Right to Shelter »

Right to Shelter

Farzana Islam*

Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, has about 36.66 million acres of land, of which 19.28 acres are cultivable. The average land holding size per head is only 0.24 decimal and 57 per cent of the total population is landless. [1] Simultaneous rapid urbanization and population growth have put heavy pressures on limited land resources, making shelter a critical need. This chapter examines the scope of the housing policies and laws to prevent illegal and forcible appropriation of land in the light of the State’s commitments to the right to shelter, and underscores the weakness of existing regulatory mechanisms to prevent encroachments on this right by powerful interests.

International Commitments

Bangladesh has ratified the following international treaties, which address different aspects of the right to shelter:

  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICSECR), [2]
  • UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (UNCEDAW) [3] and
  • UN Child Rights Convention (UNCRC). [4]

Other international instruments and statements that explicitly address the state’s obligation to provide shelter and to prevent forced evictions include the following:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR),
  • General Assembly Resolution 43/181 of 20 December 1988 on Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000, [5]
  • UN Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements (1996),
  • UN Comprehensive Human Rights Guidelines on Development-Based Displacement (1997), [6] and
  • General Comments Nos. 4 and 7 on Forced Evictions, of the UN Committee on ESCR. [7]

Constitutional Guarantees

Article 15(a) of the Constitution states that a fundamental principle of state policy is to provide, “…the necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care.” Further, Articles 27 and 31 by guaranteeing fundamental rights to equality and protection in accordance with law may be seen to impose an obligation upon the State not to take measures that could deprive citizens of their basic needs. Articles 31 and 32 also protect the right to life.

National Housing Policies

The National Housing Policy, 1993, (NTP) was a milestone in so far as it recognized the need for slum improvement and prevention of slum eviction without proper rehabilitation. [8] This Policy, amended in 1999, identified a facilitative role for the private development of housing for all including the poor.

A draft of the National Housing Policy, 2004 also recommended access of the poor to land and housing with developed infrastructure, and increase of habitable land. It suggested that urban housing for the working poor be located near the work place or include a plan for transportation. Private housing and cooperative societies were to be encouraged. Special focus was to be given for housing of women in difficult circumstances, by providing housing loans, ownership, home based employment, mother and child care facilities. Priority was to be given to housing for the old and the differently challenged. While the Draft Policy recommended more equitable access to protect the rights of the disadvantaged to shelter, it is difficult to say how far the claims of justice would be ensured in practice, since the policy has not been finalized.

Eviction of Slums

Notwithstanding existing constitutional and international guarantees against forced evictions and earlier High Court judgments [9] directing the Government to provide for proper notice and rehabilitation measures before displacement, slums have been demolished and their residents evicted every year. In a pending PIL filed by ASK in 2003, on behalf of Kallyanpur slum dwellers, the High Court directed a stay of eviction with regard to a new eviction threatened in 2006. [10]

Slum Improvement and Slum Eviction in 2006

The housing situation for the poor has become increasingly untenable in both rural and urban areas. In urban areas, the poor live in tiny shanties, with no utilities and an inadequate supply of water, sanitation or sewerage. They pay high rents relative to the facilities offered, and are at continuing risk of extortion by local mastans (gangs) or eviction by state agencies.

Government Resettlement Schemes

The first forcible eviction of slums after independence took place in 1975. Subsequently, slums have continued to be evicted to make way for public buildings or for private housing. Only in a few cases has eviction been followed by attempts at rehabilitation. In 1975, months after slums were evicted in Dhaka, attempts were made to resettle the slum residents in Dattapura in Tongi, Chanpara in Demra and Bhasantek in Mirpur. The resettlement area at Bhasantek relocated on low land, three kms west of Mirpur, was allotted by the Government in 1979 and, after lengthy negotiations, the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) [11] agreed to finance the project.

The National Housing Authority undertook a rehabilitation project to provide housing for 2,600 families in Bhasantek in Dhaka. However, the plans have undergone several changes. In 2000, it was planned to provide shelter for the poor on a hire-purchase basis through public private partnership. Later on, after the change of Government in 2001, a new contract was signed with a private developer, North South Property Development Ltd. who subsequently reportedly deviated from the previous pro-poor plan. The contracts changed from long-term payment over ten years to short-term payments over a two-year period. The allottees were to receive the apartments after payment of the total installments, which was calculated at a monthly rate of around Taka 14,000 to cover the full price within two years time. Many of the existing residents of the Bhashantek slum claimed that they could not afford this amount.

