A roof over their heads

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 27 January 2021 inaugurated the distribution of houses among 66,189 landless and homeless families under Ashrayan-2 Project, the world’s biggest ever scheme for providing shelter to homeless people, via video conference from her Ganabhaban residence - Photo PID

There is no internationally agreed definition of homelessness. Different governments and organisations use different definitions. In most countries, different terms are used for different types of situations. The term ‘literally homeless’ is often used to denote the people staying in shelters for the homeless, on the streets, or in other similar settings (e.g., in abandoned buildings, in make-shift structures, in parks). And within the group of people experiencing ‘literal homelessness’, it is common to distinguish between the ‘unsheltered homeless’ and the ‘sheltered homeless’. Unsheltered homelessness is also sometimes referred to as ‘rough sleeping’ or ‘rooflessness’.

A 1995 study in Bangladesh defined the homeless as people who sleep on streets, railway terminals and platforms, bus-stations, parks and open spaces, religious centres, construction sites, around graveyards, and in other public spaces “with no roof”. This population is sometimes referred to as ‘street-dwellers’. A government census in 1997 used the term ‘floating population’ to describe “the mobile and vagrant category of rootless people who have no permanent dwelling units” and may be found spending the night hours in the rail-stations, piers (launch ghat), bus–stations, closed bazaars, stairways of public buildings, and open spaces. The terms ‘street-dweller’ and ‘floating population’ are rarely used outside Asia.

According to a paper in the Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition, a 1997 census count of the homeless population was 14,999 in Dhaka, with an additional 17,082 in other metropolitan areas of Bangladesh. A study in 2001 by the Marie Stopes Clinic Society (MSCS) estimated the number of homeless to be between 1,000 and 4,000 in each of seven major locations in Dhaka. The survey found that many homeless were living on their own: 26% were unmarried females and 15% unmarried males. However, 36% were living as married couples and families with an average family size of 3.6. The proportions of people in different age/sex-groups on the basis of rough estimates by homeless in seven locations were as follows: children–14%, adolescents–11%, women–46%, and men–29%.

The definition of homeless referred to above reflects that many people live without permanent shelter in major towns and cities. The 1997 study by Islam et al. found that 47% of the homeless in Dhaka lived on footpaths, 23% in the city's transport-stations, and 12% in front of major market centres. People are found in the above locations in all seasons, although their numbers vary throughout the year. Concentrations of people increase following natural disasters, such as floods, cyclones, and famines. During religious festivals, many rural poor from nearby districts migrate to the city and live temporarily as homeless to take advantage of increased seasonal charitable donations. However, the main reason for migration into the city is economic as many migrate permanently from rural areas to seek employment. Islam et al. found that nearly a quarter of the homeless came to Dhaka after losing their land and assets due to erosion of river-bank.

It was in July 2016 that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stood in parliament and told the house that the number of families recorded as homeless in the country was around 280,000 till date. The premier gave the numbers in reply to a query during the question and answer session. She said that her government had been working to improve the living standards of homeless people through the eradication of poverty.

She further mentioned that the process of listing homeless people across the country was underway. Sheikh Hasina also hoped that her government would be able to provide homes for the 280,000 families within the next three years. Of them, 210,000 would be provided homes under the Ashrayan 2 Project, 50,000 under Cluster Village Project and the remaining 20,000 under a project undertaken by the Bangladesh Bank to rehabilitate homeless people, she added. The prime minister said the government has also undertaken a pilot project in eight upazilas in eight districts to rehabilitate all homeless people.

A promise kept

This week, the prime minister proved as good as her word as she inaugurated the handing over of homes under the Ashrayan-2 project that aims at eliminating homelessness in Bangladesh. Hasina virtually distributed pucca houses to some 66,189 landless and homeless families under the project as a ‘gift’ from her government in Mujib Borsho, marking the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Apart from the pucca houses, the poor families got ownership papers of two decimal land parcels from the PM, who launched the project virtually from her official residence Ganobhaban. All the houses have been constructed on Khas land, although in some cases there have been disputes with claimants taking the government to court.

Under the project being run directly out of the PMO, the government has constructed 66,189 houses at a total cost of Tk 11.68 billion (1,168 crore). Each unit has two rooms, a kitchen, a toilet and a veranda, constructed at a cost of Tk 1.75 lakh. Another 100,000 houses will be distributed among the poor next month.

Besides the Ashrayan project, the PMO will rehabilitate 3,715 homeless families in 743 barracks in 44 villages across 36 upazilas of 21 districts during the Mujib Borsho.

The PMO prepared a list of 885,622 families in 2020, of which 293,361 are landless and homeless, while 592,261 have just 1-10 decimal land parcels but no housing facility.

Previously, the Ashrayan project rehabilitated some 320,058 landless and homeless families between 1997 and December 2020. On the other hand, the Ashran-2 project (July 2010-June 2022) aims to rehabilitate 250,000 more landless, homeless and displaced families, at a cost Tk 48.4 billion (4,840.28 crore). It has so far rehabilitated 192,277 poor families across the country.

A total of 48,500 landless and homeless families have been rehabilitated in barracks while 143,777 having own land (1-10 decimals but unable to construct houses) in semi-barracks, corrugated iron-sheet barracks and specially designed houses.

The government is arranging accommodation for the homeless and also the landless families under Ashrayan-2 project. The government has enlisted 293,361 homeless and also landless families as well as 592,261 homeless families throughout the country.

Where there is poverty

Poverty and homelessness have an intertwined relationship; circumstances of poverty — such as debt, lack of education, poor mental and physical health and disability — are underlying causes of homelessness.

