The ignored population

Slum population in the city is increasing with each day. But, lack of proper planning by the government and influence by vested quarters, initiatives to rehabilitate slum dwellers has failed miserably. Saad Hammadi reveals the underlying problems

Sanaul Haque

Sanaul Haque

In the next five years, nearly half of Dhaka’s population would find themselves living in the squalid slums. With no rehabilitation of slum dwellers in sight and a rising urban migration, such a situation is imminent, urban planners fear. This would not only expand the economic disparity but also create more tension in the society.
Nearly 37.5 per cent of Dhaka’s population or 3.5 million people resided in 4,966 slums as early as in 2005, according to a study by the Centre for Urban Studies. Urban planners say the slum population has surged up to 44 per cent of the city’s current population. The government initiated a census on slums and floating population in April this year, the result of which is due in December.
‘In the next five years half of Dhaka’s population would turn into slum dwellers,’ says Mostafa Quaiyum Khan, national policy advisor of Bangladesh Urban Forum, a collective platform of public and private organisations.
Adding to the worries of urban experts is that most of these slum-dwellers are being forced to pay through their teeth, sometimes more than the well-off classes in areas like Dhanmondi and Gulshan.

An arm and a leg
According to urban experts, slums as big as the Korail slum may be common place in the city in about five years.
At the moment, Korail slum, with a population of about 175,000, is one of the largest slums in the Dhaka city. Korail is composed of hundreds of tin-roofed single-room houses in 170 acres of land belonging to the state-owned Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited (BTCL), the Public Works Department (PWD), and the Ministry of Information and Communication.
Milon Miah, 28, is one of the residents of this slum. A day labourer himself and with his wife working in a garment factory, the couple together makes a living in a 100 square-foot house for a monthly rent of Tk 2,500.
But Milon pays his rent to one Abdul Mannan, who owns a number of small and medium sized rooms inside the slum. Mannan tells Xtra that he became owner of the rooms by acquisition from a lady, nearly 20 years ago.
Almost 80 per cent of these slums are located on private lands with legal conflicts and another 20 per cent are located on public lands, mostly railway properties.
Slum dwellers pay rents to land grabbers and goons backed by local lawmakers, who make brisk money out of the slums in exchanges for ‘protection’ as well as water, electricity and community services.

Hurdles to rehabilitation
Development organisations such as Brac and Action Aid have been working in many of these slums with projects supporting education, health, sanitation, human rights etc. However, in absence of a holistic effort made into improving the livelihoods of the people, a substantive growth is not reflected among slum dwellers.
NGOs often carry out time-based projects in anticipation that the local communities would sustain them. Brac, for instance, spent 20 per cent of its $545 million expenditure in 2013 on urban poor including various projects in slums. Despite large amount of funds put into slum development, no efforts are made into rehabilitating slum dwellers into better accommodation and services within the urban framework of residential quarters.
‘NGOs have limited focus and are challenged with long term interventions because of fear of eviction drives, political power play and influence of real estate developers,’ says Tahmina Huq, manager of women’s rights and gender equity at ActionAid.
In many of these slums, NGOs operate their services in coordination with local goons, say officials of development organisations.
Huq tells Xtra, for any holistic development of slum dwellers, ‘the government needs to have plan and will to make the changes happen.’
Currently, a slum dweller pays Tk 25 to 30 per square-foot for a 100 square-foot housing inside one of the slums while an apartment resident in Gulshan or Dhanmondi pays Tk 23 per square-foot for a 2,600 square-foot flat available for Tk 60,000 rent.
Media reports have earlier stated about 1,400 people are staying back in Dhaka everyday, resulting in an abnormal influx of urban migration. Majority of these people are rural poor, entering the city for work and better living.
There is a perception among policymakers that a long term plan for slum dwellers will further prompt urban migration, says Asif Saleh, a senior director at Brac. ‘The government needs to move away from the mindset that they can stop people from coming to the city,’ unless it develops second tier cities by creating growth centres outside Dhaka, he tells Xtra.

Planning, under influence?
Iqbal Habib, joint secretary of environmental platform Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon tells Xtra, the state has a constitutional responsibility to ensure shelter for its citizens. Unfortunately, he says, only 17 per cent of the urban population, who belong to the privileged quarters, influence state decisions and policies. As a result, often these policies are drafted in a manner to pursue vested interest over the public.
The government in 2004 initiated the ‘Bhashantek Rehabilitation Project’ in Mirpur for slum dwellers losing their shelters in eviction. The project, initially awarded to a private realtor North South Property Development Limited, was due to deliver 13,660 flats in five years ending in 2009. However, due to allegations of corruption and failure to deliver, the realtor’s contract was revoked and the project was later handed to National Housing Authority.
The cost of the project in the meantime has increased by at least Tk 70 crore and 823 lower income families, who paid money to the private realtor, have not received the flats. The government says the people have to settle their claims with the realtor while the North South authorities claim they would not take responsibility because their project was cancelled in the middle.
The project’s completion now due in June 2015, has been a major failure on the government’s part and suffered many poor families who invested their hard earned money for a better living, says Khan of Bangladesh Urban Forum.
The state currently does not have an urban policy ensuring inclusive growth for the lower, middle and high-income groups, say urban experts, which as a result puts the underprivileged communities into miserable living conditions (read interview on X4).
The Local Government and Rural Development ministry drafted an urban policy in 2007 but since then it has only been through several revision and discussion without any fruition. The policy is a framework, which would define guidelines for Acts and laws related to urbanisation and participatory urban development.
An inter-ministerial meeting is due this month to decide the future of the urban policy while in the meanwhile the rich get richer and poor get poorer because of a rise in the cost of their living.

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