Demolishing the Korail Slum

June 20th, 201212:03 pm @


Dhaka is home to over three million slum-dwellers, amounting to nearly 25% of its population. Up to 400,000 new migrants move to the capital city each year. Many of these migrants are farmers who, in seeking better economic opportunities, take up work as domestic help, garment workers or rickshaw drivers. Dhaka’s annual wave of rural-to-urban migration has predictably strained existing infrastructure and resources, thereby forcing migrants to reside in informal settlements or slum communities on government land. They live with illegal status and limited access to electricity, potable water or sanitation services. Safety is also a major concern.

The Korail slum in Dhaka sits on over 170 acres of government land owned by the state-owned Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited, the Public Works Department and the Ministry of Information and Communication. It is the largest slum in the capital city and shares its borders with two wealthy neighborhoods, Banani and Gulshan. Over 40,000 people reside in Korail, and they all face eviction due to a January 2012 High Court order to clear that land. This latest call for demolition of Korail is reaction to renewed reports of the slum’s encroachment on government land and its impact on the nearby Korail Lake. “We have created a structure where there is no place but slums for low income people to live. They are the engine of the informal economy, and yet, the State likes to pretend that they don’t exist and this [eviction] is the result of that indifference,” says Asif Saleh, Director of Communication at BRAC.

Just a few months after the order was issued, in April 2012, the Dhaka district administration began to demolish almost 2,000 homes in Korail without advance notice, leaving 4,500 people homeless. The overwhelming fear for slum residents is that the government will similarly continue to clear Korail in the months ahead. “The way the whole process was carried out was very inhumane. We received an announcement on April 3rd, and the next day morning, the eviction began. We were given just one night to dismantle our homes, gather our belongings and relocate ourselves. Where will we go?” says one of the Korail evictees. At the moment, a separate court order has temporarily halted demolition.

The current move to demolish Korail is not the Dhaka district administration’s first attempt to eradicate the city’s slums. According to a joint initiative by the Government of Bangladesh and the Department for International Development, at least 60,000 people were displaced due to evictions in 27 of Dhaka’s slum communities between 2006 and 2008. In the wake of that mass eviction, Ain o Salish Kendra — a local organization offering legal aid to slum-dwellers — petitioned the High Court to pass an order ensuring “the rehabilitation of the Korail slum dwellers before any eviction drive.” The High Court passed an order to this effect. But in what seems like a case of gross government negligence, officials involved in current eviction efforts seem clueless about this earlier order: “I have no knowledge about any previous directive,” says Dhaka magistrate Selim Hossain, who oversaw the April 2012 slum eviction.

The government has proceeded with its eviction efforts with little regard for where displaced slum-dwellers will go and what they will do. In 2007, the World Bank reported on Dhaka’s urbanization and noted “eviction of squatters from public land has been a continuing practice of government policy.” The lives and livelihoods of these slum-dwellers have been disrupted or threaten to be disrupted in ways that have long-lasting effects on, for example, the income-earning opportunities of adults and the education of children.

“There is a legal precedence where courts have held that if you uproot very poor people, you not only destroy their livelihoods, but also endanger their lives, since their means of finding alternative housing is extremely limited,” explains Supreme Court lawyer, Sharif Bhuiyan. “People must be consulted, provided with alternative settlement before eviction, and the community must be told exactly what the land they live on will be used for.” Once the government clears Dhaka’s slum areas, it would be able to sell the newly available land to real estate developers at a profit. A study by the Centre for Urban Studies has unveiled the Public Works Department’s plans to develop apartments for 40,000 officials and media personnel on 43 acres of the land Korail sits on. There does not seem to be any assistance or rehabilitation plans for current Korail slum-dwellers.

Slum eviction is undeniably a politically charged issue. On the one hand, it cannot be ignored that it is the poor that build slum communities in the absence of affordable housing. On the other hand, however, because slum communities do not have legal status, officials can cite the law as a reason why such communities should be dismantled. And since, more often than not, slum-dwellers are not acknowledged as legitimate urban citizens, what can they do to challenge the legal system? The threat of eviction is a constant concern for slum-dwellers, but in the case of Korail’s residents, it is more immediate and urgent. If the government does not recognize its responsibility for the urban poor, the drivers of the so-called informal economy, it will further exacerbate the cycle of hardship and poverty that these displaced peoples may face.

Dhaka is not the only example of present day slum eviction efforts. In Mumbai, for example, the Ambujawadi slum-dwellers received notification of eviction in May 2012. This is the fourth eviction notice that slum-dwellers have received since 2005 when the Ambujawadi slum was completely demolished for the first time. The eviction has been postponed after mass protest by slum-dwellers, but it is only a matter of time before another notice is delivered. In countries like Kenya and the Philippines, slum-dwellers and activists have recently been fighting the government on slum eviction with very little success since these people do not own land rights and, therefore, do not have recognizable claims to the land on which they live.

Despite the threat of eviction, Korail residents have not left the slum. To rent a new place, even the simplest of accommodations in other inexpensive neighborhoods, would be prohibitively expensive: the average monthly rent is roughly 4,000 Bangladeshi taka, equivalent to US$50, which is double what slum-dwellers pay to live in Korail. And though the expansion of slum communities has long been on the radar of the government, it has done little to alleviate the situation.

Informal settlements and slum communities will proliferate despite government efforts to the contrary. As long as rural people see more opportunity for them and their families, they will migrate to cities, build makeshift communities and earn their living. If the government is serious about addressing the slum issue, it needs to tackle it from two fronts. One is to slow down rural-to-urban migration by finding ways to create opportunities closer to home for rural people. This is not a new suggestion, but it is one that becomes more obvious as cities in South Asia and in other parts of the world expand without being able to support their growth.

The second front is address the issue of current slum-dwellers with more sensitivity: these people are still productive members of society regardless of whether they have legal claim to where they currently live. The government in Dhaka has watched Korail, and the city’s other slums, swell in number over the years: if it wants to clear this land, it must work with slum-dwellers and other stakeholders to alleviate the stresses of the situation that could otherwise have catastrophic effects on the urban economy and on urban poverty.