Built to crumble
"The land [on which Ashrayan homes were constructed] is khas land, which is the worst land in the area. Any structure on that land will have to be tailored for that. In this project, the construction is generic for every single upazila"
It began with two things -- good intentions and a plan flawed to the core.
On the occasion of Mujib Borsho, the prime minister took the laudable initiative of giving homes to 69,904 families on January 23 this year and to a further 53,000 families later on June 20 under the Ashrayan Project-2.
The brick houses -- with two rooms, a kitchen and a toilet at the back, and a running porch in the front -- were allocated Tk 1.7-1.9 lakh each for construction. This scheme was entirely funded by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).
Government engineers, however, say mishaps ruled at every step. This started with the site selection, preparing the terrain, deciding the budget, procuring the materials, and building the foundation, down to the drying of the paint.
In light of these flaws, the PMO's noble objective of providing homes to the homeless made the same mistake that many well-intended top-down rehabilitation programmes do -- constructing cookie-cutter homes with no knowledge of local terrain and construction methods.
Currently, a total of 24 upazilas in 22 districts, from where allegations of irregularities in the scheme surfaced, are directly being investigated by the PMO. Housing projects in at least 10 of those districts had issues regarding construction, including homes collapsing.
First, let us take site selection. All the homes were built on low-lying wetland, filled with sand and alluvial silt, the only low-value land available.
But sources in the engineering unit of the Public Works Department (PWD) say that soil compaction was not done, meaning the homes were built on shifting soil.
But soil compaction was made mandatory in clear written instructions -- given by the PMO and available on the project website.
In Shariatpur's Goshairhaat, a third of the houses under the Ashrayan-2 project ended up with cracks within six months of the handover.
Tahmina Akhter, Shariatpur's project implementation officer, confirmed to our correspondent that the homes were built on land that was low-lying and poorly filled in.
"When it rained, the soil shifted. The Jayanti river flows behind the site and a canal in the front. Every time the tide rises, the land gets flooded. When the tide goes out, it depresses the land."
Similarly, a third of the houses built in Bogura's Sherpur developed cracks and partially collapsed during the monsoon.
Moynul Islam, Sherpur upazila nirbahi officer, told The Daily Star that they had filled up low-lying land with soil during the construction.
"Following the recent rainfall, the soil started subsiding into the canal. As a result, seven toilets and some walls of the houses have collapsed."
According to eminent architect Iqbal Habib, Bangladesh has five types of soil, and homes need to be built keeping the soil in mind.
"The land [on which Ashrayan homes were constructed] is khas land, which is the worst land in the area. Any structure on that land will have to be tailored for that. In this project, the construction is generic for every single upazila," he said.
But why was the terrain not prepared before the construction of the houses?
That's where the budget comes in -- almost all of the projects had a budget shortfall.
The money allocated for the project was based on the PWD's 2018 price index, said PWD engineers.
PWD engineers point out that the design specifications, released in February this year, show the budget allocated Tk 464 per square metre for procuring, carrying, and fitting corrugated tin sheets of 0.36mm thickness.
According to the market price, the procurement cost of the tin would be Tk 600 per square metre.
Iqbal Habib said he had seen the budget and found it to be grossly short of the actual amount needed.
"Incidentally, I have seen the design of these houses. The components cannot be rationally done for less than Tk 3.4 lakh," he said. The budget for each house, in comparison, was a maximum of Tk 1.9 lakh.
In Shariatpur, that meant implementers had to pay out of pocket to prepare the terrain.
"We had to fill up the site using our own resources because it was getting difficult to finish the project using the money that was allocated for it," said Tahmina.
"But since we had a government order, we had to carry it out."
The UNOs were given Tk 1.71 lakh for each house in the first phase and Tk 1.9 lakh for each constructed in the second phase -- both phases covering all 64 districts.
Failing to prepare the terrain led to a disaster in Jamalpur's Sharishabari where all 21 of the houses built had to be evacuated during the monsoon, when the site filled up with calf-high water. The residents had moved in only in May.
Sharishabari Upazila Parishad Chairman Giasuddin Pathan said, "Before selecting the site, the project implementing body should have considered that the local rivers overflow during deluges."
The budget shortfall also led to shoddy construction -- instead of building the houses on a concrete foundation, the homes stand on brick.
Our Barishal correspondent reports a budget shortfall led to the houses at the project in Mehendiganj being built with brick foundations instead of concrete.
Fourteen homes broke down as a result, while in Bhola's Lalmohon 12 homes have partially collapsed.
Mehendiganj gets inundated every fortnight and the coastal land the homes were built on gave way during the rains -- with no concrete to stand on, the brick walls collapsed.
Each Ashrayan-2 house was allocated only Tk 1.7 lakh whereas the cost of erecting a house in that area is around Tk 2.5 lakh, reports our correspondent.
