Urban poor

Amer Ahmed

Published in the Daily Star (26 September 2007)

With its runaway growth over the past few decades, Dhaka has become a 12 million citizen strong mega-city and the center of Bangladesh’s political and economic life. Unfortunately, the city’s leadership has failed to establish a comprehensive strategy for dealing with this rapid urbanisation and urban poverty. Its failure in the former has continued to systematically exacerbate the latter, to what may soon become a breaking point.

This need for a comprehensive response to urban poverty is the point driven home by the June 2007 study: “Dhaka: Improving Living Conditions for the Urban Poor.” This report (DILCUP from here on) responds to this gaping hole in policy and provides a comprehensive examination of the state of urban poverty in Dhaka, and follows up its multidimensional analysis with policy recommendations that can form the foundation of a strategic response from the Government of Bangladesh.

The DILCUP is divided into five sections. The first section provides a detailed profile of Dhaka’s poor. The report analyses the characteristics of the different strata of society in the city at the household level, and thus compares the metrics of a typically “poor” household against those of a typically “rich” household. The stories these data tell should be shocking, but are unfortunately familiar to most Dhaka-dwellers: most of the poor live in slums, the richest fifth of society consumes five times more than the poorest fifth, and about one in three city-dwellers live in poverty.

Moving beyond statistics, the importance of the findings is highlighted through a series of maps that show the slums in the context of various environmental and institutional parameters, such as their nearness to rivers, their legal relationship with the Dhaka City Corporation, and the distribution of land ownership.

The four subsequent sections of the study provide more details on the primary components of urban poverty: employment, shelter for the poor, access to services, and crime in the slums. While these issues are presented as separate topics, it is apparent that they are inseparable from each other.

The study reports that, with about a fifth of the poor households underemployed and a third of the household’s income coming from child labourers, employment is an important component of urban poverty. In the near future, this will only get more important as rural-urban migration continues at a maddening pace.

Unfortunately, rural-urban migration has implications that go beyond employment. The dearth of secure shelter forces the hordes of newcomers into the slums, where access to services — sanitation, health, and water — is severely constrained. The service provision constraints are due to a variety of reasons, but can be traced back to the fact that most slums are not built on legally recognised land. Services in Dhaka are provided by a complex network of local and central agencies, each with varying jurisdictions and responsibilities. Since the slums have no legal standing, the bureaucracies do not recognise the slum-dwellers’ rights to service access. To compound this problem, the slum-dwellers are susceptible to slum evictions/demolitions. Given the possibility of an eventual demolition, NGOs are disinclined to invest in infrastructure in the slums and fill the gap left by the government.

To fill the institutional vacuum left by the government, criminals step onto the slum scene as alternative providers of services. These criminals also operate in a vacuum in law enforcement,, where there are almost no consequences for extortion, drug use, domestic violence, and other crimes.

The various dimensions of urban poverty in Dhaka are closely related, and a holistic policy response is necessary. The DILCUP provides a series of recommendations for each main aspect of urban poverty, with a detailed breakdown of what bureaucracies and institutions should be involved and in what manner.

While detailing all the policy recommendations the study makes is beyond the scope of this review, a brief description of its suggestions with regards to shelter may be illustrative.

To address the shelter situation, the DILCUP endorses the implementation of the National Housing Policy as “an enabling framework for addressing land and housing markets in Dhaka, and enforcing basic property rights.” To achieve this, the study recommends the formation of an inter-agency committee involving the LGED, the National Housing Authority, the Ministry of Land, and Rajuk, mandated with the authority to make the necessary reforms. The authorities would do well to reflect on the recommendations before commencing further slum demolition drives.

To the extent that they rely on a flawed government and bureaucracy for implementation, the veteran Dhaka-dwellers, jaded by many years of poor governance, may be sceptical of the recommendations. However, the DILCUP’s recommendations provide our leadership with an excellent perspective on how urban poverty looks, what makes it tick, and where to begin unwinding its worst excesses.


World Bank (2007) “Dhaka: Improving Living Conditions for the Urban Poor,” Bangladesh Development Series Paper 17, The World Bank Office, Dhaka.


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