The urban poor of Bangladesh and their basic needs

by A.K.M. Enayet Kabir

The urban poor may be defined very simply, as those who live in urban areas and are unable to meet their basic needs with their own incomes. The urban poor of our country are not economically marginal but exploited, not socially marginal but rejected, not culturally marginal but stigmatised, and not politically marginal but manipulated and repressed. Paradoxically, they are the people who keep cities running : as rubbish collectors, rickshaw-pullers or domestic servants. They are the mainstay of our economy -- the ready-made garments (RMGs) and other labour-intensive industries which earn valuable foreign exchange for the country which are run solely on their labour. In short, the poor contribute to every aspect of our city life and play a vital role in the national economy. Despite the fact that the slums provide labour and services (essential for the functioning of city life), there are few attempts at reaching the benefits of development to the urban poor. As such the living conditions of the urban poor breed disease, tension, violence and other social problems. The urban poor are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, deprivation and social ostracism. Unfortunately, the society blames the urban poor for most of the petty crimes and other anti-social activities, which occur in the city including prostitution, black-marketing, smuggling, pickpocketing etc.Shelter is one visible area where the minimum basic need still remains unfulfilled for the urban poor. From 2156 slums within Dhaka metropolitan area in 1991, the number reached 2679 in 1996. The estimated slum population was 720,000 on 789 acres at a density of 225,000 persons per sq. km. Now slum population has increased to more than 1.1 million. The poor have very limited access to credit from the formal sector. The urban poor work mostly in the informal sector. They have a high level of participation in labour force, yet their incomes are low and often irregular. Their security is precarious, with threats of eviction from both landowners and statutory authorities and violence from "mastans".The poor people are vulnerable to many hazards and they can't cope with the situation without any assistance from others. They often suffer from deprivation as they are not aware of the available services in society and in many instances, they don't have any access to minimum facilities which they should enjoy as members of our society. They are handicapped in getting access to economic, social and housing services. The current emphasis on national economic growth and export-led development will mean nothing if we can't provide a basic human need for the poor -- adequate housing. The United Nation's Declaration on Rights of the Child states: "The child shall have the right to adequate nutrition, housing, recreation and medical facilities".A protected life space is the most basic condition for the production of life and livelihood. This implies housing, and in the case of rural settlements, access to productive land. Landless labourers and un-housed households in cities are among the poorest, most dis-empowered segments of our population. The concept of life and livelihood in the household acknowledges the value of the household's moral economy, which is based on reciprocity and affection.Access to productive land and to housing, for instance, cannot usually be generated exclusively from within poor communities. Access to the use of land is regulated by the state, and housing aid and investments for poor people must come from the state. States do not act out of benevolence but because they are politically pressured to do so. The development of a politics of poor people's movements is essential. The object of such a politics is to call the attention of the state to the basic needs of the poor, and to pressure governments to act on behalf of these needs.Successful political and other collective actions are very empowering psychologically to those who participate in them. But state actions -- when state responds at all -- can be both empowering and dis-empowering. When solutions are imposed from above, they are disempowering to both poor people and their communities. Solutions are empowering when they work through democratic, participatory process in which the energy and inventiveness of communities are directly engaged. Solutions to problems of livelihood are most meaningful when they are tailored to community conditions and needs and involve the active collaboration of the organised community. States have found it convenient to rely on non-governmental organisations for meeting some of the needs of poor people, and much good