In Barguna's Amtali, Abul Kalam Mal's new home developed cracks in 12 places within three months of construction. The pillar in front of the house collapsed, resulting in evacuation.
At least 100 of the 450 homes allocated to the poor in Amtali developed structural problems because the homes were built without lintels -- the horizontal beams constructed of iron rods that support a house.
Iron rods were too expensive for the constructors, the construction workers told our correspondent.
The construction workers said they had told Amtali's UNO Md Asaduzzaman that the homes without lintel would collapse. But that they were asked to carry on the construction regardless.
UNO Md Asaduzzaman was made OSD (officer on special duty) by the Ministry of Public Administration on July 5, after the district magistrate Md Habibur Rahman submitted a probe report concerning his activities with regards to the Ashrayan-2 project in his area.
So far, five admin cadre officials have been made OSD -- including the UNO of Kazipur of Sirajganj, Shafiqul Islam; former UNO of Sherpur of Bogura, Md Liakat Ali Sheikh; former UNO of Munshiganj Sadar, Rubayet Hayat; and Munshiganj Sadar assistant commissioner (land) Sheikh Mejbah-ul-Saberin -- all in connection with the project.
At Munshiganj's Tongibari upazila and at Brahmanbaria's Nabinagar, implementation officers skimped on the floors of the houses because of the budget shortfall.
Currently, the floors of all eight houses in Munshiganj's Nayashankar village are having to be recast -- these were inlaid with a one-inch layer of bricks, where it was supposed to be three inches thick.
Md Mofiz Dewan, supervisor of the construction workers engaged with the repairs, said the previous construction workers had done a hack job.
"The amount of cement in the casting is also very less, which is risky for the house. So, the floors are being recast."
Since the entire budget of Tk 1.9 lakh per house was used up during construction, the local union parishad chairperson paid for the repairs out of pocket.
Asked about the budget shortfall, Ashrayan-2 Deputy Project Director Md Jahedur Rahman said, "You are asking the implementer about the budget. You should ask those who decided the technical specifications."
The guidelines for the Ashrayan-2 first phase was only circulated in October last year. However, the handover of the nearly 70,000 houses took place in January this year, leaving little time for implementation.
PWD engineers say another major reason why the homes were damaged or destroyed within months of being constructed, is the huge pressure to get the project completed -- meaning the cement and brickwork did not get adequate time to get cured.
The brickwork, plaster, and the paint job too were all done simultaneously, instead of leaving time for each layer to cure.
As a result, many of the 101 houses built in Dinajpur's Phulbari upazila have cracks in the wall, floors, and pillars. The homes built on khas land in Basudebpur village were completed in March.
The careless construction and lack of knowledge of the local terrain at multiple sites also points to another major flaw in the plan -- the absolute absence of engineers anywhere.
The project was entirely implemented by UNOs and project implementation officers, said PWD sources.
"The government got the administrative wing to carry it out and no engineering evaluation was done," said Iqbal Habib.
In Pabna's Santhia upazila, around a third of the newly constructed houses are having to be rebuilt because the heights of the houses are barely seven feet. The height should be 8.5 feet, according to the project's design specifications.
A total of 372 houses were built under the programme in Santhia and more than 100 of them suffer from this problem.
"The construction had to be completed quickly and we were unable to monitor all the sites properly," said Abdullah Al Jaber, project implementation officer.
At Barguna's Amtali, UNO Asaduzzman had kept an upazila engineer in the project implementation committee but the engineer did not have a single day of work.
The engineer, Abdullah Al Mamun, told our correspondent, "I don't know anything about the construction of the houses. On occasion, the UNO sent people for my signature saying there is a meeting, and I signed on blank sheets."
The Daily Star attempted to contact Ashrayan-2 Project Director Mahbub Hossain over phone several times, but failed to reach him.
However, he had briefed local journalists in Bogura's Sherpur following a visit on July 10, and said they would make repairs immediately, where necessary.
The Daily Star asked his deputy Jahedur where the budget for these will be coming from. "We have some budget allocation to build guide walls [used to reinforce the foundation]. Other sorts of repairs depend on the local government and they would know better," he replied.
But Iqbal Habib said, "I do not endorse the repairs unless engineers are involved. These houses need to be certified structurally by engineers."
He added, "If any lives are lost from collapsed houses in the future, the government must be ready to take the liability."
The first Ashrayan project was implemented between 1997 and 2010 to provide housing for distressed people affected by climate change. The current Ashrayan Project-2 is being implemented from July 2010 to June 2022 to provide housing for the landless and homeless.
From 1997 to 2019, a total of 298,249 families were rehabilitated at a cost of Tk 38.4 billion, according to government data.
[Our correspondents in Gazipur, Shariatpur, Bogura, Barisal, Jamalpur, Patuakhali, Brahmanbaria, Manikganj, Munshiganj, Lalmonirhat, and Thakurgaon contributed to the report]