In 1989, the Ministry of Land formed a Dhaka Bosti Shomoshaya Niroshon Committee (Dhaka Metropolitan Slum Problems Eradication Committee) to identify the number of slums in Dhaka city and to plan for their phased rehabilitation. However, no effective programmes were undertaken for implementation of this project. [12] In Dhaka’s Lalbagh area a multi-storied building project plan to house the poor in 1989 was abandoned and later employees of the Dhaka City Corporation occupied the buildings without giving a share to the poor.

NGO Initiatives for Housing

Not only has the Government defaulted in its commitments to provide housing, private entrepreneurs and non-government organizations have also not come forward to offer housing for slum dwellers. The larger NGOs which have accumulated massive savings on behalf of their members could have set up urban housing schemes. Grameen Bank has provided loans for rural housing but not for urban dwellers. Proshika did attempt to do so in a pioneering public private partnership initiative for Bhashantek Slum Resettlement but was ultimately not able to proceed, as the Government entered into an agreement with a private company. Recently, Shakti Foundation has taken an initiative to provide house-building support to its members who live in slums.

Slum Evictions in 2006

Despite several High Court judgments that cautioned against slum evictions without resettlement, the Government carried out eviction drives in 2006. Four major evictions took place in Dhaka between March to July at Kamalbag in Lalbagh, Bhasantek and Kallyanpur, Dhaka. [13] As compared to this there were five evictions in 2003, three in 2004 and seven in 2005. (See Table IX.1)

On 16 March 2006, the Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) demolished Dholpur bosti , popularly known as Bongobondhu bosti , despite a stay order issued by the High Court. [14] At least 40 persons were injured in a clash between the police and the bosti dwellers who demonstrated against the eviction. Around 10,000 persons, reportedly, became homeless. Four of the protestors were arrested from the site.

On 18 April, RAJUK, with the assistance of the police, evicted the inhabitants from a bosti on the Gulshan-Banani lakeside area in Mohakhali. They were reportedly not given sufficient time to remove their belongings. The slum residents claimed that they used to stay there on payment of a monthly rent to some powerful individuals, and that a case to settle the dispute over ownership of the land was pending in court.

On 15 June 2006, the DCC evicted several thousand people by bulldozing and demolishing their makeshift settlements at Bhasantek, Mirpur in Dhaka. The local inhabitants complained that the demolition caused loss of properties and personal belongings, and made them homeless. On the other hand, the DCC claimed that they had announced the eviction plan two months earlier and asked the slum dwellers to vacate the space to implement Government plan for widening the road. [15]

Table IX.1: Eviction of Slums in Dhaka, 2006



Name of Bosti and Location

Approx no of Families

Reportedly Evicted by







Kallyanpur Pora Bosti, Mirpur

Sat Tola Bosti, Mohakhali

Kawran Bazar Bosti, Kawran

Pallabi # 11 Bosti, Mirpur

Fulbaria Railway Colony Bosti, Gulistan







Health Directorate







Gudara Ghat Bosti, Mirpur

Ward No 42 Bosti, Mohammadpur

Kamalbag Basti, Lalbagh















Begunbari Bosti, Tejgaon

Babupura Bosti, Katabon

Sagorika Bosti, Mirpur

Chakuli Bosti, Mirpur 12

Hindu Para Bosti, Amtoli, Banani 1

Baydda Bosti, Mohakhali

Agargaon Old Bazar Bosti, Agargaon




















Bhashantek, Kafrul

Dholpur Bongobondhu, Demra

Kamalbagh, Lalbagh

Gulshan Banani Lakeside






Source: Compiled by Coalition for the Urban Poor from daily newspapers

On 24 June, the House Building Research Institute announced through a loudspeaker that the Kallyanpur Pora Bosti would be evicted on 26 June 2006. To prevent this, the slum dwellers filed a writ petition in the High Court Division of the Supreme Court. [16]

On 20 July 2006, the police ignoring local protests and a pending High Court injunction, evicted hundreds from Kamalbag Bosti . [17]

Dhaka city has experienced 128 per cent increase in slum dwellings over the last 10 years. [18] According to a recent survey conducted by the Centre for Urban Studies almost 3.8 million live in slums. In six big cities, including Dhaka, more than 5.4 million, that is 35 per cent of the total urban population, live in slums. Though the number of slum dwellers is increasing, no Government has ever made permanent plans to resolve the housing problem. Instead, Government agencies have actively evicted slums, and made land available for profitable luxury development, offices and commercial space. Constrained resources and free market policies have encouraged private investment and profiteering in the housing sector.

