In Dhaka, the world’s most densely-populated city, people living in slums pay more rent per square foot than residents inhabiting some upscale areas, The Business Post understands.
The living condition in the slums is very unhealthy and residents lack access to basic facilities. This weighs heavily on their health and pockets.
Md Masud Rana, a rickshaw puller living in Korail, Dhaka’s largest slum home to an estimated 50,000 people, pays Tk 3,000 for an 80 square feet (sqft) room he shares with two other members of his family.
He said the house owners raise rent every year.
Shahadat Hossain Tipu has been living at Sattola Slum in Mohakhali since his mother Piyara Begum migrated her from Noakhali 15 years ago.
He said he pays Tk 3,200 for his 100 sqft room where he lives with five members of his family.
Garment worker Aleya Begum pays Tk 3,500 for a 120 sqft room where she lives with her husband and three children at Mirpur’s Bauniabandh Slum.
Septuagenarian Rafiqul Islam, from Char Ramesh in Bhola Sadar has been living in Agargaon’s BNP Bosti since Meghna River devoured his land 40 years ago. He shares an 8/10 feet room with five members of his family.
Rafiqul said he pays Tk 3,000 as rent for the room built on government land and another Tk 1,000 as utility charge to the house owner whose identity he declined to reveal.
Paying too high
A 2019 study by Bangladesh University’s Urban Lab revealed that slum dwellers pay an average Tk 36-42 per square feet as rent per month, which is Tk 28-30 for some decent housing in parts of posh areas like Dhanmondi and Banani.
“On average, the monthly rent of a 100 sqft room in Dhaka slums is Tk 4,000, which means the rent per square feet is Tk 40. But people living in Mirpur and Dhanmondi pay something between Tk 25 and Tk 35 per sqft as rent,” explained Professor Adil Mohammad Khan, the general secretary of Bangladesh Institute of Planners and a teacher at urban planning department at Jahangirnagar University.
Architect Iqbal Habib, who led the Urban Lab study, said that the poor pay too high even for getting government services like water, electricity and gas as most of the services are available illegally in the slums set up on government land. These low-income groupsare extorted by influential people.
Millions of low-income people, mostly victim of climate change, are moving to cities to explore economic opportunities, causing population boom in urban areas.
LGRD Minister Tajul Islam in 2019 told parliament that the number of slum dwellers in Dhaka is 6,45,000 who live in 3,394 slums.
But the Coalition for the Urban Poor, a group of NGOs, denounced the claim and insisted that the number is much higher.
Musleh Uddin Hasan, head of the urban and regional planning department of BUET, said government agencies like RAJUK and National Housing Authority (NHA) have taken a number of housing projects for the poor but they failed to serve the purpose because of corruption and mismanagement.
But NHA Secretary Mohammad Ullah insisted that the government “is working to provide affordable housing for the poor”.
After a series of trial and error, the government now prefers rental basis housing for the poor. A project for 533 flats is under construction at Mirpur and some others are in the pipeline, he said.
“We are working to formulate a policy on rental system.”
Piloted, not practicing
Some non-government organisations have piloted a number of housing projects that include some successful examples of business model to ensure housing for the poor.
World’s largest non-profit BRAC is working for improving the life and livelihood of poor people living in the slums in Dhaka and other urban areas.
BRAC urban development programme coordinator Md Washim Akhter said that they have been working since 2018 to provide improved housing to 500 families in 12 urban areas including Khulna, Satkhira, Narayanganj, Faridpur and Rangpur.
Community people formed associations for housing, built their own houses and distributed among themselves. Brac has built their capacity and provided small financial support, he said.
He said that the project is still on and hoped to get a positive result soon.
ARBAN, one of the first NGOsto pilot low-income housing for 42 families in Mirpur, have distributed flats among the target people in 2012.
ARBAN project coordinator Md Mahbubur Rahman said that another project is on card for 85 families at Rampura and one more has been proposed at Basila.
UNDP, in cooperation with the government, under the Community Housing Development Fund built 346 apartment units in 2010 in Gopalganj municipality. They set 10-12 per cent interest rates with a payback period of 5-7 years.
A better solution
Habib alleged that the government agencies did not pay attention to housing problems of the urban poor over the years which aggravated the problem.
“Flat for anyone cannot be accepted in a densely populated city like Dhaka. The government should create 500-1,000 sqft flats on rental basis for the poor,” he suggested.
He said that single digit house loan and a policy support was essential for solving housing problem for the poor.
Professor Adil said that a public-private partnership could create huge housing opportunities in the cities. “If the government can set a vision, it can ensure the rights of the people,” he said.
Urban planners said that community housing has resolved housing problem in many countries but Bangladesh is yet to explore it.
Under community housing, houses are rented to people in need at an affordable rate but these are not sold to anyone.
The World Bank Group in 2019 estimated that Bangladesh will need to build at least 8.5 million units of houses by 2023.
Shelter or housing is one of the constitutional rights that the state has enshrined in Article 15 of the constitution while the government’s 7th Five-Year Plan, the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN and other UN declaration too obliged the country to ensure affordable housing for all.
Over the last decades, the government has taken a number of housing projects mostly for the rich and middle-class people.
In 1998, the governmentundertook the Bhashantek Rehabilitation Project costing Tk 341 crore at Mirpur-14. The government had fixed flat price at rates that families could pay off in 10 years in monthly installments which the rights activists lauded.
They said the project was bogged down by irregularities and mismanagement.
Last year, Ain O Shalish Kendra revealed in a study that only 218 units out of 849 type A flats were actually handed over to slum dwellers. The project set a model of owning flat by down payment Tk 65,000 and monthly rent Tk 1,125 for 10 years. The price of a flat consisting of a single room, a kitchen a toilet was set at Tk 1,90,000.
RAJUK officials saidtheir housing projects have reserved housing rights of the poor.
They claimed that 1.2 per cent of 20,000 apartments at Purbachal project, 4.3 per cent of 22,000 apartments of Uttara (3rd Phase) and 7.5 per cent of 10,000 apartment of Jhilmeel project were reserved for the poor.
However, housing right campaigners said that no poor people were incorporated in the project. “It is a clear cheatingby a government agency with the poor people,” said Hasan.
Marking Mujib Year and 50 years of independence, the government took the largest housing project ever in the country focusing on villages.In the first phase, houses have been allotted to 66,189 families, with 1,00,000 more due to be handed over this month, officials said.
Life in the slums
Residents of slums live without basic services in an unhealthy environment. The shanties are mostly built on water bodies and occupied government land.
Residents of a number of Dhaka slums interviewed by The Business Post said they often contract diseases because of the unhygienic living condition.
“We live from hand to mouth, which means we can’t visit doctors most of the time after getting sick,” said Tipu, a resident of Sattola Slum. “In most cases, doctors blame malnutrition and unhealthy living condition for the diseases.”
And then there’s lack of safety. Fire service officials said they recorded 200 fire incidents in Dhaka’s slums in the last five years. Water-logging is very common in the slums where a huge number of people live with common kitchen and bathroom facilities.
Setara Begum, 60, migrated to Korail slum from her village at Purakata Gurir Char in the southern costal district of Barguna after her house and farmland were devoured by Payra River 30years ago.
People like her have little choice but to live in the congested unhygienic slums.
“Life’s hard here,” she said. “Stench and insects cause a lot of suffering.”