New Internationalist

Housing the urban poor

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Jeremy Seabrook meets Mohammad Kamal Uddin, who has worked tirelessly for two decades to transform people’s lives in Bangladesh.

Photo by: Summerly Noon under a CC Licence
Photo by: Summerly Noon under a CC Licence

I first met Kamal Uddin 20 years ago. At that time, the NGO of which he is director, ARBAN (the Association for the Realization of Basic Needs), was working on a programme of literacy and numeracy for women in the poorest areas of Dhaka. We visited 25 or 30 slum settlements, mostly self-build bamboo and wood huts around polluted ponds or on low-lying marshy ground. This was government land, occupied by the poor, but controlled by powerful individuals who took a toll, or rent, from the people. Many were paying over half their monthly income to these unofficial landlords.

This was the beginning of a scheme in which garment-workers, maidservants, rickshaw drivers, construction workers, vendors and labourers would accompany ARBAN on a journey towards its most recent venture – the building of multi-storey apartments for the working poor. In the process, the lives of the people have been transformed: they acquired new skills, their livelihoods were enhanced by co-operative working, microcredit and social education, and their savings used to acquire land, on which the first block of flats has now reached its full six storeys in Mirpur in the north of Dhaka.

If this is an inspirational venture, it has been beset by every imaginable obstacle.

KAMAL: Poor people used to build bamboo pillars on stilts around ponds; sometimes the structures reached three or four storeys. But in the past decade, sands have been dredged from river beds to fill in ponds and low-lying water-bodies for the purpose of private construction. Canals and ponds belong to the government; but builders, in league with corrupt officials, have been raising 15 or 20-storey blocks. The ponds and swamps used to be recharged by monsoon rains, providing stability to the soils in the dry season. Abuses by developers have made Dhaka more vulnerable to flooding – any building may be inundated after an hour’s rain, including the Prime Minister’s office, the Secretariat and the British High Commission.

Abuses by developers have made Dhaka more vulnerable to flooding – any building may be inundated after an hour’s rain, including the Prime Minister’s office

A hundred years ago, Dhaka, criss-crossed by 60 canals and rivers, was known as the Venice of the East. It was a living city, with tides that cleansed the waste water. The rivers allowed country boats full of vegetables and fruits to come up to the markets in the heart of Dhaka. Every middle-class homestead had its own pond for drinking, bathing and washing. Now most of these have been buried. In their place are glittering buildings and glass skyscrapers – monuments to the dead waters of Dhaka.

Photo by:  Naquib Hossain under a CC Licence
Photo by: Naquib Hossain under a CC Licence

People who had come from rural areas created degraded villages around the ponds. Their lives were insecure, subject to rape, extortion, land-grabbing. In Bangladesh rich families whisper to their babies at birth: ‘Have land, get land, grab land by any means you can.’ About 80 per cent of land is held by less than 20 per cent of the people. The other 80 per cent live on what is left. The people of Dhaka are all provisional tenants – the driver is tenant of the car he drives for someone else; those who make garments do not wear them; those who cook the choicest dishes do not taste them; the maid on the veranda depends for her sleeping-mat on her employers.

The most obvious fact in Dhaka, and all cities of South Asia, is that the poor are being compressed: compelled to live on less and less land. The construction of skyscrapers, malls, garment factories, hospitals and universities (there are 54 private universities in Dhaka) creates the impression of a ‘world-class city’, and poor people ‘disappear’, swallowed up in windowless concrete rooms, on rooftops, cellars and remote tin sheds, out of sight. They are also removed further from their place of work, so that bus fares or exhausting journeys on foot add to an already lengthy working day. The two million garment workers of Dhaka are also the lowest-paid in the world.

KAMAL: In the late nineties, several thousand people began saving towards the purchase of a plot on which flats would be constructed to provide them with a safe shelter of their own. We bought a small piece of land in Mirpur. Over time, the dream became tarnished for many people who, tired of long years of waiting, dropped out of the scheme. Their money was returned to them. It has been 13 years since the project was started; and the first block of 45 flats is now almost complete. We have also acquired some land cheaply from the family of well-known Muslim mystic in Rampura; and there, we hope to build 250 flats.

'The biggest obstacle to the realization of the project has been our absence of corruption'

The site of the first building is cramped – it is only about a metre away from adjacent buildings; light and air are at a premium. Although brick and concrete debris still litter the staircases, each two-room apartment is taking shape, and the internal walls are complete. ARBAN plans to erect a shelter on the roof to provide accommodation for garment workers in nearby factories.