Urban Housing Priorities and Master Plan for Dhaka City

Government schemes for urban housing have so far supported housing schemes for the privileged middle class mainly in metropolitan cities. The Master Plan for Dhaka, which was started in 1959 and continues to undergo changes, has provided no space for housing for workers, self-employed or day labourers.

Several agencies have been given the responsibility for distribution of land in urban areas as well as for construction of houses. The Public Works Department (PWD) is the first and foremost house provider for the Government officials and employees. In addition, semi-government agencies and autonomous organizations have been allotted land for construction of their offices and housing for their staff. These housing schemes, however, are limited to in-service officials/staff only. The facilities provided by PWD and other organizations are mostly concentrated in Dhaka and other district head quarters. The National Housing Authority also provides housing facilities to citizens in the name of Staff Quarters, Officers’ Quarters or Government Colonies. Four metropolitan city development authorities have been established in Dhaka, Khulna, Chittagong and Rajshahi, namely the Rajdhani Unnayon Kortripokkho (RAJUK) in Dhaka, Khulna Development Authority (KDA), Chittagong Development Authority (CDA) and Rajshahi Development Authority (RDA). Originally, these authorities were mandated to plan and develop cities; however, they have deviated from that role and have become more involved in acquiring and developing both khas and private lands for allocation to senior Government officials, the Defense Services, Members of Parliament, journalists, business persons and so on. Urban planning has not been pro-poor, thus it has not offered a scope for ownership or tenurial rights of the poor. The Plan is extremely unequal and skewed towards the privileged. [19]

The influence of powerful patrons in the bureaucracy and amongst politicians has allowed for rapid property development. This has led to large scale, illegal occupation of public lands and encroachment on private lands, creating crises for those living on the margins.

Private Property Development

Private urban developers have been active in constructing housing since the early eighties, but their investments have been in response to the demands of the very high and upper middle-income groups. Property development has become a lucrative business as apartments can be sold at high profit margins. This has prompted landowners to sell their land and property developers to invest in high rise buildings. [20] The mushroom growth of apartments has been significant in Dhaka, Chittagong and other major cities over the last decade. However, the many complaints by clients against the breach of terms of agreement by property developers relating to construction quality, price fixation, deviation from agreements for actual land utilization, etc. have yet to be addressed by policy makers and regulatory agencies.

Land Development and Acquisition of Khas Land

Land acquisition in the name of development has increased the threat to the right to shelter particularly of slum dwellers. Profiteering has led land developers to take over both Government khas land and private lands.

The Dhaka Improvement Trust started land development schemes in the late fifties. Later, RAJUK expanded its coverage to Dhanmondi, Gulshan, Banani, Baridhara, Uttara areas and lately to Purbachal. Usually city expansion occurred in fringe areas where land prices were comparatively cheaper. In most of the cases, the Government acquired lands from small land owners or farmers at below market prices, it demarcated individual plots, developed infrastructure and then allotted these plots to selected applicants, which included senior officials in the bureaucracy, military, professional classes and political leaders.

Land development by the private sector began in early 1980s in and around Dhaka but was mostly concentrated in the eastern and northern part of the city. Later in the early nineties, with the massive involvement of private companies, housing projects became a booming business. In view of the large public demand, the bigger property development companies invested a substantial amount of capital in high-rise construction that would maximize profits and ensure a safe return on their investment. This massive business opportunity was created due to the large gap between supply and demand. Several land developers reportedly became involved in fraudulent business, grabbing public land, encroaching into lakes, ponds and wetlands, and forcing marginal landowners to sell their lands.

Parliamentary Standing Committee Report

The Parliamentary Standing Committee of the Land Ministry in its report of 9 August 2006 found that influential business persons and local elites who had political connections with the ruling and opposition parties had appropriated 20,000 acres of khas land in Dhaka, Narayangonj and Gazipur districts. According to its report, several housing companies had occupied 7,993 acres of khas land in Dhaka district. The report further alleged that 4,207 and 8,533 acres of land in Narayangonj and Gazipur had been acquired illegally. [21] The Committee decided to disclose the names of those responsible and urged the Government to recover the land, but ultimately the Committee’s decision was not made public and was not acted upon.

