Boys play games in a laneway of Mandartola, a new community on the outskirts of Gopalganj, Bangladesh. All of the residents were re-settled from a slum that was demolished by local authorities six years ago to make way for a sports complex. Syed Borhan Uddin

The new settlement offers a model of housing security for the urban poor.

GOPALGANJ, Bangladesh—The new white houses with blue tin roofs on the outskirts of Gopalganj are nothing fancy. But for the people who recently moved in—laborers, rickshaw drivers, and others scratching out a living—these homes represent a form of security they have never known.

For one thing, the concrete houses are built high enough to stand above flood waters and strong enough to resist high winds—important in a low-lying city prone to tropical cyclones and heavy monsoon rains. But even more important, the residents have a right to live on the land for 99 years, something practically unheard of for the urban poor in Bangladesh.

For residents such as Asma, it was a long and difficult path to get here. A 42-year-old mother of three, Asma became homeless in 2009 when local authorities demolished her neighborhood to make way for a sports facility. Without any formal land tenure, Asma and nearly 2,000 other residents of a slum known as South Molavi Para were evicted in a single day, without notice.

In her new neighborhood, a repeat of that indignity is unlikely. In a ceremony last month, Mayor Mohammad Rezaul Sikder (“Raju”) handed over registered deeds to 100 residents, all of them veterans of the forced eviction. For Asma, who runs a small tea shop with her husband opposite the sports complex where her old house stood, that deed gives her land rights she never had in the old neighborhood.

What’s happened in Gopalganj is far from perfect—it took six long years for Asma and her neighbors to find resolution. Meanwhile, many of the people from South Molavi Para who lost their homes and their possessions remain in limbo. But for a country that offers its urban poor few legal protections, the new development in Gopalganj represents a positive step.

“We own the land, a house,” Asma says. “I can’t make you understand how valuable that is for us.”

Sudden demolition

Gopalganj is a city of 100,000 in the southwest of Bangladesh. Once famous for its production of jute, a fiber used in rope, burlap and some textiles, the region has not industrialized quickly. That’s largely because there are no easy ways to get across the Padma River from the capital city of Dhaka, just 150 kilometers (90 miles) away.

Like most urban areas in Bangladesh, Gopalganj is ringed with unplanned informal settlements. These have been growing in number and size as rural migrants flock to cities. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics recently put the nation’s total number of slum dwellers at 2.2 million, up 60 percent since 1997. (Bangladesh is home to about 160 million people, more than 40 million of whom live in urban areas.) According to a paper by Salma A. Shafi for the 2011 Bangladesh Urban Forum, nearly 90 percent of urban slum dwellers are living as tenants on private land, many without any written agreements.

The new houses of the Mandartola neighborhood are elevated above expected flood levels and are rated to withstand strong winds. (Syed Borhan Uddin)

South Molavi Para was a fairly typical slum, with tiny shacks and narrow laneways built on land accreted by the Madhumati River. Some people had lived there for as long as 35 years, but without any formal claim to the land.

Asma arrived in 1999. Observing that police personnel and others had paid to live there, she bought her sliver of land from a mastaan—a figure who controls the informal urban land market through muscle power or political connections, often with impunity—for about $3,000. Another resident I spoke with, 65-year-old Abdur Razzak, said he had paid the same man for a plot, believing the land to be privately owned. In return, Razzak received a stamped piece of paper—but not a registered deed.

It turned out all of the land under the slum wasn’t privately owned. It was government land, known here as khas land, and district authorities had designs on it. They wanted to build a pet project of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina: a modern stadium for cricket, football and other sports, as well as an indoor pool, recreation complex, public park, lake upgrades, and two arched bridges. Gopalganj is the prime minister’s political stronghold; the stadium would be named after her younger brother, who was slain in a military coup in 1975.

