It is now one month ago that parts of Korail Bosti in Dhaka were demolished in an eviction drive that took its inhabitants by surprise. In the aftermath of the eviction, the future of Korail was discussed at different levels and with varying degrees of media attention. A few representatives from the Bosti were also invited to express their own perspectives in meetings dealing with the issue. However, it was common in all those meetings that inclusion of local knowledge of bosti inhabitants in further discussion and in finding suitable alternatives to eviction was only partial and selective. This observation motivated us to write this article in which an inhabitant of Korail communicates a local understanding about Korail’s inhabitants’ sufferings and aspirations to the wider public. This inhabitant of Korail has for a long time been involved in development works and in representing the community as a member of a community group towards government, non-government and civil-society organisations.
We don’t feel invited to stay here
A very common perception of urban planners and professionals, but also of non-poor inhabitants, is that the urban poor are only temporarily in the cities and their places of permanent living should be in the villages. What is not discussed is that the poor, as much as other city dwellers, come to cities because of the opportunities created there. What is also neglected is that without their services, cities would not function. A differentiation into ‘welcome’ and ‘unwelcome’ inhabitants of cities does not comply with the concept of equal citizenship rights. In Bangladesh as in many other countries, both cities and villages are open to everyone who finds them suitable for dwelling, for working, for accessing higher education or cultural infrastructure. The common perception of the urban poor being ‘village inhabitants’ explains their feeling of not being invited in Dhaka, as is also reflected in this quote of the inhabitant introduced above:
“We, who live in Dhaka, did not come here willingly. We don’t feel invited to stay here. We are told to live in the village while all mills, industries and factories are established in Dhaka: this is just not possible. First the working opportunities have to be created in the villages and then I can be asked to live there. How come that those who established industries and factories in this city are not told anything; why are they not being pressurized to construct factories in other areas? Pressures are only directed to us to leave the city because we live in the Bosti. When a factory is established, why are its owners not told to ensure food and accommodation for their workers?”
Through the peaceful protest we demonstrated that we do not want to do evil things or to cause damages
One of the arguments commonly put forward to justify bosti eviction is the issue of criminality. Though bosti are not free from criminal activities, they are not the exclusive locations where criminal and unsocial activities take place – rather, the level of criminality is similar to that of any other neighbourhood of Dhaka. Criminal and unsocial activities are common in the whole city including the high-income and planned settlements of Banani and Gulshan. Furthermore, criminalisation of bosti does not provide an argument to justify the inhuman and unconstitutional eviction by the government. The peaceful demonstration against the eviction carried out on Airport Road on 5th April 2012 provided a different picture from the common image of the bosti dwellers (bosti bashi):
“The human chain we carried out – nobody suggested us to do so. We considered it to be necessary. We carried out the protest peacefully, no vehicles were damaged, no one was injured. On the contrary, when the university students protest they carry out every type of destructive activities, including damaging of vehicles. All the time bosti dwellers are blamed as ‘jongi’, they are considered to do all sorts of evil. Through the peaceful protest we demonstrated that we do not want to do evil things or to cause damages. Another rumour is that bosti are the sources of drugs and gangsters. This is only partially true; but who is actually responsible for it? If drugs were controlled at the national border, then they would not be available in the bosti. Gun-fights and corruption of tender submission occur regularly at the universities, should we then shut down the universities? Is it possible? If it is not possible, then why should we get evicted? We do not think that bosti eviction is a solution.”
Everyday we face contradictions in reality and discrimination by the judiciary
The encroachment of Banani Lake and the ‘illegal’ occupation of government land shaped the High Court Order for the eviction of the whole Korail Bosti and the structures constructed onto the lake. The Order however makes no reference to the state’s constitutional responsibility to secure humans’ basic necessities of life including shelter (Article 15). It also contradicts a previous High Court Order that instructed the government to consider a resettlement programme before any eviction. Moreover, while the current Order dictates the authorities to clear up all structures built on public land and onto the lake, the eviction has been carried out only in the bosti area leaving many structures of the high income groups similarly encroaching onto the lake (Mohakhali, Banani and Gulshan) untouched. Such selectivity concerning the administration of the eviction activities is a direct violation of the Constitution, according to which all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection by the law (Article 27). These discriminations on the part of the state are also observed in Korail:
“Bosti dwellers are the only ones who are blamed for land grabbing. Go to Gulshan and Banani area – there you will find many buildings constructed after land grabbing and filling of the lake area. No one evicts these buildings; no one says anything against these people. No one brings these encroachments in discussions. Government has many housing projects like Hatirjhil and Jhilmil which are implemented in order to lease plots for 99 years to the rich. We are doing everything for this city from sewage clearance to rickshaw pulling. But there is no housing project for the poor like us.”