The main obstacles to prevent illegal acquisition of land rests in the faulty system of land registration and record maintenance, and in loopholes in the law. Pervasive political pressure means that in some cases even the Prime Minister’s direction may not be fully executed to stop land grabbing. [22] In 2004, at a conference of the Deputy Commissioners (DC) the then Prime Minister ordered them to recover the grabbed lands from illegal land grabbers. However, the order was never carried out. Unless an effective land registration and record maintenance system is established, and the Government is politically committed to enforce the law against illegal acquisitions, the situation will not change. [23]

RAJUK’s regulatory measures are inadequate and they are not implemented effectively to prevent land grabbing and illegal construction. It usually publishes notices in newspapers declaring that the Government has not approved particular housing societies or construction, but this has not been a strong enough deterrent. [24] The Government needs to take legal action against profit oriented business organizations and to hold RAJUK officials accountable for allowing such fraud so as to protect the public interest.

Influential property developers or real estate agencies who had reportedly occupied public land in Dhaka included Metro Makers Ltd., Amin Mohammad Foundation, Shomotot Housing, Eastern Housing, East West Developers (Bashundhara), Sharif Housing, Falcon Real Estate, and Jamuna Builders. [25] They had also, reportedly, encroached upon and filled wetlands, rivers, canals, flood flow zones, and water retention ponds. The Standing Committee estimated that the price of land so appropriated would be worth about Taka 700,000 million. [26]

Land Developers and Private Land Grabbing

Land developers have not only grabbed public land, they have also forced small private landowners to sell their land, usually by buying the hinterland and then pressurizing them to sell the front part to provide an access road. They have purchased lands in dispute, by exploiting differences between the disputing parties. Sometimes they made advance payments for purchase of the land to the owner and, reportedly, bribed the land registry officers to register the sale and mutate the property in their names in advance so as to evade paying the total sales amount. The powerless, particularly women, ethnic minorities and the poor who become prey to land grabbers face insecurity and may even be unable to use their own lands, given the constant threat of appropriation by powerful property developers and real estate agents.

Private Land Development and Housing Rules, 2004

The Private Land Development and Housing Rules, 2004 were introduced with the aim of checking appropriation of Government land, filling up low lands or water retention ponds, flood-flow zones, encroaching into rivers, canals and lakes. This was meant to ensure the safety, health and welfare of citizens and to safeguard them from any negative environmental impact.

These Rules specify that before developing any land or advertising the sale of apartments, housing companies must submit the layout plan of their own land (as opposed to that belonging to the Government or other owners) to RAJUK. The National Committee on Approval of Private Housing Projects Land Rules of 2004 is mandated to approve the project provided the developers comply with a number of pre-conditions, including compliance with the Wet Land Protection Act, 2000 to exclude rivers, canals, etc. earmarked in the Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan(DMDP). They are required to obtain clearance from at least 26 authorities including the Department of Environment, the Geological Survey, the Dhaka Transport Coordination Board and the Water Development Board. They are not allowed to advertise the construction for advance sale of apartments/plots before completing the entire process.

The Rules require that those undertaking ongoing projects must ap ply for approval within 60 days from the date of their promulgation. Neverthe less, in practice it appears that in almost all cases the private develop ers have implemented their projects without approval from RAJUK. A statement by this agency revealed that of the 31 housing projects that advertised sale of apartments through the print and electronic media, only two had received partial approval; the rest were not approved. In most cases, approval for the projects had not even been applied for. [27] RAJUK and BUET’s joint investigation team found that most housing societies did not have proper approval from the Government. Following this joint survey report, [28] RAJUK served notices against those found to have been engaged in illegal activities and lodged criminal cases against them, but due to gross technical irregularities in the investigation, all the cases were discharged, and RAJUK did not pursue the cases or file appeals. The failure of the Government drive against illegal private land development demonstrates the weak and permissive nature of the administrative system.

Legal Action against Housing Companies

BELA, an environmental lawyers’ organization, served a legal notice upon three major real estate companies, Eastern Housing, East-West Housing, (Bashundhara), and Amin Mohammad Land Development Ltd., for violating the Private Land Development and Housing Rules, 2004. It simultaneously served a notice upon the Secretaries of the Ministries of Land and Public Works, Chairperson of RAJUK, and other concerned departments. A joint press release was issued by BELA, ASK, BLAST and Nijera Kori to draw the attention of the public . After this, RAJUK issued legal notices and filed cases against the land developers. As it was beyond RAJUK’s capacity to take legal action, the Secretary of RAJUK wrote to the Secretary of Home Affairs on 17 September 2006 to take legal action against the named companies.