Asma, 42, is re-settled at Mandartola six years after local authorities demolished her neighborhood.  (Mohammad Alimuzzaman)

On October 21, 2009, South Molavi Para residents were told by loudspeaker that their homes would be demolished and cleared the next day. Within hours, they were homeless and scrambling for shelter. Saleha Begum, a mother of four who was born and raised in South Molavi Para, remembers how scared her son was at the onslaught. The boy, then eight, climbed a mango tree, where he watched the bulldozers arrive along with demolition teams wearing red ribbons on their heads.

Begum’s family joined more than 50 others who accepted the invitation of a retired military officer to build temporary dwellings on his land. Begum’s family lived there under the open sky for two months before scraping together a small shelter. She kept her kids tied to her body to guard against child theft. With no place to keep her seven cows, she was forced to sell them off quickly at a low price.

Some residents of South Molavi Para left Gopalganj, returning to villages where they had grown up. Others moved to new slums with all the same insecurities of their old home. Asma’s family had the means to rent a one-room cottage in the city for $10 a month, and they lived there for six years. However, her son Sumon remained haunted by the trauma of seeing his home raked away, a medical condition that ultimately forced him to leave school.

“Anarchy prevails”

South Molavi Para is not an isolated case. It’s part of a larger problem in urban Bangladesh, where slum dwellers are often tossed from their homes, even contrary to government policy. For example, the National Housing Policy of 1993 had recognized shelter as a basic need and discouraged forcible evictions of slum dwellers. High Court rulings in 1999 and 2000 said “rehabilitation has to be ensured before any eviction.” Bangladesh also has signed international resolutions that seek to protect the rights of slum dwellers.

However, almost none of these safeguards have been enforced. From 1996 to 2004, about 300,000 people were displaced in 115 forced evictions from the cities of Dhaka, Chittagong and Dinajpur, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Between 2006 and 2008, at least 60,000 people were dislodged by eviction in Dhaka alone.

In recent years, the pace of evictions has slowed somewhat. The government has stepped up efforts to upgrade informal settlements with water supplies and public toilets. This is partly because the residents have had more success defending themselves in the courts. “Slum people are more united now than before,” says Khondker Rebaka Sun-Yat, executive director of Coalition for the Urban Poor, a rights group based in Dhaka. “They get stay orders” against eviction.

The new houses at Mandartola are small and don’t yet have electricity or water, but residents have registered deeds. (Syed Borhan Uddin)

Still, formal systems of land tenure for the urban poor have not caught up to protections that exist in rural areas. A 1950 law secured the tenant rights of agrarian people to lands. But when that law was enacted, only 4 percent of the population lived in urban areas, compared with close to 30 percent today. As the late Patrick McAuslan, a British land-reform expert, once put it: “There is no specific urban land law which addresses the urban equivalent of the rural poor.”

The result, according to Shafi, is that “anarchy prevails in the overall management of urban land.” In her paper, Shafi describes a complex set of urban tenure systems in Bangladesh. Middle- and high-income people are able to access a formal system, which includes a substantial housing program for government employees. Meanwhile, everyone else is left to contend with various informal systems teeming with corrupt public officials, powerful developers and mastaan who fake documents to sell land they don’t own.

“Many slum dwellers are living with the feeling of constant uncertainty,” Shafi writes. “They are always under some form of fear that they will be evicted sooner or later by various agents involved in the land market.”

Shafi calls the need for secure tenure “a precondition for poverty alleviation and sustainable urbanization.” Once residents perceive that they have a right to stay where they are living, a virtuous cycle can occur. “As time passes and the settlement grows and achieves a de facto legitimacy, people become more confident to their right to stay,” Shafi suggests. “They will improve their house. Slowly their habitat will improve.”

A fight for rights

The evicted residents of South Molavi Para had a powerful ally. A major international initiative known as Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction (UPPR) had been active in the neighborhood. The project, which ended in August, was a collaboration between UNDP and the governments of Bangladesh and the United Kingdom. Not only had the project organized residents of South Molavi Para into a community group, but it also had invested more than $210,000 into footpaths, drainage, and other upgrades in the suddenly demolished slum.

