting idle. Now, she regrets not going back to Sunamganj when city dwellers started leaving in the hundreds of thousands on crowded buses, trucks, launches and whatever transport was available to travel to their village homes just before the shutdown came into effect.
How many of the people in the city's more than 3,000 slums, and residents of other impoverished settlements stayed back is hard to find. But it is quite a large number, judging by the scores of people flocking to get relief items at any corner of the city at any given time of day.
The economic pain of middle-class people living in high-rise apartments is also immense, but their agony is hidden in silence.
"My apartment is furnished with a TV, a fridge and everything else I need to live a comfortable life. No one will think I am poor," said Amena Begum, adding, "But I had to borrow Tk 5,000 from my sister-in-law to do my grocery shopping".
Amena, 33, who runs a home-based business of clothing items in the capital's Nakhalpara area, said she has not got a single customer for more than a month, and those who had given orders were not contacting her to take delivery.
Her husband, who works in an aluminium company in Saudi Arabia, could not send her money this month as the Middle-Eastern country is in lockdown too.
"I told my landlord that I cannot pay him now. But what about next month's rent if the shutdown is not lifted? What will I do if my husband does not send me money? I do not earn a penny," Amena said breaking into sobs.
Her situation resembles that of Milon Chandra Das. Milon, 33, owns a ladies tailoring shop in the same neighbourhood. Every year his business booms ahead of the Bangla New Year and Eid-ul-Fitr.
Despite zero income this time, Milon has paid his house rent fully, but only partially for the shop from his savings. He also had to pay his employees.
"The landlord told me that his family lives on the rent. We are in such misery that neither can we share our sufferings nor can we seek help."
Amid these grim realities striking hard across almost all social strata, a non-profit organisation named Natundhara Bangladesh has been staging a hunger strike at the Jatiya Press Club since April 21 to press home the demand for government subsidy for exemption of house rent.
There might be many house owners who rely on rent for a living, so in that case, it would be difficult for them to waive the rent, said Ghulam Rahman, the president of the Consumers' Association of Bangladesh.
"At the same time, there are wealthy landlords who can be sympathetic towards their tenants," he said.
House rent is a pressing issue now in Dhaka city where a majority of its 20 million population lives in rented properties.
Ghulam Rahman said the government should consider the matter and may think of cash transfer to those who need the help.