We don’t (even) have a place to live, where do should we do goat rearing?
Over the past decades, the government promoted different projects to tackle urban poverty and the spread of bosti. The initial projects aimed at sending the bosti inhabitants back to the rural areas, denying them a place in the city. The relevant decisions were taken without any consultation with the poor, but exclusively from the top; nor were their actual needs considered. The reasons for which the poor come to Dhaka were largely ignored:
“We did not come to Dhaka just aimlessly. Natural disasters like Aila, Sidr, climate change etc. destroyed our living places. We don’t have a village home. Even if we have a place to live in the village we do not have work. Our government takes many actions, without knowing the reality and our necessities. For example, the former government encouraged the poor to breed goats when people themselves had not enough space to live. We don’t (even) have a place to live, where should we do goat rearing? Another programme encouraged returning back to the village home: if you don’t give me work, then you cannot force me to go back to my village.”
Bhashantek housing project was designed for the poor, but you will not find any slum dweller who received a flat
The housing projects implemented later on in order to provide alternative shelter to the urban poor also failed. The land allocated or the houses built did not serve the target groups, but ended up to be appropriated or grabbed by groups of higher socio-economic and political power. There are many such government initiatives characterised by a lack of willingness to ensure their success. Korail inhabitants are highly aware of the failures and the reasons behind these:
Imagine that with the aim of wanting to help us you send me to the Hill Tract region, while my working place is in Korail. We do not want this kind of help. The Bhashantek housing project was designed for the poor, but you will not find any slum dweller who received a flat. Leaders or politically affiliated people received those. If help is provided in this way, we will never be the beneficiaries. Effective support could be like this: the government provides us security of tenure by leasing a piece of land and then we – the poor – can pay the lease money in instalments, maybe 1,000, 2,000 or 10,000 Taka at a time. Then I can invest on this piece of land. But if it is not like that, then we can only dream that planning will take place, but in reality nothing will happen.
Civil society’s lack of sincerity makes us remain backward
In Dhaka, civil society and NGO activities are also limited, selective and only carried out after careful calculation of their reception by the government and the funding communities. Only a few civil society organisations and NGOs are working on the issues of land, tenure security and housing for the urban poor. Similar to the government initiatives, there is no remarkable success story. This is especially due to the fact that their activities are often guided by their own interests and the necessity to build reputation. In the process of reputation building, many come in conflict with each other resulting in the withdrawal of one group and the failure of the remaining group to carry out the project work alone. Such conflicts were another reason for the failure of the Kolshi resettlement project in Mirpur initiated by a group of civil society organisations:
“Please pardon me for my comment on civil society, don’t get hurt. There is no understanding and coordination between them. When they start a good work, after some time they become tired of forming separate groups. Their lack of sincerity makes us remain backward. In the last caretaker government period, a few civil society groups were committed to work on housing development for the urban poor on a five acres piece of land in Kolshi, Mirpur-12. The idea was that some will prepare a plan, some will manage donation money, etc. The project stopped for failure of the plan preparation, for dissatisfaction of the group appointed to collect donations after it had failed to conquer a dominant position in the project and thus withdrew from it, and for the attitude of a few others who preferred to carry out the project work alone. There was willingness from the part of donors to finance the project. However, the project later stopped because of competition between civil society groups in their reputation building – finally we, the poor people, remained poor. If they were sincere to do their work, by now we would have a housing project on that piece of land.
If we are given tenure security we are capable of improving our lives ourselves
Given the failures of initiatives by government as well as civil society as described above, Korail inhabitants have developed their own ideas of how their neighbourhood’s future could look like. Korail inhabitants do not want to be resettled in a different location, as it would mean the loss of work places and of social relations developed over time. They also do not want a small share of the current land because due to existing practices of manipulation in the distribution process many of the inhabitants would not be able to get their share in the form of a flat or land lease. Instead, they envision building up their own neighbourhood on the land they already considered for their living and livelihoods:
“If the government would commit itself to provide the land, under some arrangement, then we will be able to talk to those involved in NGO activities to support us with construction works, then we will be able to talk to DWASA to arrange water supply, to the Electricity Board to provide electricity lines, to the Gas Company to provide the gas lines – in this case we will be able to stay here. We would then be capable of improving our lives and continue to contribute to the economy of the city and the whole country.”
