Sixty-year-old Bacchu Mia lost five of his family members when their house was demolished by a landslide on July 1, 2011. A total of 17 people were killed back then, when a portion of the hill protection wall collapsed on the shanties in the Batali Hill area of Chittagong.
Standing before his home, a rickety house built on the slope of Batali Hill, which is owned by Bangladesh Railway, Bacchu Mia said: “I continue to be haunted by the deaths of my wife, three daughters and son, and I live in constant fear for my own life because another landslide can take place at any moment. But where else can I go? I used to be a rickshaw puller, but now I cannot do any work because of my asthma. The rent here is nominal, so I have no option but to live here.”
Landslides, triggered by torrential rainfall, are a common phenomenon in and around Chittagong city. A total of 234 people have been killed in the last ten years due to landslides in Chittagong, and in the most recent landslides which occurred on Tuesday, about 148 people have died, with the death toll still rising.
Like Bacchu, thousands of slum dwellers still live on the slopes of the vulnerable port city hills in slums built by local influential people who encroached on the government land to build the houses to rent out to underprivileged people. These people live here because these are the only areas with cheap rent.
“People from low-income groups, mostly apparel workers, rickshaw pullers, CNG drivers and day labourers live here because the rent ranges from Tk1500 – Tk6000,” said Md Alamgir, a resident of the Tankir Pahar slum in Matijharna.
According to the residents, the rents vary dependent on the degree of risk of landslides. The houses closest to the hills have the lowest rents.
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“The government can easily undertake a rehabilitation project for poor people like us who are living in fear of landslides during every monsoon,” said Rokeya Begum, Bacchu Mia’s neighbor, who also sustained injuries during the 2011 landslide.
“We have been living here for the past three decades. After every landslide, the government officials come in with a bunch of promises but soon forget all about us,” she added.
When his family members died in the landslide, Bacchu was given only Tk60,000 and 40kg of rice as compensation.
“During the rainy season, the district administration sometimes has us evacuated, fearing possible landslides, but every time, we are returned to our houses after a few days,” added Sahera Begum, who lives in Tankir Pahar of the Matijharna area.
The slum dwellers have managed to get illegal utility connections with the help of some dishonest officials of the Karnaphuli Gas Distribution Company Ltd (KGDCL), Bangladesh Power Development Board and Wasa.
The local administration has thus far identified 30 landslide-prone hills in the city, which are owned by different government organisations, including Bangladesh Railway, Public Works Department, Chittagong Wasa, Chittagong City Corporation, private organisations and individuals.