KAMAL: Work on construction was slow, since funds which had been promised did not materialize. The people have provided one-fourth of the cost, and ARBAN has invested an equal amount from its own profitable social businesses. The remaining half – about $200,000 – was promised to ARBAN in 2009 by UN Habitat, in an agreement signed in Nairobi. So far, however, not one cent has been received.*

Permission had to be sought from the Bureau of Non-Government Organizations. It could not be allowed, because it was a loan, not a grant. The request went to the External Resources Division of the Ministry of Finance. There were no rules for individuals or businesses to take loans from outside the country. No such transaction was possible.

The lives of the people have been transformed: they acquired new skills, their livelihoods were enhanced by co-operative working, microcredit and social education, and their savings used to acquire land

Mohammad Kamal Uddin had been at university with a Deputy Governor of the bank, and after some months, the loan was sanctioned under ‘special consideration’, and the required No-Objection certificate was obtained. But by that time, leadership of UN Habitat had changed. The new chief economist insisted the documentation should all be re-submitted, and questions were asked about ARBAN’s procurement plans.

KAMAL: We were not using middle-men. We were employing masons, bricklayers and carpenters from among our own beneficiaries. We supplied all the information they asked for. The delay in Bangladesh was because we had not factored into our costs bribes and kickbacks for those expected to facilitate the loan. Responsible persons convey to me the assumption that I’ll use 70 per cent of the money and give the rest to those whose job it is to expedite the transaction. Even the Housing Ministry, which has a relationship with Habitat, let it be known that 5-10 per cent would be acceptable.

Still Habitat has raised objections. They questioned the ability of our people to pay. They calculated it would require a monthly payment of 4,100 taka ($60) to ARBAN, and they said this is far beyond the ability of slum families. We have shown that they can pay it. The monthly income of our families is between 8,000 and 15,000 ($115-$215) a month. Habitat said studies show this is an inflated sum, above the average for Dhaka. That is quite true. Our people are a self-selecting group: they have undergone training, education; they have acquired a competence unavailable to most poor people in Dhaka. Eventually, Habitat accepted the affordability of the scheme, but then they raised the objection that the building was not insured. So we took out insurance, even though most buildings in Dhaka are not insured.

The biggest obstacle to the realization of the project has been our absence of corruption. By refusing to give bribes, we have been our own worst enemy.

There is something both noble and quixotic in the integrity of ARBAN. Kamal points out that he is not asking for aid or a grant: the money will be paid back by the people.

'Elites regard poor people as lesser human beings; ancient ghosts of caste and status still haunt this country'

KAMAL: If workers have independence and security, this will also provide economic benefits to the employers. They will have more energy for their labour if they do not have to stand in line to use the toilet or get water or take illegal electricity connections. The urban poor are workers. They are not beggars. They can pay. The Constitution says that government land should be given to the poor. The Deputy Commissioner’s Office is the source of greatest corruption, because it is there that false documents are made, rivers buried and sealed, land given to those who already own vast tracts of the city and country. The principal activity of the Deputy Commissioner’s office and the Land Ministry is to show that land does not belong to government. This is done by a stroke of the pen that can change the character of land – marsh becomes cropland, rivers become the ancestral possession of influential people. Government machinery is used to rob the poor and give to the rich, to enhance their already substantial fortunes.

The biggest land-grabbers have their boards all over the city, advertising new apartments: Eastern Housing Society, Basundhera Group, Jamuna Group. It is estimated that 5,000 acres of land have been alienated in this way. But in the whole of Dhaka, and the surrounding areas of Gazipur and Narayanganj, there must be 10,000 acres still nominally in government ownership. It is that land which should go to the poor, not at artificial prices dictated by political, bureaucratic and business collusion, but given, so that the four million people in the city who want decent shelter shall be provided for, among whom are most of the ill-housed garment workers: the government receives 75 per cent of its foreign exchange from the garments industry, but the people who actually earn it are still subject to a minimum wage of 1662 taka ($24), while the costs of rent and food have doubled in the past two years.

Dhaka, says Mohmmad Kamal Uddin, is an ‘occupied city’. You can see what he means. The monsoon sky sits heavily upon pastel-coloured apartments, malls of glass, private offices and institutions; while at street level, the inextricable tangle of cycle-rickshaws, the procession of young women that fill the city with colour in the early morning, before being absorbed into the factories, the construction workers whose washing dances in the concrete of the unfinished block, increasing density of a humanity confined into declining space; sad and menacing prospect in this, one of the most congested cities in the world.

KAMAL: The working poor will pay the market price to live vertically in secure buildings with basic amenities. All they want is a dignified life. If they are relieved of the anxiety of living, they will perform their economic tasks better. The truth is, élites regard poor people as lesser human beings; ancient ghosts of caste and status still haunt this country whose freedom has yet to reach the majority of its people.

*Editor's note: The money promised by UN Habitat in 2009 was abruptly cancelled in 2010, shortly after this interview took place.

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