The homeless population in Bangladesh, especially women abandoned by their spouses and too poor to provide for themselves, are exposed to many instances of violence, drug abuse and sexual assault. A study conducted in 2009 found that 83% of homeless female respondents were assaulted by their husbands, male police officers and other men in their vicinity. A large proportion (69%) of the male respondents used locally-available drugs, such as heroin, and two-thirds of injecting drug-users shared needles.

Despite these harsh realities, regional homelessness in Bangladesh has improved and poverty rates have dropped over the years. According to the Bangladesh Poverty Assessment conducted by the World Bank Group, the country halved poverty rates since 2000. More than 25 million people were lifted from these conditions. Prior to the pandemic, the percentage of the population living below the poverty line was 21%, while a shade above 9% lived in extreme poverty.

Mostly the divisions outside Dhaka, namely Chittagong, Barisal and Sylhet, have witnessed most of this decline. They account for 90% of all poverty reduction that occurred from 2010 to 2016, according to the Borgen Project. Even despite the cyclones in Bangladesh that account for 70% of all storm surges in the world, ex-World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said that “Bangladesh has adapted to climate threats, putting in place early warning systems, cyclone shelters, evacuation plans, coastal embankments and reforestation schemes.” This is important because extreme weather events are great drivers of homelessness. The remoteness of these rural areas is the ideal grounds to invest in infrastructure and educate the populations there who live each day hand to mouth, wondering what may come tomorrow.

When it comes to the fight against homelessness, non-governmental organizations such as Habitat for Humanity have provided Bangladeshi people with affordable housing, clean water and safe sanitation, training in construction technology and even disaster mitigation. In Dhaka, Habitat Bangladesh started its first urban project with the revamping of three slums. With help from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the organization helped 9,000 people through housing construction and renovations; this included the construction of water pumps, drainage systems and walkways, as well as bathhouses and community toilets.

As urbanization takes place, projections point towards more than half of Bangladesh’s poor households living in urban areas by 2030. But this requires adequate housing and transforming more slums into decently habitable homes and communities. The government’s draft of a National Urban Policy aims for sustainable urbanization. The policy visualizes a decentralized urban development; a place where the central and local governments, private sector, civil society and people all have important roles to play. The seventh Five Year Plan proposed allocating resources to address urbanization through the Annual Development Programme, though a feasible urbanization policy is still in the works.

Even further, educating and empowering the populations migrating to and residing in the cities, expanding the female labour workforce, fighting poverty and consistently innovating will help this nation achieve its goal of becoming an upper-middle-income nation by 2021. It is important to continue investing in projects and policies that are helping fight homelessness in Bangladesh. Ashrayan-2 is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

What they never dreamt

A landless sexagenarian amputee dependent on one son -- a van-puller by trade -- as his 8-member family's lone breadwinner could hardly dream of living out his days in a home to call his own, that too built on a piece of land in his own name. But Hanif Matubbar, 65, is going to do just that after the government came forward to construct a modern home on a two-decimal land for him. The government will also hand over the ownership of the two-decimal land to him.

Hanif Matubbar, 65, has been living along with his big family in a shabby hut on another person’s land at Afajuddin Munshikandi village of Zajira upazila under Shariatpur district. He used to be a day-labourer, but gangrene put an end to his job prospects 27 years ago, a double blow to his life as he became unable to meet the family expenses.

Eventually, he was forced to have his right leg and fingers of the right hand amputated 10 years ago due to gangrene, leading to mounting the misery of his family. Hanif, a father of three daughters and a son, forgot to see the dream of having a house on his own land as his son is the only bread earner for his family.

Though his three daughters were married off and live at their in-laws', his household has 8 members including his son's wife and four children. Let alone the dream of having a good house, it is even difficult for the family to live hand to mouth with the small income of a van-puller son.

But now the amputee is going to get a house with modern facilities with a two-decimal of land under Ashrayan-2. The construction of the tin-shed pucca house on Khas land in Karimuddin Matubbar Kandi village under Senerchar Union of Zajira Upazila has been completed.

Like Hanif Matubbar, 10 homeless and landless families are going to get modern houses on the same site under the Ashrayan-2 Project.

“I never thought that I would have a home on my own land. But now I am happy seeing that I have a pucca-house on my own land. It was something more than my dream,” Hanif Matubbar said.

Abdul Kadir Bapari, 45, a day-labourer, who has been living with his five-member family in a hut constructed on another person's land, is going to get a house on the same site with land ownership.

He has a wife, four daughters and a ten-year-old son in his family, but his two daughters were married. He is the lone earner for his family. He said he is satisfied having such a good house. “I’m grateful to the government for giving a poor like me the house with land,” he said.

A widow, Zarina Begum, 65, who has been living with his youngest son in a rented house in Maniknagar Club Mor area will also receive a pucca house in the same Khas land.

She has five sons and a daughter. But four sons and the daughter got married and they all are living in nuclear families.

“Now I live along with my bachelor son who is a van-puller. We need to pay Tk 1500 each month as the house rent. But we’ll not be required to pay the money anymore,” Jarina Begum told our sisten newsagency UNB.

Another widow Mamataj Begum, 70, who is childless, will also be given a Tin-shed pucca house there.

Mamataj, inhabitant of Mujib Hawlader Kandi village, lost her husband 30 years ago. Since then she has been living with her sister’s daughter. She used to work as a domestic help.

“I’ve got a shelter getting the house,” she said.

Zajira Upazila Chairman Mobarak Ali Sikder said a total 54 families are going to get such Tin-shed pucca houses under Ashrayan-2.

  • some 66,189 landless
  • virtually distributed pucca houses
  • Ashrayan 2 Project
  • literally homeless
  • Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

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