GOPALGANJ, Bangladesh — The new white houses with blue tin roofs on the outskirts of Gopalganj are nothing fancy. But for the people who recently moved in — laborers, rickshaw drivers and others scratching out a living — these homes represent a form of security they have never known.
For one thing, the concrete houses are built high enough to stand above flood waters and strong enough to resist high winds — important in a low-lying city prone to tropical cyclones and heavy monsoon rains. But even more important, the residents have a right to live on the land for 99 years, something practically unheard of for the urban poor in Bangladesh.
For residents such as Asma, it was a long and difficult path to get here. A 42-year-old mother of three, Asma became homeless in 2009 when local authorities demolished her neighborhood to make way for a sports facility. Without any formal land tenure, Asma and nearly 2,000 other residents of a slum known as South Molavi Para were evicted in a single day, without notice.
In her new neighborhood, a repeat of that indignity is unlikely. In a ceremony last month, Mayor Mohammad Rezaul Sikder (“Raju”) handed over registered deeds to 100 residents, all of them veterans of the forced eviction. For Asma, who runs a small tea shop with her husband opposite the sports complex where her old house stood, that deed gives her land rights she never had in the old neighborhood.
Gopalganj is a city of 100,000 in the southwest of Bangladesh. Once famous for its production of jute, a fiber used in rope, burlap and some textiles, the region has not industrialized quickly. That’s largely because there are no easy ways to get across the Padma River from the capital city of Dhaka, just 150 kilometers (90 miles) away.
Like most urban areas in Bangladesh, Gopalganj is ringed with unplanned informal settlements. These have been growing in number and size as rural migrants flock to cities. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics recently put the nation’s total number of slum dwellers at 2.2 million, up 60 percent since 1997. (Bangladesh is home to about 160 million people, more than 40 million of whom live in urban areas.) According to a paper by Salma A. Shafi for the 2011 Bangladesh Urban Forum, nearly 90 percent of urban slum dwellers are living as tenants on private land, many without any written agreements.
Some residents of South Molavi Para left Gopalganj, returning to villages where they had grown up. Others moved to new slums with all the same insecurities of their old home. Asma’s family had the means to rent a one-room cottage in the city for US$10 a month, and they lived there for six years. However, her son Sumon remained haunted by the trauma of seeing his home raked away, a medical condition that ultimately forced him to leave school.
South Molavi Para is not an isolated case. It’s part of a larger problem in urban Bangladesh, where slum dwellers are often tossed from their homes, even contrary to government policy. For example, the National Housing Policy of 1993 had recognized shelter as a basic need and discouraged forcible evictions of slum dwellers. High Court rulings in 1999 and 2000 said “rehabilitation has to be ensured before any eviction.” Bangladesh also has signed international resolutions that seek to protect the rights of slum dwellers.
However, almost none of these safeguards have been enforced. From 1996 to 2004, about 300,000 people were displaced in 115 forced evictions from the cities of Dhaka, Chittagong and Dinajpur, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Between 2006 and 2008, at least 60,000 people were dislodged by eviction in Dhaka alone.
In recent years, the pace of evictions has slowed somewhat. The government has stepped up efforts to upgrade informal settlements with water supplies and public toilets. This is partly because the residents have had more success defending themselves in the courts. “Slum people are more united now than before,” says Khondker Rebaka Sun-Yat, executive director of Coalition for the Urban Poor, a rights group based in Dhaka. “They get stay orders” against eviction.