As we all know, Dhaka is home to millions of slum dwellers. It is important that we give serious thought to the welfare of so many of Bangladesh's people. Our slums are characterised by really poor housing, over-crowding, poor services, and serious poverty.
Usually, people live in these slums with no security of tenure. These features represent very challenging living conditions. In the slums or "bostees" of Dhaka, tenants pay rents to unauthorised owners. In many cases, the rent is paid to the feared "mastaans" or local goons who represent illegal owners.
I am told that the owners are often corrupt public officials. Obviously, these are dishonourable arrangements.
Bostee residents have mostly come to live in the illegal settlements through suffering economic hardships in their home village or elsewhere in Dhaka. Many others have been displaced from their homes by natural disasters such as floods or river erosion and others still are fleeing from threats of violence against their family members.
Kalyanpur Pora Bostee is a settlement of about 20,000 people in Mirpur and is one of the larger slums in Dhaka. The land is owned by the Housing and Building Research Institute (HBRI), a government body. Plans for the site have been developed by HBRI which include a facility for researching new materials and techniques to replace brick construction.
Brick kilns are the worst air polluters in Dhaka, so, the research would likely lead to improvements in air quality and would also speed up building works in Dhaka. But of course, to achieve this, the very poor people of the bostee would need to be evicted.
The people of Kalyanpur Pora Bostee are hard-working, friendly and honourable. They simply want to create a good future for their children, but they face many barriers in that hope. One third of residents came to the bostee due to river erosion in their home village, most from Bhola.
The most common household is two parents plus two children in a single room of just nine square metres, constructed of a bamboo frame and corrugated steel cladding. Houses are uninsulated, have no windows and are therefore stifling hot. The people are very poor with a median daily income of Tk350-400.
They face many difficulties including cooking on smoky fires that damage their health and paying excessive rents and high electricity prices – both higher per unit than for middle-class Dhaka residents. They also face violence at the hands of the mastaans, difficulty in accessing schools and health care, employment injustices, and perhaps worst of all, the indignity of being a bostee dweller.
Several NGOs have entered to help the people, but the people allege that the mastaans intervene, directing benefits to their masters. This blocks aid from reaching those most in need. I met a 50-year-old man suffering an illness who is destitute with no job. He has endured beatings by the mastaans for his inability to maintain his rent. Another woman after describing her life including treatment at the hands of the gangs exclaimed, "We are totally fed up with so much torture!"
Life is hard in Kalyanpur Pora Bostee. I asked many people in the slum about their greatest fears. Rather than any of the great difficulties just mentioned, the overwhelming response was that they dread eviction. They fear being made homeless and they do not want to lose their long-standing community. Many attempts have been made to remove the people from this settlement over the last 30 years.
This has been undertaken with threats of violence by mastaans, with devastating arson and with ruthless demolition of houses. These events have been reported previously in the press. Brutal eviction attempts have been traumatic for the people and very sadly have sometimes resulted in deaths of bostee residents.
This is shameful. The understandable position is that the people want some form of legal tenure of the land or rehabilitation, and they are willing to pay for it in instalments.
So, what is a fair resolution of this situation? A situation that applies to many fellow Dhaka residents. Recent High Court action was successful in stopping eviction of people in the bostee until alternative accommodation can be provided.
Meanwhile, the landowner is handicapped in its admirable plans for the site, and the bostee residents justifiably feel serious threat. The situation is further complicated by powerful individuals who profit through the bostee remaining in place, and whom resist any change. A difficult situation indeed.
The people of the bostee remember that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, over 10 years ago, when she was the opposition leader, promised to resolve this situation when in power. This would involve rehabilitation or allocation of land tenure to the residents. Many people across the bostee speak on this fact.
The people of Kallyanpur Pora Bostee look affectionately to the Prime Minister to make good on those words. Many people have the Prime Minister's picture inside their houses and one resident stated about the Honourable Sheikh Hasina – "I love her". There is a genuine belief amongst the people that the Awami League will come to help them soon.
It would be worthwhile surely for the government to convene a meeting of stakeholders to discuss what would be a positive outcome for all parties. That solution might be a subsidised low-cost housing development to accommodate the bostee residents that uses the new materials that the research institute wants to test.
Perhaps the local MP might stand tall and champion such a project for his constituents. The present set of circumstances seems to be unfair for both the landowner and the occupants. Improving the situation is surely within the expertise, capability and resources of this pro-poor government.
The government's Seventh Five Year plan states that "growth will be inclusive, pro-poor, and environmentally sustainable". The Kallyanpur Pora Bostee presents a wonderful opportunity to showcase that objective.
Dr Mark Jones is an Australian architect. He completed his PhD at University College London. His study examined energy use in Dhaka's slums with Kallyanour Pora Bostee as his case study.