has been done in this way. But the resources devoted to non-governmental efforts are woefully inadequate when faced with the massive needs of poor people The state alone has the resources - and the legislative powers - to address the problems of life and the livelihood of the dis-empowered on a scale that begins to be meaningful.So long, only marginal attention has been given to the poorest section of our community and very often government's own action has led to the eviction of the poor. The govt's involvement in housing had been generally limited to three categories of programmes: Rental housing for government Employees:t Government is a provider in urban areas.t Major beneficiaries are the higher-income employees.t Supply is very insignificant in comparison with the demandSite & Service Projects and Planned Neighbourhoods:t Government acts as provider of infrastructure, with private owner occupying as provider of shelters.t Major beneficiaries are the higher-income groups.t Not benefiting the poor.t Supply less than demand.Low-Cost Housing Schemes:* Government as provider. * Beneficiaries are low-middle and middle-income groups. * Cost effective, but still inaccessible to the poor.However, the Govt of Bangladesh National Housing Policy (NRP) 1993 recommended the role of government primarily as that of a facilitator , rather than as a provider of housing unit, and with encouragement to the private sector in housing, land development, and infrastructure provision. The important initiatives that highlighted for achievement in the ARP included the provision of night shelters, especially for those below the poverty line and for women.In the urban context, the issue of housing for the poor is most comprehensively addressed in the official National Housing policy 1993. The following clauses in the Policy are favourable to the poor:t Make Housing accessible to all strata of society ... the high priority target groups will be the disadvantaged, the destitute and the shelter-less poor (objectives).t Efforts would be made to enhance affordability of the disadvantaged and lower-income groups, through provision of credit for income generation and income enhancement, housing loans at specially low-interest (strategies).t Increase the supply of serviced land for housing for various income groups, particularly the poorest, and for essential public services. (Housing Policy Essential Elements).t Increased access of the poorer sections and vulnerable groups to affordable serviced land with secure land tenure in areas located near, or connected to the cheap transportation system to their workplaces.Policy recommendation has also been made specific to slums and squatter settlements. The policy also recognises the housing needs of the women in difficult circumstances and recommends hostels for working women. Several other articles and clauses in the policy also provide for positive roles and responsibilities of the government to facilitate housing for the poor (the spirit of our National Housing Policy 1993 is essentially positive to the interest of the urban poor). The real problem however, is in the willingness, commitment to and ability on the part of our government to carry out the policy.!Since squatter settlements crop up on government land, there have been 30 cases of forceful eviction in Dhaka between 1990-92, which effected an estimated 200, 000 people and destroyed US$2.5 million worth of properties. In August 1991 a UN sub-committee on the prevention of discrimination and protection of monitories termed forced eviction a gross violation of human tights. Governments were urged to undertake policy and legislative measures to stop forced evictions. UNCHR states that every woman, man and child has the right to secure a place to live in peace and with dignity.Forced eviction and homelessness intensify social conflict and inequality. It invariably affects the poorest socially, economically, environmentally and politically. The ultimate legal responsibility for preventing forced evictions rests with the government.The Constitution of Bangladesh states that it shall be fundamental responsibility of the state to attain thorough planned economic growth, a constant increase of productive forces and steady improvement in the material and cultural standard of living of the people, with a view to securing to its citizens the provision of basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, education, shelter and medical care. National Housing Policy of Bangladesh reiterates protection against forced eviction. Therefore, forced eviction of squatters without serving proper legal notice and without resettling them is a gross violation of the Constitution. (To be continued)

