The Financial Express
A Z M Anas
Mahinoor was shipped to the capital at the age of five. Her widowed mother brought the baby girl to the city, from southern Bhola district, after the mighty Meghna swamped her house and all that was in her possession.
Both finally found their way into Korail slum, sandwiched between Dhaka's upscale Gulshan and Banani.
Ms Mahinoor, whose left ankle was bruised by a fire, had grown up in this sprawling slum while battling umpteen plights and predicaments. She sees her physical shortcoming not as a barrier, rather an implicit strength, landing a job in Mascot Garments as a helper.
She squeaks by on a monthly paycheck of Tk 1662, barely enough to cover a monthly rent of 800 taka, feed and clothe herself, her son and gaunt mother in her 50s. The rent of 8 feet by 8 feet room alone eats up half her income.
Never had her family managed to reach the upper fringes of poverty. In 2007, she was abandoned by her husband as she expected her first and so far only son.
But nothing unsettles the 22-year-old steely woman more than the news of eviction.
"It has become a perennial fear. It haunts me like a ghost," she says sitting on a wooden plank in her rented hovel made of corrugated iron sheet.
The woman turned pale, her gaze instantly travelled to the naked baby who was playing on the earthen floor. Putrid and stinking odour was coming in from outside where open sewerage is running between huts.
Korail - arguably the country's biggest slum - fans out over 100 acres of public land and it is slated for the largest slum-clearing ever since the demolition of Agargaon slum in 2004, where 45,000 residents lost their dwellings.
Researchers at the World Bank estimated that at least 131 slums in Dhaka were bulldozed by the authorities between 1975 and 2004.
State-run Bangladesh Computer Council has planned to set up a software park on its land at Korail as it seeks to raise Bangladesh's profile on the world technology map, expecting to pull in foreign capital from global giants like Microsoft.
Golam Sarwar, an official with the Council, said his organisation requires vacating its land on which the planned park will be built.
"We can't allow influential groups to encroach upon public land and also compromise with ," he said.
But the United Nations has issued a call to the government to weigh the option of resettlement before bulldozing the 35-year-old slum.
Anna Tibaijuka, under secretary general of the UN, recently flew to the capital to negotiate with the government side to resettle slum residents in a planned manner.
"The eviction shouldn't come at the expense of the poor," Ms Tibaijuka told the FE in an interview.
"We're fighting poverty, not the poor. We're fighting slums, not slum dwellers," she said.
"Urbanisation is irreversible," but the UN official said the government should allow the rest of the urban centres to boom equally to help reduce pressure on Dhaka, whose primacy has eclipsed hundreds of other cities.
"Where can I stand now?" asked Ms Mahinoor as tears rolled down her pink cheek.
Like Mahinoor's mothers, impoverished rural people keep pouring into Dhaka, lured by job prospects and better wages.
Economists and urban experts say this rural-urban is also allowing Dhaka to grow faster than any other mega-cities in the world.
From 1906 to 1991, the Asian Development Bank figures, Dhaka's population swelled by a multiple of over 35 while its area grew by 58 times.
Dhaka's residents rose from 3.26 million in 1980 to a staggering 10.16 million in 2000.
Although official figures put the current population of Dhaka at 12.5 million, demographers say it will be more than 15 million and the city adds another 400,000 each year.
One-third of Dhaka's population already huddle in slums and the new migrants, like Rangpur's Rahim Baks, also end up in squatter habitats.
Nearly three years ago, in search of livelihood and better wages, Mr Baks took his fellow villager's advice and followed him to where he had moved years ago: Kamalapur slum along Basabo road.
The Kamalapur slum has steadily sprung up since 1995, making it a temporary abode for new migrants, who arrive in droves by train mainly from Comilla and northern Rangpur.
As the settlement is so visible, there have been repeated attempts by the authorities to displace them, but the residents always came back, police and people say.
Dhaka's population is forecast to hit 22 million by 2015, which will make it the world's sixth largest city, also third biggest in Asia, according to 2005 United Nations estimates.
It's a blurry line and always debatable whether Ms Mahinoor and Mr Baks fall into which category: economic migrants or climate migrants.
Zahid Hossain, a senior economist of the World Bank, said Dhaka's economic dynamism and higher wages have become a magnet for rural migrants, even if many of them are still stuck up in poverty.
Mr Hossain said wages in urban areas are 1.5 times those in rural areas - a factor which can draw increasing rural migrants into Dhaka.
The new multidimensional poverty index (MPI) developed by economists at Oxford has put Bangladesh's poverty rate at 58 per cent. The index uses 10 major variables including access to good cooking fuel, schooling, electricity, nutrition and sanitation.
It says poverty reduction was faster in urban areas than rural Bangladesh between 2004 and 2007.
"My guess is that the higher decline in urban poverty came from faster growth in urban standard of living indicators for the poor relative to rural. This is consistent with urban centred industrial and services growth that we have in recent years," he said.
"The same is probably true for health and education services."
Urban poverty reduction may have benefited non-slum population but that didn't propel Mahinoors to move up the ladder.
Bangladesh is a rapidly urbanising society and the current rate of growth hovers at 5.0 to 6.0 per cent a year but campaigners say the country is yet to craft a policy to better manage urban centres.
secretary Manzur Hossain said the urban policy, drafted with support from the Asian Development Bank, is being improved and will be finalised shortly.
Mr Hossain said the policy has discouraged blanket eviction of squatter inhabitants but it also made no reference of land rights of urban poor, even at limited scale.
"Land is a sensitive issue, especially in urban areas," said the secretary, whose ministry oversees six city corporations and 309 municipalities.
The present Awami League government, which sailed back to power in a stunning victory in 2008 general elections, promises to provide housing for all by 2021.
Out of 146 million people in Bangladesh, a quarter live in urban settlements, says a 2005 study by the National Institute of Population Research and Training (NIPORT).
"You can't stem the tide of urbanisation," said Sarwar Jahan who chairs urban and regional planning department at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology or BUET.
But he noted the authorities can mimic what was done by London, New York and Seoul, putting a handle on the population growth of Dhaka to ensure that the city is "appropriately" managed.
"If you allow a city to expand limitlessly, you can't manage it," Prof Jahan who also heads Bangladesh Planners Association, a grouping of architects and urban strategists told the FE in an interview.
He also urged policymakers to opt for providing "limited" land rights, stretched over 10 to 15 years, for slum dwellers in a cooperative arrangement, which can be further extended.
Ms Tibaijuka who also heads the UN-Habitat, said Bangladesh can explore the option of what she called "pro-poor" mortgage financing, allowing even slum dwellers to own low-cost houses in urban areas.
"This kind of mortgage financing will involve flexible repayment schedules spanning for 40 to 60 years," she added.
Slum dwellers' vote sway politics, but politicians turn the other way when it comes to their rights on land.
Mozibur Rahman, a rickshaw-puller who lives in Mohammadpur Beribadh slum, pointed out that politicians always court slum dwellers for votes but boast of being anti-slum firebrands when elections end.
"It's an irony that slum dwellers can elect mayors and councilors but they don't have holding number in city corporations," said Azahar Ali, who coordinates a US$120 million project taken up to better lives of 3.0 million urban poor.
The UKAid is financing the multi-year project being implemented in major cities and municipal towns across the country.
Life at Korail is worse for most of its dwellers than the one they left behind but Ms. Mahinoor says, "If I go back, never will I be able to support myself, let alone my son and mother."
"I'm not gonna go back."
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