Bangladesh continues to grow at an impressive rate. According to World Bank projections, the country’s GDP growth for 2019 is 7.3 percent. The global lender also termed Bangladesh as the fifth fastest growing country in the world, after Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bhutan, and India respectively. And this growth has been partially credited to the manufacturing industry, which has, over the years, ridden high on the benefits of low-cost labour.
The workers who form the backbone of the sector that contributes 33.71 percent to the country’s GDP, inhabit the 3,400 slums spread across Dhaka. With the growing population pressure on Dhaka—it is after all a city of just 306.4 km square, accommodating around 18 million people, with population density of 23,234 people per square kilometre—providing housing to the constant inflow of people from all corners of the country has always been a challenge.
According to a UNDP report, slum dwellers account for more than 33 percent of the capital’s population and the government can meet only 7 percent of the annual housing demand, and the rest are left to the private sector.
The private sector in turn cater to the housing needs of the middle-income or at best the lower-middle income groups. This leaves the urban poor in the middle of nowhere, literally.
In search of shelter, they are forced to seek informal arrangements for their accommodation, which can be expensive and fatal. Every year, lives are lost in Dhaka city’s slums in fire incidents, shanties are gutted and dreams of a better life extinguished. Often these fire incidents are made more dangerous due to the illegal and unacceptable utility connections provided by slumlords, as happened in the case of the Chalantika slum, where individuals connected to the ruling party controlled the slums and provided gas connections through plastic pipes, with entirely predictable results.
And then there are the eviction drives. In 2016, the High Court stayed the eviction drive of the government at the Kalyanpur slum, which houses 40,000 low-income dwellers, pointing out that there is an obligation to serve proper notice and provide rehabilitation options before conducting these drives.
Despite the high court order, the government keeps evicting slum dwellers without offering rehabilitation solutions. Even a few months back, the National Housing Authority (NHA) conducted an eviction drive at the Bhasantek slum, rendering more than 10,000 people homeless, since they had not been provided with rehabilitation opportunity.
The NHA said that they had served notices to the slum dwellers prior to the drive, a claim denied by the slum dwellers, saying that only announcements had been made a week before the drive. Despite these contradictory claims, the question remains, why does the NHA not provide the slum dwellers with alternative accommodations before evicting them—the same people who drive the economy forward with their hard labour. Although the authorities are saying that the slum has been evicted for the construction of the “Griho Shuchona Flat” project, details about it remain somewhat sketchy.
According to environmental activist and chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela), Syeda Rizwana Hasan, conducting eviction drives without rehabilitating slum dwellers is in violation of a 2016 High Court directive that expressly prohibited the government to do so.
And without rehabilitation where would the slum dwellers go? And why not bring to book the slumlords who have misused government lands for so long? Perhaps they will go scot free, as they have done all these years.
Rizwana Hasan elaborated how the lack of political will of the government to address the housing need of the urban poor has resulted in the mushrooming of slums. She also suggested that housing solution for the poor is perhaps not a priority for the government, as a result of which, even after all these years, it has not been able to offer the urban poor affordable housing solution.
According to Architect & Urban Planner Salma A Shafi, who is also the general secretary of Centre for Urban Studies, Dhaka, the government has policies and plans in place, like the NHA and the urban development policy, but it is the reluctance of successive governments in addressing the housing need of the urban poor—she calls them marginalised of the society in housing—that has resulted in this situation today. She also added that urban planning of a country should be pro-poor, and focus on providing them with affordable housing solutions.
Rizwana Hasan suggested that a way out of this spiralling problem would be to relocate certain industries to the outskirts of Dhaka, with adequate housing facilities for the people working in those sectors, which would result in the spreading out of the urban poor population of Dhaka, to other areas. The thought was echoed by Salma A Shafi, who suggested that creation of employment opportunities in zila and upazila levels would facilitate the decentralisation process, that would take the added load off Dhaka.
According to Rizwana Hasan, addressing the root causes that trigger migration can be another effective approach to solve the problem of migration from rural areas to cities. Containing river erosion, ensuring fair prices for farmers should be the focus points for the government.
There are multiple solutions to the problem of Dhaka’s population burden. To implement these however, strong political will and pro-poor policies are crucial. Collaboration and coordination with experts, NGOs and other bodies working on this issue can help the government come up with an effective strategy to address this spiralling problem.
The simple fact of the matter is, slum dwellers are major contributors to our economic growth, a key enabler of our low-cost advantage. If the key to sustainable growth is inclusive growth, then it is stating the obvious to say that growth at any cost cannot be a mantra for success. Our vision for the future of Dhaka city must be broad-based—it must be a city that houses the entire pyramid, not just parts of it.
Tasneem Tayeb is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @TayebTasneem.