Contd. from yesterday's issue)The demolition of slums in Dhaka city around mid-Aug 99, like the eviction of sex-workers in Tanbazar, has evoked mixed reactions among our people. Was it a reward by the government to our hard-core poor for the new millennium? No humane urban sociologist will ever agree that slum clearing reduces crimes. The "bastees" are commonly viewed as the hideouts of the and-socials, muggers, extortionists and the drug syndicates - the symbol of urban maladies. Prevalence of crime depends on a host of other factors too. Eradication of slums is a false step - "like phoenix they will always evolve from the ashes"! Our conventional political patties can't survive without slums, which provide the bulk of the pickets, and the rally attendees! Unless we can take socio-economic steps to prevent the growth of our shanties, it is wiser for us to "co-exist with slum dwellers "!Housing: A Basic Human Right: The need for decent and affordable housing around the world is staggering. The root cause of all problems is rapid urbanisation. The poor live in substandard housing or have no house at all. Hardworking families are trapped in a daily struggle amidst horrible and often inhuman living conditions.Children's rights contained in many human rights instruments also acknowledge the importance of adequate housing as a prerequisite for healthy development of the child. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child states: "The child shall have the right to adequate nutrition, housing, recreation and medical facilities".Women's rights are also closely connected to the right to housing. United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) estimates that throughout the world over one billion people live in inadequate housing and over 100 million people live in conditions classified as homelessness. In addition, millions of people around the globe are made homeless by forced evictions, which adversely affect families and family life. The constant fear of eviction also negatively affects the emotional health of the poor family.UNCHS has been actively promoting the right to housing as a basic human right. This process began with the implementation of the Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements issued in 1976. It was followed by the proclamation of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless (1987), and the adoption of the Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000 by the United Nations General Assembly in 1988.The International Year of Shelter for the Homeless in 1987 facilitated the raising of public awareness about housing and related problems still prevalent throughout the world. The following year, the Global Strategy for Shelter (GSS) propelled housing issues forward and resulted in housing lights being placed more prominently than ever before on the human rights agenda of the United Nations.The right to adequate housing forms a cornerstone of the global strategy. "The right to adequate housing is universally recognised by the community of nations All nations, without exception, have some form of obligation in the shelter sector, as exemplified by their allocation of funds to the housing sector, and by their policies, programmes and projects All citizens of all States, poor as they may be, have a right to expect their Governments to be concerned about their shelter needs, and to accept a fundamental obligation to protect and improve houses and neighbourhoods, rather than damage or destroy them".International housing policy-makers, including UNCUS, believe that any attempt to improve housing conditions must rely largely on "self-help" initiatives or what is known as the "enabling approach", which forms the basis of the global strategy. In short, the enabling approach encourages national governments to establish the right legislative, institutional and financial framework that will enable the formal and private business sector, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), communities and individual households to contribute most effectively to shelter development.However, development is dependent on the physical and mental health of people. People who sleep on streets or who live in unhygienic and overcrowded homes cannot fully develop emotionally, intellectually, economically, culturally or as a family. In fact, inadequate and insecure shelter can lead to social and political instability, which eventually hampers economic development. The right to housing must, therefore, be seen as a public policy priority issue and adequate financial, physical, institutional and human resources must be allocated so as to never compromise this right.The fundamental policy change will need to be the adoption of an "enabling approach" whereby the full potential and resources of all the actors in the shelter production and improvement processes are mobilised; but the final decision on how to house themselves is left to the people concerned. A positive change in the attitude and psychology of the people takes place once their habitation condition improves. They gain self-respect, self-confidence and initiative which go a long way in improving the physical and economic health of the families in a better habitat. What the poor need is not charity but capital, not caseworkers but co-workers. And what the rich need is a wise, honourable and just way of divesting themselves of their over-abundance. When we join in partnership, our differences give way to factors that unite us and help us live harmoniously in the same urban situation.!The poor slum-dwellers are too weak to commit daring crimes. Actually, major crimes are committed by the young educated people of a particular locality. All these terrorists may seek refuge in the slums, but they are not slum-dwellers, and they are insignificant in numbers (our police reportedly can nab almost all of them). On being deprived of a livelihood in the villages, the hardcore poor come to the cities and live in slums. It is really inhuman to root out all these poor people just because a few powerful terrorists take shelter in these shanties.Last, but not the least, what do we mean by "anti-social" activities? In our dog-eat-dog society, who justifies sociability - a corrupt politician or a partisan intellectual? Our "dog-squad" policemen are very busy and efficient digging out bulk of phensidyl bottles in the slum area - they dare not enter the posh residential areas, where actual anti-social activities go at random. Frankly, the combined assets (if any) of these poor 70, 000 evicted slum dwellers is a peanut compared to the illegally accrued assets of any one of the tycoons in our corrupted and misguided society! What about the land-grabbers? Some of these VIPs possessing more than a few hundred acres of land (From Leo Tolstoy's point of view, how much land we must sensibly allow an individual to possess - should not there be any transparent government policy? Or, should we follow Charles Darwin's "Natural Selection" logic of "survival for the fittest"? If so, why remain in such a "society" - why not go back to the jungle by abrogating the Social Contract Theory of Thamas Hobbes!)Although the process of land reform started since our independence in 1971, the evil of landlordism has remained almost the same. Although during the reign of General Ershad, a few acres of land were distributed among the landless people, which are known as "Cluster Villages", it was simply a political stunt! There is a genuine need for making transparent laws, to the effect that the "landlords" can't further exploit our poor people. If the government offices declare any land as "khas", they must do so after proper investigation - otherwise, the ever-increasing landless population will worsen the condition of rural poverty, the rate of rural-to-urban migration, social crimes and corruption in our society. Now that we have stepped into a democratic era, it is incumbent upon our government officials to bring the awful condition of the landless to the notice of the relevant authorities, just as the NGOs are striving for so long. So that steps may be taken to redress the painful situation. The grants of Khas land to our landless will definitely infuse in the poor a sense of honour and dignity and above all, will help them live like humans. This will go a long way towards ending economic injustice and ensuring social stability and tranquillity.

Source : The Daily Independent, Dhaka, June 17, 2000
Home Page

Previous Page