On Wednesday, 4th April 2012, parts of Korail slum were evicted. We have lived here for several months and have thus experienced the everyday life of its inhabitants in depth. This provided us with an understanding of Korail quite differently from how it is commonly presented. From this perspective, we protest the current eviction drive and would like to enrich and widen the discussion how the inhabitants of Korail and other similar settlements can live in Dhaka in future.
The eviction drive was carried out by a Dhaka District Magistrate, two battalions of police force and a large group of hired labourers. Two bulldozers demolished the structures without taking care whether their inhabitants had left and whether they had managed to save their belongings. On Tuesday afternoon the residents had been informed about the eviction of the houses along the lakeside area. The people living there had started to remove their belongings accordingly. However, the eviction came as a surprise to many other inhabitants when they found the eviction team demolishing all houses irrespective of whether they were located at the lakeside or not. The eviction was based on a High Court Order of 25th January 2012, which directed the authority to clear all of Korail and the adjacent settlement (a total area of 170 acres). This Order was unknown locally until the magistrate read it out in front of the evicted inhabitants on 4th April 2012.
The eviction drive constitutes a violation of basic human rights where residents and their belongings were literally overrun by the bulldozers. The lack of proper prior information meant that the affected residents could not search for alternatives. After the demolition of the houses they remained on the same land – but without a protective shelter against the thunderstorms on the following days, and without water supply and sanitation. The government did not provide any assistance. Food was cooked in non-evicted parts of the settlement and distributed to the affected people. Schools had been demolished and school children’s attending of classes and exams disrupted. Such sudden, uninformed and forced eviction drives without provision of alternatives must immediately be stopped.
From the side of the government, the eviction was justified by referring to the illegal occupation of government land. Most media reports published immediately after the eviction also put emphasis on illegality and criminality and thus supported the government’s arguments for the drive. This perspective is one-sided and does not represent the reality. The urban poor are not criminals per se. Instead, they are seeking a way to cope with the exclusion they face in the city. Many urban services are not available to them and thus claimed outside of formal arrangements. Against the tendency to criminalise the urban poor stands the neglect of the government to take note of the illegal encroachments of the higher income groups. Gulshan Lake is not only encroached from the Korail side, but also from Mohakhali, Banani and Gulshan. However, the government remains inactive in clearing that side of the lake, despite a High Court Order concerning the recovery of these areas. This is only one example of the government tolerating the illegal activities of the high income group that are commonly in practice all over the city. These illegal activities are not born out of the need for survival but constitute a strategic exploitation of public resources with profit motivation. As long as there are no alternatives to claim urban resources and no institutional provisions meeting the needs of the urban poor, their illegal occupation cannot be an argument for eviction. The government should address the illegal occupation for basic human needs like shelter more sensibly than the profit oriented encroachment of the high income groups and land grabbers.
Immediately after the eviction drive the need for resettlement and rehabilitation of the affected dwellers became again the focus of professional discussion. Resettlement solutions as currently discussed focus on the provision of flats in multi-storey houses. However, the past has not shown any convincing solutions for such low-income housing carried out in Bangladesh. There are several critical issues that make such schemes futile. The distribution of flats to the affected people under the current socio-political environment has been and will be corrupted by powerful groups buying into such projects. The location of resettlement projects outside of the core urban area disregards the fact that the urban poor contribute to the city’s economy and prefer their residences in walking distance to their workplaces. The relocation in multi-storey tower blocks destroys the social networks that have been built up among neighbours over years, and radically changes and in many cases complicates everyday life. Relocation into apartment blocks means the disruption of social networks which have been built up over years. Finally, resettlement schemes providing alternative housing require a large institutional involvement and thus become lengthy and complicated processes with unpredictable outcomes. The present institutional setting and the perceptions and attitudes of government officials do not create an environment for a successful resettlement programme.
That such resettlement schemes are discussed time and again despite the above limitations and failures also has to be related to other interests behind them. Those bringing up the discussion of resettlement schemes after every forced eviction often stand to profit from them. Parallel involvement in planning consultancies, housing construction firms or the private real estate sector lead to multiple interests. Given these serious restrictions and biased interests, different solutions are necessary which consider the potentials and capacities of communities like Korail. The government here is central in providing the environment and institutions enabling the urban poor to get access to adequate and secure shelter.
In order to create a city for all, a wide consensus is needed that the urban poor should be allocated a place to live in the city as much as everyone else. Instead of criminalising their search for a space to live, we suggest to provide them a share of the city. As Doug Saunders in his recently published book ‘Arrival City’ has pointed out, the urban poor do have the capacity to create successful and vibrant urban neighbourhoods if they are given the right to stay instead of being kept in permanent insecurity. The government could demarcate the lakeside and lease the remaining and currently occupied land to Korail inhabitants. Korail will then consolidate and its inhabitants will be able to officially access services. Having a demarcated boundary the community of Korail is able to create effective regulation mechanisms to prevent any encroachments of the lakeside – which they value as much as the city planners do. Such a secure occupancy will also ensure the continuity of the economic relations between Korail and the surrounding urban neighbourhoods.
We would like to motivate the government and the civil society to make Korail a successful ‘Arrival City’ and an outstanding international example of giving the urban poor a place in the city – instead of giving in to a hungry real-estate sector which has put its eyes on this profitable chunk of land. The current practice of planning as largely a redistribution of public resources to the higher income groups needs to be stopped immediately. The government has been leasing out thousands of acres of land acquired in the name of ‘public interest’ to middle and higher income inhabitants (for example Jhilmil, Purbachol and Uttara housing projects). Why is it not in a position to lease only 170 acres of land to the more than 100,000 inhabitants of Korail? When will the government hear Korail inhabitants’ cry: “we are human, we also want to live” (Amra manush, amra o bachte chai)?