No way to live

No way to live
Slum-dwellers live in constant fear of eviction MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

Slum-dwellers deserve better housing for a decent life

Bangladesh is in the process of preparing action plans to integrate the global Sustainable Development Goals into its seventh Five Year Plan (2016-2020).

We have demonstrated consistent economic growth for the last few years, but can we meet the challenge of inclusive social development?

Can we, in our social development schemes, make sure to include marginalised communities like slum-dwellers, to ensure their fundamental constitutional and human rights, particularly their right to shelter?

Bangladesh’s rapid and unplanned urbanisation has simultaneously created opportunities as well as misery for millions who moved to the cities for work or to escape disasters. Between 1961 and 2011, the urban population increased from 2.6 million to about 43.43 million thus registering a growth of nearly 1,600% (BBS, 2011), but without proper planning by the authorities to provide adequate accommodation to different classes of the urban population.

Between 2001 and 2010, the housing deficit in urban areas grew from 1.13 million units to 4.6 million units. While urban land is being carved up for allocation to different state agencies or for private investment, a larger proportion of low-income groups who contribute to the industrial wealth of the country have to find their own shelter in informal slum settlements.

The worst standard of living

According to the Slum Census conducted by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), in 2014, around 2.23 million people lived in slums across the country, and 1.06 million people in slums in Dhaka division.

Slum residents are deprived of basic amenities like water, electricity, and gas. Various studies show that, along with high population density, unhealthy conditions and absence of schools, etc, slums are characterised by poor access to services, low socio-economic status of residents, poor governance, and threat of eviction.

Notwithstanding their poor standard of living and inadequate facilities, slum-dwellers not only manage to make their own living arrangements, they also provide indispensable service to the urban economy.

And yet, there has been little public intervention to provide adequate shelter for them.

On the contrary, “slum eviction” is being used as a means to appropriate land and to deprive slum residents of shelter.

When evicted without arrangements for resettlement, slum-dwellers are pushed further into poverty and deprivation.

In a recent consultation with slum-dwellers organised by ASK, one resident from Korail slum (the largest slum settlement in Dhaka city) said: “Shelter is not charity, it is our legitimate right. The state is bound to provide us with facilities so that we can have our rights to the fullest. Why should we be evicted or live in constant fear of eviction without resettlement?”

Follow the law

The High Court’s response has been positive in meeting constitutional commitments. It declared slum eviction to be illegal without proper notice and adequate arrangements for resettlement, and also recognised the contribution of slum-dwellers to civic life.

Still, different state and non-state agencies continue to have eviction drives in violation of the HC’s orders.

Korail slum was such an example when Bangladesh Telecommunication Ltd (BTCL) was reported in the media to have evicted about 2,000 persons from Korail slum violating the court’s order to give a proper adequate notice and arrange resettlement. A writ petition (3814/2012) was filed against this illegal eviction by ASK, BLAST, and three other organisations in response to a request by slum residents for legal assistance.

Different state and non-state agencies continue to have eviction drives in violation of the HC’s orders

Like other Writ Petitions filed against slum eviction, this petition is yet to be finally decided. Between 2012-2017 the High Court has stayed evictions and called for specific and feasible rehabilitation plans. But, as of now, no such specific plan has been produced although there are some housing projects like World Bank supported Pro-Poor Slums Integration Project (PPSIP) at their initial stages.

There are also some plans under the seventh Five Year Plan to achieve SDG Goal 11 (Make Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable) but these plans must inspire confidence amongst slum-dwellers that they will not be cheated of shelter.

Starting from scratch

Another resident from Korail slum at the ASK consultation said: “We are given hope of rehabilitation but it doesn’t happen.

Rather, some others get benefited and we get evicted again and again. We are not even given time to take anything with us. They vandalised everything — houses, schools, water points, community health centers of NGOs.

The stay order period was over soon, so we had to start from scratch again, when the court issued another stay order or so.”

The participants suggested that rehabilitation plans should consider the employment opportunities for the slum residents along with availability of all other basic and civic services.

Over time, various organisations, like Centre for Urban Studies (CUS), and individuals  professionals have prepared comparatively feasible plans for rehabilitation but so far the government has not given due consideration to these recommendations.

Good governance can fix this

However, in addition to the constitutional pledge and legal binding, government’s political commitment both at national and international level requires well-planned resettlement arrangements for slum residents.

Poor governance and illegal eviction hinder smooth implementation of Goal 16 (Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions). Besides, slum eviction without resettlement arrangement gives rise to more slums and negatively affects the entire three pivot component (social, economic, and environmental justice) of SDGs.

In a sense, the SDGs are very interlinked and a failure to meet any one of the goals will surely hamper the others.

One of the guiding principles of SDGs is “leave no one behind.” The global agenda also stresses the importance of participation and inclusion of people, free from any discrimination.

Given that Bangladesh is still struggling with many forms of discrimination and inequalities, achievement of SDGs turns out to be a great challenge for us.

We must, therefore, prioritise the issues that are of major concern to us and take initiatives accordingly.

Regarding slums, the government should focus on introducing and implementing practical rehabilitation policies along with employment opportunities and availability of all basic and civic services for slum-dwellers, keeping in mind the lessons learned from previous failed projects.

Subarna Dhar is the Co-ordinator of National monitoring & review of sustainable development goals & development justice project of Ain o Salish Kendro (ASK).

The article is originally published on Dhaka Tribune dated 24th July 2017.