Citizens of Dhaka’s slums only receive brief spurts of attention from their fellows when a crisis takes place. Government officials, NGOs, lawmakers, local politicians and the press rush to the spot and disappear when the event drops out of the news cycle. The latest of these incidents took place after the massive fire in Korail on December 4 and in Sattala slum on December 12.
Within days, however, these people are forgotten again.
Fires occurred in Korail a number of times, the most devastating being the one in 2004. In 2010, fire razed the slum again. The December 4 fire burned down over 500 houses, rendering thousands homeless. This was the second fire in the Korail slum this year, with one taking place in March.
Apart from these frequent fires, the slum dwellers also face eviction frequently. Rights activists and NGOs say the government is in violation of a 2008 High Court order that asked the administration to make arrangements for rehabilitation before evicting Korail residents.
In 2007, the World Bank estimated that nearly half of Dhaka’s population, or more than 12 million people, live in slums. It said the eviction of squatters from public land has been a “continuing practice of the Bangladesh government.”
In 2004, a large-scale eviction in Korail affected around 40,000 slum dwellers. In another incident in 2011, about 2,450 households were evicted from two slums including Korail, according to a study funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).
In April 2012, an eviction was run by the administration upon verdict from the High Court which displaced hundreds of people, removed around 2,000 illegal structures, including houses and shops, and reclaimed 170 acres of public land in the Korail slum.
A few days later, two legal aid organisations – Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) and Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) – filed a petition on behalf of the residents of Korail. Following that, the High Court directed the government to take appropriate measures to rehabilitate the slum dwellers before they are evicted.
BLAST argues that these forceful evictions constitute a violation of the citizens’ right to life, including the right to shelter, guaranteed by the Constitution.
The ICT Division, which owns the land, has plans to set up a high-tech park named Mohakhali ICT Village under the Private Sector Development Support Project in the 19-hectare land of the slum funded by World Bank and the Department for International Development (DFID).
A 2014 report from the division suggests any of six options for the resettlement of the slum dwellers. One of them is the construction of 1,545 flats to be given to those who have been living there for a long time. But rights groups and NGOs have raised questions about the transparency and effectiveness of these plans.
In Bhashantek slum, which was uprooted in 1996 with a plan to build 111 buildings with low-cost flats for the city’s poor, only 18 buildings have been completed and the project scrapped. The construction firm installed over 1,000 well-off families in the flats and pocketing about Tk30 crore, according to a government investigation. Not a single flat has been issued to any of the 1,200 families that were thrown out.
In January the government approved building flats for its staff in a portion of the land.
Korail slum has been facing the threat of full-scale eviction for some time, further intensified in the wake of the Gulshan terror attack following which a boat service across the Gulshan Lake, the only way for the slum people to get to the city, was stopped.
UN-Habitat says in 2012, 33% people in the developing countries lived in slums and in South Asia it was 31%. In South Asia the poorest citizens live in the slums but their contribution to the urban economy and informal employment is about 60%.
Dhaka’s slum dwellers are one of the key driving forces of the city’s economy. These deprived people engage in low-income jobs such as construction work, driving rickshaws, vans, CNG auto-rickshaws, public transport, small vendors and businesses, security, lift operating, garment works and household help – providing all the service that the city needs to keep functioning.
Most of these people are migrants from across the nation who have moved here in hopes of a better life.
The Korail slum area is valuable because of its location bordering Dhaka’s two most upscale areas – Gulshan and Banani.
Even though the living conditions in the slums are barely survivable, all these places still provide the shelter for a large part of Dhaka’s citizens. If and when they are gone, what will happen to low-income accommodation in the city is anybody’s guess.