Towards the end of the Government’s tenure in 2006, the then Minister of Public Works, Mirza Abbas, reportedly, approved an allotment of 1,287.30 acres of land within the layout plan to a company, against whom RAJUK had filed a case. Questions were raised regarding the manner of issuance of this approval. [29]


To meet its commitments to the right to shelter for the large number of the homeless, the Government has to adopt pro-poor policies. Repeated evictions without ensuring alternative resettlement plans and the failure to protect public and private lands from illegal encroachments by land developers/grabbers show that Bangladesh is falling far behind its commitments. The concerned authorities have not complied with existing laws and rules.

Human rights organizations and citizens’ groups have taken legal initiatives to prevent forcible eviction and land grabbing. The judiciary has responded positively to prevent such illegal evictions. The media, too, has played a significant role to raise public awareness as well as to draw the Government’s attention to this critical issue.

There is an urgent need to prioritize and promote the right to shelter and freedom from forced eviction particularly for the more marginalized sectors of society. The National Housing Policy, 2004, which sets some guidelines, needs to be finalized following consultations and mechanisms set in motion for its implementation so as to meet the goal of social justice. At the same time it is important to implement the law to prevent illegal land acquisition and construction.


  • To endorse a revised National Housing Policy securing the rights of the poor to shelter.
  • To prevent eviction of slums without prior rehabilitation and resettlement of the slum dwellers in conformity with guidelines of the High Court.


* Dr. Farzana Islam is Professor, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

[1] Sangbad , 3 October, 2006.

[2] Article 11(1) recognizes the universal right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing, housing, and requires the State to, “…take appropriate measures to ensure the realization of this right”.

[3] Article 14 (2)(h) states that, “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure to women the right to enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply, transport and communications.”

[4] Article 27(3) of the CRC provides that the State, “…shall in the case of need provide material assistance and support programs particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing.”

[5] States have, “…to accept a fundamental obligation to protect and improve houses and their neighborhoods rather than damage or destroy them.”

[6] Promoted the right to compensation, through access to land and common property, in case of eviction.

[7] Stressed the Government’s responsibility in halting forced evictions and ensuring housing rights of its citizens. Source: COHRE, 1(1) Housing and ESC Rights Quarterly, 2004 onwards (see http://www.cohre.org/downloads/Quarterly_01.pdf)

[8] N. Islam, Right to Shelter , in H. Hossain (ed.) Human Rights in Bangladesh , ASK, Dhaka, 2004, p. 164.

[9] ASK and others v Bangladesh and others , Writ Petition No. 3034 of 1999, reported in 19 BLD(HCD)(1999) 488; Modhumala v Director, House Building Research Institute and others , Writ Petition No. 59 of 1994, reported in 53 DLR (2001)540.

[10] Writ Petition No. 7585 of 2003. See also Shamokal , 21 July, 2006.

[11] Islam, N., op. cit .; R.K. Newaz, 2002 in Human Rights in Bangladesh , ASK.

[12] R. Newaz, op.cit. , p. 265-66.

[13] Prothom alo , 21 July, 2006; Shamokal , 21 June, 2006.

[14] New Age, Janakantha, Inqilab, Bhorer Kagoj, Ittefaq, Prothom alo, Jugantor, Sangbad , 17 March 2006.

[15] Inqilab, Sangbad and Jugantor, 16 June, 2006

[16] ASK and others v Bangladesh and Others. Writ Petition No. 7585 of 2003. Also see S angbad and Inqilab , 26 June, 2006. See Chapter 2, p.23.

[17] Prothom alo and Shamokal , 21 July, 2006.

[18] N. Islam, e, Slums of Urban Bangladesh, Mapping and Census 2005, CUS, North Carolina University, and NIPORT, May 2006.

[19] N.Islam, Dhaka Now , Bangladesh Geographical Society, Dhaka, 2005.

[20] T. Seraj and M.S.Alam, “Housing problems and Apartment Development in Dhaka City”, in S. Ahmed (ed.), Dhaka Past, Present and Future Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 1991 .

[21] Sangbad and Inqilab , 26 June, 2006.

[22] The Daily Star , 10 August, 2006.

[23] New Age , 11 April, 2005 and Sangbad , 30 October, 2006

[24] Prothom alo , 27 August, 2006.

[25] Ittefaq , 12 January, 2006.

[26] New Age , 1 September, 2006.

[27] Primary findings on filling up of wet lands in and around Dhaka city by BELA (Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association).

[28] Following BELA’s legal notice on 19 August 2004, the then chairman of RAJUK submitted a report to the Minister of Land and Public Works.

[29] The Daily Star , 16 October, 2006; Shirsho Kagoj , 20 October, 2006.