The UNDP took the eviction as an affront. A couple of weeks later, it issued a strongly worded statement questioning the legal basis for the action. “What type of development is taking place in Gopalganj that requires displacing 350 households? This was the question people were asking then,” recalls Kazi Liaquat Ali, who managed the UPPR project in Gopalganj. “It was a huge shock. People got traumatized and scattered.”

Slum clearance in Gopalganj made way for a sports stadium, recreation center and bridges. (Syed Borhan Uddin)

But neither the people who lost their properties nor the UNDP ground staffers sat idle. One of the initial tasks was to locate community members who had already dispersed to more than 50 places. Keeping that community together was crucial to organizing street protests and staging a sit-in in front of the local Deputy Commissioner’s office. The residents wrote a memo to the prime minister seeking a new land allocation; she later agreed that resettlement was necessary.

At the same time, UNDP staffers negotiated with local officials to find suitable public land within the municipality where the residents could re-locate. Ironically, the same official who ordered the eviction was the key person in charge of finding government-owned khas land to offer for resettlement.

They settled on a four-acre (1.7-hectare) plot circled by paddy fields and close to a major highway. UNDP brokered a 99-year lease to the land for the nominal fee of $12.86, with the condition that the land be used for resettling the former residents of South Molavi Para. This much was settled by June 2010, about eight months after the evictions had occurred—very fast, given the bureaucracy that can slow even routine projects here.

The municipality’s development of the resettlement community was another matter. That’s taken several years and has run into numerous setbacks and delays. Much of the low-lying land needed to be filled in with sand in order to raise the new homes above anticipated flood levels. An environmental authority initially raised objections to filling in wetlands, but later backed down.

The UPPR also secured financing from a number of sources, but cash crunches and logistical challenges caused long construction delays. The houses were also built without utilities, although the municipality has pledged to provide water, and officials have promised to lobby the electricity company for power connections.

Residents at the new community, known as Mandartola, will pay about $3,500 for their homes. They’ll make payments over 20 years at an interest rate of 12 percent, which is low compared with other forms of borrowing available to the poor here. The first people began moving in about a year ago. When I visited the community in September, residents generally seemed pleased with their new homes. But they were getting anxious about something: The municipality still had not given them the deeds that would legally prove their property ownership.

In the end, that delay proved to be largely a matter of politics, particularly around deciding which politician would get to officially open the project in October. (The local member of parliament, Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim, got the honor.) In a telephone interview after the ceremony, Mayor Raju said, “I can’t express how happy I am in handing out the deeds.” Runu Begum, chairman of the Community Housing Development Fund, one of the partners in the project, told me: “People are delighted. It is the fruit of years of our hard work.”

Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim, the local member of Parliament, spoke at an October ceremony in which Mandartola residents received deeds to their new homes. (Gopalganj municipality)

The project organizers have touted the Gopalganj model as an example that could show a new path forward on creating affordable housing in Bangladesh and possibly other countries such as India or Nepal as well. “In every city, there are khas lands,” says Azahar Ali, who coordinated UPPR nationwide. “So replication shouldn’t be a problem elsewhere in the country.”

But Sadhan Kumar Nandi, who manages the Property Rights Initiative at BRAC, a Dhaka-based NGO, is less optimistic. Nandi says urban land is now expensive enough that it’s not realistic to expect the government to allocate much khas land to the urban poor.

What’s more, even with registered deeds in hand, the residents of Mandartola won’t be immune to all the corruption, legal loopholes and poor record-keeping that plagues land management in Bangladesh. In a scathing report issued a few months ago, Transparency International called land administration “one of the most corrupt sectors” in Bangladesh, a problem that there is “an apparent lack of political will to solve.”

Still, Nandi is pleased to see the positive outcome for the new residents of Mandartola. “I’m surprised,” he says. “They are lucky.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.

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