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Migrant’s Journey from Rural Bangladesh Shows Sacrifices and Dangers of Slum Life

A 2014 census found that nearly 60 percent of slums in the north and south of Dhaka are built on private land

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FILE - A view of Korail slum, one of Bangladesh's largest slums in Gulshan area, Dhaka, Bangladesh. VOA

Dhaka, November 16, 2016: For much of his early life on Bhola, an island in south-central Bangladesh, Mohammed Abul Kalam battled poverty and a hostile river that twice engulfed his homestead.

Now, as a resident of a “bastee,” or private slum on the western edge of the capital, Dhaka, he faces new challenges: the trade-offs he has made on the family’s health, education and security in exchange for being near a source of work.

“I came here because I found no other way,” Kalam said, sitting on the floor of his tin shack.

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The story of how he swapped rural farming for survival in one of Dhaka’s burgeoning slums on privately-owned land reflects the precarious situation of up to half a million Bangladeshis estimated to migrate to the capital each year.

Kalam’s journey began when the Meghna River wiped out his home for the second time, sending the family deep into debt after he borrowed $765 from moneylenders to build a new house.

His neighbors told him, “Go to Dhaka”, suggesting that in order to pay to marry off two teenage daughters, he would have to leave his home in Madras, on Bhola, home to more than two million people, a third of whom live below the poverty line.

With empty pockets, he and his family set off on the 18-hour trip by river to the capital, where he was taken on by a garment washing factory to carry clothes in a role that was a far cry from his old life paddy farming in his village.

Earning just $76 a month, Kalam struggled to make ends meet and, four months into the job, he left to take up other work demolishing buildings with a hammer and a shovel, he said.

This paid a little over $6 a day but the work was irregular and eventually he had no alternative but to find work for his two eldest daughters with a garment producer in Mirpur district.

There, his teenage daughters cut sewing threads and checked clothes for alterations for $51 a month – less than the industry minimum wage of $68.

Rural exodus

Kalam and his family are not alone. According to the World Bank, each year up to half a million rural migrants stream into Dhaka for work, swelling the ranks of the urban poor.

Experts say more than three-quarters of new arrivals end up living in a bastee – owned by private landlords who provide some services – as squatter settlements on public land have disappeared amid demolitions and evictions by authorities.

Since Bangladesh declared independence in 1971, the city’s population has quadrupled to around 20 million. By 2050, it is projected to reach more than 35 million.

Three years on, life for Kalam and his family is far from comfortable. He and his wife sleep on the concrete floor of their one-room shack to leave space for four children who share a bed. The family shares a toilet with 10 households and risk fire by cooking with an electric stove as they have no gas.

Even a brief burst of rain sends water into the bastee, which is spread out over five acres of low-lying land.

“[My] sorrows have a beginning but no end. I have lost everything, but the greatest loss is my daughters’ education,” said Kalam, reflecting on his life in the city.

Private slums

The family rents their room for $32 a month and the landlord takes care of some services, including electricity and water – important in a city where slum-dwellers on public land often have to pay “mastaans”, powerful local figures, for utilities.

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Experts say the failure to re-house inhabitants evicted from homes in public settlements that have been demolished partly accounts for the boom in privately-owned slums.

“Slums are being cleared, but slum dwellers stay behind – they are not leaving Dhaka,” Khondker Rebaca Sun-Yat, executive director at advocacy group the Coalition for the Urban Poor (CUP), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A 2014 census found that nearly 60 percent of slums in the north and south of Dhaka are built on private land, but urban experts and rights groups estimate the figure at 80-90 percent.

Sun-Yat blamed centralized development that focuses services and industries in urban areas for the rise in private slums.

“Cities have sources of income. You build infrastructure in cities; how can you expect rural people not to come to cities?” she said. “If rural areas had income sources and mills and factories, people wouldn’t have come to Dhaka,” she said.

Nevertheless, she warned that cities would “become paralyzed” if slum-dwellers returned to their place of origin.

The development of Dhaka reflects a wider rise in the numbers of urban poor and what economists call the “non-monetary” conditions of poverty, such as overcrowding, vulnerability, poor security and poor sanitation, experts say.

In comparison to rural poverty, urban poverty is surging.

The number of urban poor in Bangladesh rose to 8 million from 6 million between 1991 and 2010, the latest period for which data is available. In contrast, the number of rural poor went down in the same period, to 46 million from 55 million.

Nine in 10 slum-dwellers in Dhaka were born outside the capital, while one-fifth are poor, according to initial results of a 2016 urban slum survey conducted by the World Bank.

Tenure in privately-owned slums is no more secure than in public squatter settlements, according to Salma A. Shafi, treasurer of the Centre for Urban Studies, a think tank in Dhaka.

“The tenants (in private slums) have no security as rents are raised according to the owner-developers’ whims,” she said.

“Without any contractual agreement or legal support, tenants have no power.”

‘Sub-human conditions’

Mosharraf Hossain, Minister of Housing and Public Works, is among those who believe migration to urban areas of Bangladesh is now “unnecessary” as wages have risen in rural areas.

He said the city was not in a position to absorb more rural migrants given the poor state of its sewerage network, which covers just two-fifths of the city’s population.

“It’s better not to have slums,” Hossain told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at his ministerial office in central Dhaka. “Slum people are living in sub-human conditions, near the rail lines. This is unnecessary.”

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The government was piloting a low-cost housing project in Mirpur, which would be scaled up if successful, he said.

