Thousands of families had to give up their lands – in many cases, their ancestral property – for the Padma Multipurpose Bridge project and relocate elsewhere.
Years later, Tota Matbor, one of those many "resettled", now spends his days taking care of his crop on a leased piece of land. At night, he drives a battery-run rickshaw.
Now living in a resettlement site at Kumarbhog union in Munshiganj district, which covers 15.46 hectare land – somewhat larger than the Jamuna Future Park complex – Tota, a family man above all else, often recalls his prime days from six years ago as the owner of a thriving roadside restaurant.
"Hotel Matbor," as it was named, "was packed to its full capacity of 30 chairs, especially on Fridays," a beaming Tota told The Business Standard.
The Padma Bridge project acquired his old home by the River Padma in Munshiganj's Medinimandal union as well as the land of his business at the Mawa Chowrasta (crossroads).
Now, on his way to the Mawa market for groceries occasionally, Tota passes – with a heavy heart – a Padma Bridge project slab that stands in place of his once humble business restaurant.
Matbor lives in one of the better sites with lush green trees lining the entranceway off the Mawa highway. The residents live in rows of corrugated iron sheet houses or concrete houses with a few spruced up colourfully painted gates or mosaic tiled walls here and there.
And when they need to go anywhere, there are always auto vans, rickshaws or tuk-tuks whizzing in and out of the site.
The 56-year-old Tota Matbor is a business enthusiast who has attempted to start a new business a couple of times ever since losing Hotel Matbor. "Regrettably, I failed. I even lost Tk6 lakh when I tried to start a restaurant business in the new ghat (Mawa terminal)," he added.
Tota is not the only one to have lost his business or changed profession due to the country's largest development project. The relocation, for most, resulted in a change in their livelihood.
More than 3,000 families have been resettled so far in seven sites across Munshiganj, Shariatpur and Madaripur districts, according to Khandakar Nazibul Hassan, assistant director (resettlement) of the Padma Bridge project.
For many of the 335 households on the site, the comfort of the paved roads and basic amenities – such as primary school, mosque, healthcare centre to name a few – do not quite make up for their old livelihoods.
Case in point is the farmers of Kumbarhog site.
It is not only a matter of income adjustment, the relocation also required a mental adjustment, the farmers claimed.
"Earlier, we could drink our cow's milk, planted vegetables around the house for the family, raised our own crops…probably the only thing we had to buy was fish," lamented Md Shahajan Bepari, one of the Kumarbhog farmers.
The salt and pepper haired, middle-aged farmer with an overactive eyebrow further explained the "pain" of having to buy every single thing along with something they never had to deal with, utility bills such as the monthly water bill of Tk400.
Livelihood morphed into a more laborious ordeal for those who continue to be farmers or work in agriculture after the relocation because they are not allowed to keep cows or poultry on the premises of the resettlement sites. They have to rent space offsite to continue their farming or agricultural work.
"These sites are like townships, it is difficult to maintain space for cow or poultry rearing," said Shamsul Haque Mridha, livelihood development specialist, Eco-Social Development Organisation (Esdo). "However, we would not deny permission to residents to rear cows on the site if they can guarantee a clean practice," Shamsul Haque told TBS.
Esdo, like Samahar Consultant, is one of the few NGOs that work in partnership with the government on a contractual basis to improve livelihoods of the site residents.
The farmers beg to differ.
Bare-bodied and soaked in sweat from the early April afternoon heat, with the hems of his faded lungi tucked in between his legs, Tajul Mollah lifted a hay basket on his head. "Farming is the only thing I know, how else am I to run my family if I do not rear cows?" said Tajul, a farmer and Kumbarhog site resident.
He was on the way to his rented cow shed – half a mile from his home. He needs to make at least two trips every day. That is walking roughly the distance from the Dhanmondi 32 bridge to the Farmgate foot over-bridge.
"We have the comfort of the paved roads here but not the nature we are accustomed to," Tajul added.
But not all resonate with his nostalgia and opaque dissatisfaction.
"If it was not for the resettlement, my house would have been long swept away due to erosion in the River Padma," said Abul Kashem Hawlader, a resident of the Jashaldia site, another resettlement compound in Munshiganj.
"What more can we expect to be done for us by the government?" Kashem added.
He was of course referring to the land plots they got– ranging from 2.5 to 7.5 decimals – and the cash the resettled families received from the government as compensation.
Sitting inside a cluster of tongs (tea stalls), the seasonal sand businessman praised the government's efforts and initiatives to resettle the affected population. "In fact, we got more in compensation than what we previously had," the grey-haired elderly man added.
Kashem's land by the Padma probably would have fetched Tk1 lakh in the market all those (six) years ago, he estimates, but he received Tk3 lakh from the government.
Some of the "resettled" families were not previously land owners, yet they were allotted residential plots, the residents said.
Moreover, a substantial percentage of the affected population live offsite, according to Esdo's Shamsul Haque Mridha. And those who cannot be accommodated are given plots in different locations.
Till March this year, 20,153 people had been relocated, Shamsul Haque Mridha added.
The compensation package depends on a number of criteria – size of the family's land, number of family members, etc – and families are compensated according to the Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) policy, he said.
Wait for legal document not over yet
A common issue is that most of the residents are still waiting to receive the legal documents for the plots they have been given.
Residents say they had to pay a land registration fee that varied between Tk10,000 and Tk35,000 among them across the sites.
