The plight of slum dwellers in urban Bangladesh

In response to the Korail eviction that took place on April 4th, 2012, on April 8, BRAC and several other organizations submitted a demand of justice notice to ensure that the government is in compliance with the High Court’s requirements of providing adequate notice, compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation to affected households. The group also organized a round table to bring all stakeholders together to discuss both legal and ‘solution-based’ – development jargon for programs or interventions – ways to secure the rights of slum dwellers to live and work in Dhaka. Participants included residents of Korail, lawyers, supreme court judges and even a Member of Parliament and representatives from the private, garments manufacturing sector – an industry that relies heavily on the cheap labor provided by slum dwellers. It turned out to be an absorbing three hour long discussion that was chock-loaded with incredible insights, opinions and ideas. Some of them are presented below.

• Stats:
o A study conducted by Salma A. Shafi (Managing Director, Sheltech Consultants Pvt. Ltd.), finds that the total number of people living in Korail now stands at 120,000, out of which 60% are garment factory workers.
o According to Professor Nazrul (Chair, Centre for Urban Studies), 70% of the slum dwellers in Bangladesh live in slums that are placed on privately owned land. Only 30% of the slums are on government property. This marks a complete reversal in trends in that just after liberation, the ratio used to be 70/30 in favor of publicly owned land.

The recent drive only destroyed the easy to target structures in the slum. The judges have rebuked the team that carried out the eviction and made it clear that they were ordered to clear all parts of the Gulshan Lake that have been encroached. The good news is that it means the posh, high-rises that are guilty of encroachment will also be targeted – the influential owners of which will create severe problems for the eviction team. The bad news is that the drive has not been called off, just halted.

How can eviction teams and the government institutions disregard a Supreme Court ruling that clearly states that such drives cannot be carried out without proper, prior notice and provisions for rehabilitation? The answer lies in a lack of coordination between judicial and executive authorities. The ex-judge who gave the answer also shared his experience of giving orders to halt eviction drives, but had no idea if appeals were made against these hearings. Historically, only a few attempts have been made to resettle urban slum dwellers in Bangladesh. Corruption, political instability and a culture of new parties coming to power and scrapping all the policies of the last government are some of the major obstacles in this regard.

One of the ideas that came from the meeting was on ‘Tenure security’. Housing projects don’t  necessarily have to give ‘ownership’ to the poor. Small ‘flats’ can just be rented out to slum dwellers. What matters most to slum dwellers is the ability to continue living in the places that the slums are located in as they are close to where they work. All of the residents of Korail, who participated in the discussion, agree. Per square-foot rent in Korail is currently higher than in proper residential areas in Gulshan, Banani, etc. There are successful models in Mumbai, India that can be emulated. There were also talks on the construction of a housing project that will offer 250 to 350 sq.ft. units to poor slum dwellers is in its final stage and the complex will open its doors next month. However, this project is the brainchild of an individual – and so, is rather limited in scale – and aims to transfer ownership of the units through the provision of soft, long-term loans. There is a need for information campaigns to be carried out to let all slum dwellers learn about their rights and steps they can take to further their cause. This idea was pitched by two German researchers living in Korail who, based on their daily interaction with slum dwellers, conclude that, at present, only a handful are aware.

The Chief Guest, AKM Mojammel Hoq, Chair, Parliamentary Standing Committee, Ministry of Land, challenged all actors working with slum dwellers, NGOs in particular, to come up with plans for the funding and construction of multi-storied buildings in all of Dhaka’s slums. If this can be done, then he pledged that he will lobby the central government to allocate land for the projects.

The most remarkable thing about this meeting was that all stakeholders present got to see how pragmatic and accurate the slum dwellers analysis of their own problem was. And the fact that the government is willing to consider solutions that appeal to them is very encouraging as well. Although most previous initiatives failed to deliver, the inhumane nature of the Korail eviction seems to have stirred people’s conscience and reinvigorated their will to try one more time to do something about the plight of these people. The Social Innovation Lab will track proceedings with keen interest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *