The summer heat is scorching but it does not impede the regular bustle of Korail, one of the largest slums of Dhaka, a city where an estimated quarter of the 16 million inhabitants live in slums. Rickshaw pullers come and go, fruit-sellers hawk their wares, bare-bodied boys walk around. Even the demolition of 1500 shacks has only slowed down but not halted the brisk activity required for making a living. In fact, the population of the slum scarcely diminished after the 4 April demolition carried out by the government. Most residents have not left because they have nowhere else to go. They depend on the slum and the surrounding area for their livelihoods; most of them work in the textile industries located nearby, or as household help in the neighbouring middle- and upper-class residential areas.
Though a court order has stayed further demolition and consequent evictions for the moment, the battle is far from over for Korail’s residents. Like most slum-dwellers in Southasia, the residents of Korail are resigned to a precarious existence, living on the margins of the law, a short step away from falling through the cracks in governmental and social support structures because of their status as ‘illegal occupants’ of urban land.
Abdul Kader belongs to that group. He squats on a few sheets of newspapers spread over the ground that has now become the floor of his new home, just a few yards from the spot he used to call home for the better part of three decades. Tree branches overhead serve as a roof. Abdul Kader is in his sixties and is unwilling to move. His earnings as a fruit seller have helped him survive all these years, even enabling him to marry off his five daughters, leaving him alone in Korail with his wife. Kader does not dare rebuild his home. The slum is rife with rumours that the government will soon carry out another demolition to clear the entire area. Kader is one of around 100,000 people who live in the area and derive their livelihoods from it.
The recent eviction came at the behest of a court order that followed a newspaper report highlighting the slum’s encroachment and impact on the Korail Lake. The 170 acres of land in Korail belong to the state-owned Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited (BTCL), the Public Works Department (PWD), and the Ministry of Information and Communication. The January 2012 news report led the Dhaka High Court to order the authorities to demarcate the lake’s boundaries and remove encroachments. Following this, a designated court magistrate accompanied by BTCL officials initiated the demolition, using bulldozers to tear down the shacks.
Surprisingly, officials seem to have no clue about an earlier court order issued in 2008 that asked the government to ensure the rehabilitation of the Korail slum dwellers before any eviction drive. The High Court passed that order in response to a writ petition by Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), an organisation for people’s rights that provides legal aid to slum dwellers, challenging an eviction order issued by the PWD. The latest, contradictory court order has bewildered many in the area. “How can a court that has ordered our protection issue an order to drive us out?” asks Fatema Akhter, leader of a local slum development organisation.
The slum dwellers live in a Kafkaesque limbo: with no clear legal status and the absence of defined government policy on slum dwellers, no authority has taken responsibility for ensuring their welfare or even implementing past judicial directives. “I have no knowledge about any previous directive,” says Dhaka magistrate Selim Hossain, who oversaw the slum demolition. To make matters worse, even the court, when it ordered the demolition, did not seek any response from the slum’s residents. “Since we are an affected party in the court order, shouldn’t the court have sought our representation?” asks Akhter.
Such callousness extends beyond the court order. Officials have not taken into account the fact that many of the slum dwellers have school-going children, most of whom are due to appear for their annual exams. Eight-year-old Arif Hossain’s parents are panicking. Hossain studies in the second grade at the Bastibashi Interbhita, a privately operated school inside Korail funded by the NGO Intervida that teaches students up to the eighth grade. “Where will I move in the middle of his exams?” asks Arif’s father Badsha Miah, a rickshaw-puller whose house was demolished in the 4 April drive. “Leaving an area cannot be a matter of an overnight order,” says a fuming Abdul Mannan, Secretary General of the Korail Central Committee. “The children in the area have their schools, the parents have their work. How can one leave overnight?” he asks.
There are about 5000 slum children like Arif studying in neighbouring schools, according to Mannan. The eviction drive took place when class 12 examinations were underway. “The havoc their action would bring on the families did not even occur to [the officials],” says Shilpi Akhter, who has two sons. The demolition drive left families no time to even save their possessions. Akhter’s sewing machine, the mainstay of the family’s livelihood, was destroyed. Her home now consists of a few sheets of tin for walls, with some clothes thrown over the top to protect the family from the scorching sun.
A month after the destruction, barely anyone has left the area. Renting even the simplest new home elsewhere would cost about 4000 Bangladeshi Taka (roughly USD 50) per month – twice as much as slum residents were paying before. The increase in Dhaka’s rents has been driven by Bangladesh’s internal migration. A 2005 survey by the Dhaka based Centre for Urban Studies showed that 3.4 million of Dhaka’s 12 million residents at the time lived in slums. Although there has been no formal survey since then, an assessment by the Coalition for the Urban Poor shows that Bangladesh’s internal migration is increasing at the rate of 6.3% annually. Korail draws a large number of migrants who work in the garment industries located in the Mokhali area. “[Government officials] always blame us for living here. Why doesn’t the government move the industries from here?” asks Shilpi Akhter.
A 2007 World Bank report on Dhaka’s urbanisation says that “eviction of squatters from public land has been a continuing practice of government policy.” In 2004, another large-scale eviction in Dhaka’s Agargaon area demolished the homes of some 40,000 slum dwellers. The report observes that the absence of a relocation policy results in an “implicit status quo development strategy for the city as a whole,” posing high environmental risks. The steadily expanding encroachment by Korail slum dwellers has indeed led to sedimentation of the lake. But while the government may be justified in clearing the area, it does not seem to have any policy for those it aims to displace. “The government must also ensure that these people are rehabilitated on site,” says Elisa T Bertuzzo, a researcher from the University of Technology, Berlin, who has been studying the Korail slum for the past five years and lives there occasionally.
Unfortunately, there has been no aid for Korail residents. “There is no specific programme of the government to rehabilitate the slum dwellers so far I am aware or the PWD is concerned,” says Mohammad Rashidul Hasan, Deputy Director of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Housing and Public Works. Iqbal Habib, secretary of the environmental rights organisation Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA), says no government in Bangladesh has ever undertaken housing projects to rehabilitate slum dwellers. “By evicting the lower income households, the government acquires land for housing projects,” says Habib. The land is later sold at well below market rates to officials who in turn sell it at higher prices to real estate developers. “Thus, the price of lands and housing keeps getting multiplied,” Habib explains. A study by the Centre for Urban Studies reveals that the Public Works Department has plans to develop flats for 40,000 public officials and media personnel on Korail’s 43 acres. The plan, however, leaves no space for the slum’s current dwellers.
Though slum dwellers are being evicted, hotels and upper-class residences in the same area have not been touched so far, even though according to Dhaka city’s master plan, those structures are just as illegal as the thatched huts of the slum. “It is a time consuming process,” says city magistrate Selim Hossain. “We started eviction drives from one end and have sought more time from the court.”
Human rights activists and Korail’s inhabitants are preparing to resist any further drives to evict the slum dwellers without rehabilitation. A stay petition has been filed at the High Court. The Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, one of the rights groups advocating rehabilitation, says that with a stay petition filed at the High Court, the fate of Korail residents will ultimately be decided by the court’s decision.
~ Saad Hammadi is an investigative reporter and editor based in Dhaka.