"On top of the registration fee, we had to pay a one-time fee for the resettlement site – for the facilities, paved roads, etc," said Md Shohag Bepari, a resident of the Pashchim Naodoba site in Shariatpur district.
Shohag claimed it has been only a few months that the Bepari family received a receipt for the legal papers of their residential plot that they were allotted in 2008 in exchange for a much larger land parcel.
"We are following due process but the pandemic slowed things down," said Padma Bridge Project's Khandakar Nazibul Hassan. "And there is no doubt that all families will receive the original legal document in due time," he added.
The document is a legal statement of land lease for 99 years.
"We had around 33 decimals of land which we used for agriculture work," said Shohag, adding, "Previously, our annual family savings would range from Tk2-3 lakh. And now, we can hardly make ends meet."
Shohag works as an Uber InterCity driver while his three brothers work at or around the site as tailor, tea stall owner and at the wholesale grocery market.
"We are in a position where we can neither claim to be middle class nor can we claim to be extremely poor. We are just stuck in the middle," Shohag told TBS.
New place, new dynamics
Sixty-eight-year-old Majibor Mridha is no stranger to the psychological impact of the relocation. Residents say they may get used to the organised, colony-like site, but it has been a difficult few years to readjust to the new livelihood dynamics.
Majibor became unemployed when he moved to the Jashaldia site in Munshiganj district eight years ago. He used to own a boat and ferry people across the river, he recalled, sitting idle in the afternoon slump at a tong.
Due to the development in the region over the last six years, Majibor claims, the Mawa terminal no longer has space for small boats. In addition, the safety restrictions imposed on small boats by the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) has put him out of work.
Currently, Majibor rents his boat out in neighbouring districts like Shariatpur and Madaripur where it is used to transport rice. He says he hardly makes any money.
He was sitting with a group of elderly men at a tong surrounded by mostly shuttered tea stalls in the afternoon. It's Zuhr time. So most people briefly close their businesses to go and pray at the mosque.
In the quiet afternoon hour, Jashaldia site looked less lively than Kumarbhog site, with more tin shed houses and almost no greenery. It was explained later by the residents that the Kumbarhog site was for the relatively well off.
The road connecting the two sites shows the wealth disparity.
One site is just off the Mawa highway, where Dhaka-Mawa buses pass through and the other is a few kilometres inland. The auto rickshaw has to pass through swathes of sand, uneven roads, short strips of marketplace and take a path under the Padma Bridge.
Is there an upside on the horizon?
Experts believe that the Padma Multipurpose Bridge that will connect the southern districts to Dhaka, will yield enormous benefits.
"There is no doubt that people will not only be benefited economically but socially as well," said Dr Sayema Haque Bidisha, research director at the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (Sanem).
She explained how the Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge which opened in late 1990s, resulted in an uptick in young students who wanted to pursue higher studies in different colleges and universities in Dhaka. And it is expected that completion of Padma Bridge will yield similar trends.
There are ongoing government initiatives to improve and develop livelihoods of the residents across all the resettlement sites. There are training programs designed to select candidates and teach them a trade that can help them start a new line of work such as driving, handiwork, construction work, etc.
A list of 5,165 eligible candidates was made from surveys carried out by Esdo in all the resettlement sites in 2018. They were to be trained in 14 trades, which included welding, fishing, sewing, etc. In 2019, the first launch of the programme trained 1,587 individuals in computer skills and livestock rearing, said ESDO's Shamsul Haque Mridha.
The pandemic postponed the second launch to 2021.
Of hope and training programs
In early April, Fatema, a Paschim Naodoba site resident in Shariatpur district, a mother of two and widowed young woman, sat in a training program organized by the ESDO and Upazila Youth Development Office (Shariatpur).
"I am thinking of doing business with this trade, if all goes well, I can use Bkash and courier service to sell to customers," Fatema told TBS. She was taking part in the 26 days long crash course in batik/screen print/block training programme that has 25 students.
"There is strong willpower and eagerness among the students to learn a trade," said the trade instructor, Shamsun Nahar Shumi. "There is also demand for skills training that is related to what we are already doing, such as what would be the point of learning how to screenprint clothes if one does not know how to sew clothes," Shumi, who is originally from Shariatpur, told TBS.
There is potential, positive energy and scope for these participants to learn more and consequently do a lot more when more resources will be made available to them, Shumi added.
In light of the 14 April lockdown, the second launch has been postponed, Alamgir Hossain Shah, Upazila Youth Development Officer (Shariatpur) told TBS. "We are on standby, we will resume as soon as we are directed to do so," he added.
The organisers were able to complete a 26-day welding training programme before 14 April and one batch of 25 students for the batik/screenprint/block training. Two batches are waiting for their courses to begin.
These training programmes are hard to conduct, as those are open six days a week and four hours a day and require participants to travel 16km to the site every alternate day from Jajira for a meagre Tk5,000 remuneration.
"But it's worth it because all we want to do is make them ready for life," Alamgir added.
Each participant is credited with Tk500 each day of training, amounting to Tk13,000 by the end of the training programme. "This is an incentive like none other I know of," said Esdo's Shamsul Haque Mridha, who feels optimistic that within two years these training programmes will show results.
While many of the older population find it hard to adjust to the new life with low income and new lifestyle, the youth in these sites seem committed to change the course of their lives, not just to survive and make ends meet but to thrive in the work they do.