The request for commitment and support from the side of government, civil society or mainstream society does not mean asking for resources and utilities free of cost. Being aware that projects free of cost are not sustainable and would lead to lack of ownership and responsibility for the resources, they rather ask for projects with (financial) conditions tailored to their own abilities:
“We want to have a housing project for ourselves, and we do not want it free of cost. Because we know that free goods cannot be durable. We want a project at prices affordable to us. There should be a policy and regulation for this.”
We want the lake to become more beautiful
Often, policymakers do not consider the urban poor to be capable to manage resources for the benefit of a wider community. A common allegation is that if Korail’s land would be given to Korail inhabitants – as part of a lease contract or in other ways – the lake would quickly disappear. But the inhabitants of Korail value the lake as an environmental and leisure time resource and are willing to commit themselves to keeping the lakeside free from encroachments:
“Who else needs the lake more than us? We want the lake to become more beautiful. If the lake became clean and beautiful, we could use its water for our daily life. If fish is cultivated in the lake, it will help to meet the demand for fish in our city. It is seen that we– the poor – are always blamed for polluting the lake. Many sewerage lines of Gulshan and Banani are also connected to this lake, but they are not held responsible for its pollution”.
We are also humans: we were not born as slum dwellers
What has become obvious from the above discussion and statements is that the bosti dwellers’ necessity and search for shelter is not recognised as an urgent task for urban planning. It is not understood by mainstream society who tends to criminalise ‘slum’ dwellers and thus sustains the picture of a divided society where some have fewer rights to a share of resources than others. It is also not understood by government and its administration who – if at all – see it as a problem to be solved by means of ready-made solutions instead of viewing the urban poor as equally legitimate city dwellers and their neighbourhoods as equally recognised parts of the city. Finally, a civil society with plenty of particular interests sees the ‘slum’ dwellers as a target group for donor- or self-funded activities. From the perspective of Korail inhabitants these problems and challenges are expressed vividly in the interview which formed the base of this article:
“We live in a slum, so we are called ‘bosti bashi’. But we were not born as slum dwellers. We are the relatives of our politicians, of intellectuals and many others. Maybe they are ashamed of us, but we are not ashamed. If they come to our house, we try to attend to them as our guests warmly – even if we are not able to serve food. But the leaders of society feel hesitant to openly show their relation with us.
Those who are living in Gulshan or Banani feel ashamed of our Bosti despite our regular house maid services at their houses. They do not keep places for our living in their flats, neither do they think of our survival.
The plans that are prepared in this country do not consider the needs of the poor sincerely. There is no participation of the poor in the plan preparation. We are not truly viewed as humans in this country. If we were considered humans, our basic needs would have got a place in the government plans. About 80 percent of the people of this country are poor and about 50 percent of the inhabitants of Dhaka live in bosti. If the needs of these poor people are neglected in plan making, is it realistic?”
When will other inhabitants of Dhaka, practitioners and the government start to look behind common ascriptions of people as ‘slum’ dwellers and instead view them as equally legitimate urban dwellers and citizens? When will the phrase ‘inclusive city’ become a reality not because of ‘slum’ dwellers being a good target group to raise funds, but just because the city is intended for all and intended to offer a humane living place to all? When will the general city dwellers say: Korail inhabitants are human like us and we will fight for their rights as citizens as much as we would fight for our own rights as citizens?
* It is time for a city-wide action on behalf of Korail and its residents. Those readers who are interested to follow-up the on-going discussion can soon do so on a Blog which will be established as a platform for information and discussion by several Dhaka-based organisations and urban researchers. Furthermore, an online petition to support Korail inhabitants’ quest for a right to live in Dhaka city has been brought out. To inform yourself and sign please visit:
* Based on an interview with an inhabitant of Korail (anonymous for the protection of privacy) conducted on 19 April 2012; this article has been published with the consent of this inhabitant regarding the article’s final version.
Kirsten Hackenbroch and Shahadat Hossain are urban researchers of the School of Spatial Planning, TU Dortmund University, Germany. Since 2007 they are involved in urban research in different parts of Dhaka including Korail.