It was business as usual for me on 5th April 2012, like it was for most citizens of Dhaka who are not residents of Karail, a 170 acre stretch of land across the Gulshan Lake. Some estimate the population 1,00,000, others up to three times as much. It was the day the Government decided to […]
It was business as usual for me on 5th April 2012, like it was for most citizens of Dhaka who are not residents of Karail, a 170 acre stretch of land across the Gulshan Lake. Some estimate the population 1,00,000, others up to three times as much. It was the day the Government decided to tear down the shanty town in compliance with an order from the High Court of Bangladesh. As news spread of the demolition drive, I kept on worrying about my friend Architect Khondoker Hasibul Kabir who moved into Karail a few years back. He also teaches at BRAC University, specializing in urban design, slum upgrading /affordable housing/alternative ways of construction/cyclone shelters and the likes .Munni Saha, the eminent journalist made an amazing short feature on where Kabir lived in Karail. It was broad cast on ATN News last year and indeed made quite a stir. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdbxwPOAzJo) Together with his friends and the children he made a beautiful pavilion made with bamboo on the edge of Gulshan Lake with some amazing landscaping using common plants and shrubs. He also set up a library for the children. The pavilion was a space open for all to use, especially children. Known to them as Mama (maternal Uncle), Kabir called the pavilion Ashar Macha (Platform of Hope). It was tore down about month before the April crackdown.
To most people slums are an eyesore, den of social vice, dangerous even during the day, not a place for the ‘gentleman’ to go. “Slum dweller” is indeed a highly derogative term. Yet to those who live in slums, its home. I humbly ask them to watch Munni Saha’s feature. Slum dwellers deserve more than pity or apathy or antipathy, especially since almost every other person who lives in the cities of Bangladesh lives in a slum.
Home in a city which there is work, but there is no proper place to stay for half its population. If you are a domestic aid, garment worker, rickshaw puller, worker at a factory, construction worker or someone who migrated from the rural areas due to natural disasters, you may afford to live in a proper house but the landlords may not be very keen to rent their house to you. A survey conducted by my colleague Associate Professor Architect Shehzad Zahir showed that in a slum, a group of four or more people will occupy a single room and will pay Tk. 8/- per sft a month. Electricity and water are separate. This is more than the average rent of apartments in most parts of the city which is around Tk.6.85/- per sft.
Slums are a convenient means for our politicians to exploit people. In collusion with the local thugs, they protect the slum dwellers from eviction, provide electricity and water and collect rent, votes and people to demonstrate during ‘political showdowns’. They also conduct some illicit activities, although this happens in very few areas.
Slums are nothing new. The city fathers have never been pro- active to ensure the lower income segment proper housing. In the 50’s it was thought that the state could solve the problem by rehabilitation/ relocation. Consequently the Masterplan of Dhaka of 1959 recognized the issue of the perils of overcrowding in the slums of the old city and aimed to create new residential areas for low income people. Mirpur and Mohammedpur are two such areas. “Slum relocation”, “slum rehabilitation” was the buzzword all over the globe then. This mode of operation is still highly popular in countries where governments are less accountable. So if you want to see where the underpaid construction workers from Bangladesh live in Dubai, you would have to take a thirty minute bus ride to the outskirts of town to “see” the “invisible” slum city.
To subsequent governments, both in the pre and post liberation periods, the main objective of urban planning was to improve roads and service infrastructure according to the Masterplan of 1959 and creating new residential, industrial and commercial areas based on acquiring land and redistributing it in the form of plots. Thus Dhanmondi, Uttara, Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara came into existence, along with Tejgaon, and the commercial part of Karwan Bazar. The Dhaka Improvement Trust was entrusted with both planning and selling plots. The other practice that they excelled in over the decades in connivance with the Dhaka City Corporation is to allow changes of intended land use (turning all the major residential thoroughfares into commercial areas) and almost indiscriminately increasing the maximum allowable height of building all over the city with little heed to whether there is necessary roads, services and social infrastructure or not.This highly asymmetric, elite serving policy turned a blind eye to the issue of housing for the people who worked in the city, but were not “fit” either financially and socially to live in the formally planned city.