Kalam said he was prepared to move to another private slum nearby – even for more rent – if he had to, but he did not want to leave Mirpur, where he and his daughters earn their living.

“I never expected my daughters to support me,” he said. “Instead, I dreamed they would continue their education.” (VOA)

Next Story

Bangladesh Turns to Fill Ever-Growing Gap Between Energy Consumption and Supply by FDI

With 95% of the population now having access to electricity, Bangladesh is focusing on increasing its use of renewable energy as climate and other environmental concerns are growing across the globe

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A Bangladeshi man works on the tangled electric cables hanging above a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 12, 2017. VOA

Bangladesh has long struggled with power outages, with the nation experiencing its worst electricity crises in 2008 and 2009. Reports said one blackout, in 2014, affected as many as 100 million people — more than 60% of the population.

With a growing economy and a large population, the country always runs the risk of hampering its development process, which could cause instability. To counteract this, Bangladesh has turned to courting foreign direct investment to fill its ever-growing gap between energy consumption and supply. Companies from Britain, China, India and the United States have invested in the energy industry in Bangladesh.

With 95% of the population now having access to electricity, Bangladesh is focusing on increasing its use of renewable energy as climate and other environmental concerns are growing across the globe.

In an exclusive interview with VOA, Dr. Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, energy adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, talks about how a developing country like Bangladesh is taking initiatives to bring power to the entire population by 2021 that will include an increase in green energy alternatives.

energy industry, bangladesh
Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali, left, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi before a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing Friday, June 29, 2018. VOA

VOA: In your address during during Bangladesh Energy and Power Summit 2018, you said investment and development of innovative technologies are the two major issues that need to be given more priority to meet the power generation targets. What steps have you taken so far to achieve this?

Chowdhury: Since 2009, we have mobilized $20 billion of investment in the power sector projects, which has been approved and are being implemented. Half of this $20 billion investment will come from the private sector. We are encouraging foreign private investors to come and invest in the power sector.

Moving away from a policy of relying on domestic investment or investments from multilateral agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, our government went out to the market and involved the private sector, in particular the foreign companies who have made bids for various power projects, to raise funds on their own.

In terms of development of innovative technologies, we have established the Bangladesh Energy and Power Research Council to develop technological solutions, which are environmentally friendly. The council also aims to promote research and innovation in sustainable renewable energy.

VOA: As of 2018, Bangladesh had a capacity of generating power of 18,000 megawatts and your goal is to generate 60,000 megawatts by 2041. But how much of this 60,000 would be renewable energy?

Chowdhury: I would say 10% is a good target. We are building a nuclear power plant with 1,200 megawatts of electricity generation capacity that can be upgraded to generating up to 2,400 megawatts.

energy industry, bangladesh
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses the India Ideas Summit in Washington, D.C., June 12, 2019. VOA

We are also exploring possibilities of using wind energy turbines in five or six areas of the country, and invited proposals from interested companies.

We have the largest [coverage of] solar home systems in the world, [amounting to] over 6 million homes. Multiply this [by] five [members] in each home, and you have 30 million people who have access to renewable energy via solar home systems.

These are stand-alone solar home systems, small solar panels for individual households, not connected to a national grid. So they have their limitations, and I think we have reached as far as we can go through this route.

We are exploring the possibilities of connecting our national grid to national grids of other South Asian countries like India, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. … Nepal and Bhutan have great potential in developing hydropower projects that would produce renewable energy in enormous quantity that can be imported to Bangladesh by connecting our national grids with the national grids of India, Nepal and Bhutan.

VOA: In an interview with Voice of America, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. M.A. Momen said that in his recent meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mr. [Mike] Pompeo, the U.S. investment or the U.S.-Bangladesh partnership in exploration [of hydrocarbon reserves in offshore blocks] did come up, so where are we on that?

Chowdhury: U.S. companies have shown interest in investing in new explorations. Mobil came to us and showed their interest in both upstream and downstream hydrocarbon industry. We will invite them to come and discuss with us the possibility of exploration of deep sea [hydrocarbon reserves].

VOA: Are there any other areas in the energy sector where U.S. investment or U.S.-Bangladesh partnership is possible?

energy industry, bangladesh
FILE – The logo of General Electric is pictured at the 26th World Gas Conference in Paris, France, June 2, 2015. VOA

Chowdhury: Recently, we have signed a memorandum of understanding with General Electric and its local partner to provide over 2,000 megawatts of electricity. And we have signed a contract with Summit Power and GE to build a 583-megawatt power plant. So the U.S. companies are showing a lot of interest. We are hoping that they will bring state-of-the-art technology.

Chowdhury: U.S. companies have shown interest in investing in new explorations. Mobil came to us and showed their interest in both upstream and downstream hydrocarbon industry. We will invite them to come and discuss with us the possibility of exploration of deep sea [hydrocarbon reserves].

ALSO READ: Trump Administration Commits to Make Fossil Fuels Cleaner, Says Energy Secretary

VOA: Are there any other areas in the energy sector where U.S. investment or U.S.-Bangladesh partnership is possible?

Chowdhury: Recently, we have signed a memorandum of understanding with General Electric and its local partner to provide over 2,000 megawatts of electricity. And we have signed a contract with Summit Power and GE to build a 583-megawatt power plant. So the U.S. companies are showing a lot of interest. We are hoping that they will bring state-of-the-art technology. (VOA)