In the early 1990’s the government started to work on a new Structure plan for Dhaka. At the same time the fall of socialist states paved the way for the free market system and the notion of the state as the provider of housing for all citizens lost traction altogether once and for all.Since the term “slum” is loaded with derogative connotation, the planners call them “informal settlements”. In the Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan (1995-2015), informal settlements were pushed off the table in unequivocal terms. Ironically it was the decade when democratic form of government took wings in the country.
So while the elite had nice apartments, the lower income segment had to either find housing in the slums or move to the outskirts of the city. Drivers, cooks, domestic aids who worked in Gulshan or Banani lived in adjacent Badda, Shahzadpur and the likes. But as the land become expensive, they were simply pushed further and further away to the eastern and western fringes on ecologically fragile wetlands and agricultural lands on the river banks.
Since the mid- eighties, 2000 garment industries have been set up in the city. Where do the 1.8 million garment workers stay? Where do the 1 million construction workers stay? Places like Karail of course. Now similar housing crisis is brewing in the garment industry belt of Savar, Gazipur, Tongi and the likes.
Since there is absolutely no control over land price, the market is completely driven by the speculators. Land with better connectivity and service infrastructure is becoming more valuable as static resellable assets as opposed to the actual return based on economic utility. One recent report published in the DS stated that 10,000 (almost 16 square miles) acres of wetlands and agricultural land around the city are illegally occupied. Could an ecologically less fragile part of that area be allocated for low income people? Even in a quarter of that land half of all the slum dwellers of Dhaka can be accommodated with better living conditions. Over the last decades, most Govt. sponsored projects for the low income group failed. The key reason was that those who got a piece of land or flat sold it off later for a huge profit. I wonder if proper mechanisms could be deployed to avoid such circumstances.
Decentralization is indeed a powerful tool improve to the slum situation. Certainly, if proper, affordable means of transport can be ensured then people will live in satellite cites, reducing the burden on the city.
In Malaysia, land developers have to earmark at least 20% of the land to be developed as affordable housing. In Mumbai and many cities across India, new public private partnerships are changing the slum scenario. The government leases its land to developers, who have to sell/rent half of the built area at subsidized prices to the lower income segment, especially if the project is done in a slum area.
The situation can certainly be improved by new business models as the slum dwellers pay high rents. In the fringe areas of Dhaka, landowners are renting their land to some investors for a 5-10 year basis. The investors build semi permanent two storied buildings with CI sheets and bamboo. Single room apartments with common kitchen and toilets will cost you up to Taka 3000/- (excluding services) depending on the number of people, location etc. One research found that if the cost of the building can be reduced to Tk. 500/- per sft (a typical 6-8 storied apartment building costs about three times as much), the initial investment can be recovered in approximately three years given the current rent. This means that if a landowner rents the land for ten years to an investor, the investor can keep almost 7 seven years of revenue as his income. If three or two storied houses with improved sanitation and services, bio gas plants , rainwater harvesting can be made in that budget (not an easy challenge), living conditions can be improved by creating some open spaces for community use, children’s play area without compromising with the density.
In a recent workshop held in Dhaka with students from water management, real estate finance, construction technology and architecture from Amsterdam and Dhaka, integrated approaches to slum upgrading /eco urbanism in the fringe areas were focused upon. The people who live in slums are in architect planner and visionary Charles Correas’s words ‘displaced rural communities’. The soft asset that they bring with them is their knowledge of agriculture. If that resource can be tapped slums can be highly productive farms. Floating farms on adjacent lowlands, integrated poultry and fish farms could generate income and employment, provide fresh food and at the same time reduce the growing carbon footprint of the city.
There are means to change the way we live. It’s only a question of collective will. By dint of hard work, we shall be a middle income country in ten odd years. But to build our cities properly, first we need to change the way we think about the people who live in it.
Sujaul Islam Khan | Architect and Asst. Professor, Dept. of Architecture, Ahsanullah University, Dhaka