Report on a Visit to the Shahjalal Housing Trust Project, Sylhet, Bangladesh

1. Introduction

The Shahjalal Housing Trust (SHT) has been trying to set up a rental housing scheme in Sylhet with the support of Homeless International (HI). In this connection, SHT and HI have been in correspondence for the last three years. However, so far no definite proposal has been received from SHT. The purpose of this visit was to monitor the progress made by SHT in setting up a project, identify bottlenecks if any, and/or propose new directions if required. The visit was undertaken by Carlos Guerrero and myself.

2. The SHT Organisation and its Problems

2.1 The Board Members

The male board members of SHT (except for the chairman), have rural backgrounds. All of them are professionals (engineers, lawyers and a journalist). They represent the first generation of the urban middle class in Bangladesh. Their links with the rural areas are still strong and as such they have a good understanding of the problems that rural populations face when they move to urban areas. Their children will loose (or have already lost) this understanding. All of them are important members of the new elite in Sylhet Town. The old landed elite was wiped out by the land reforms of 1948 (most of it was Hindu and migrated to India) and again during the liberation struggle in 1971. We were unable to meet with the female board members and as such cannot say much about their background. In addition to the board, SHT has a membership of 25 persons drawn from the “social sector” in Sylhet.

The board seems to be dominated by two persons. The first is the Chairman, Abul Fazal Mohammad Kamal. He is a lawyer. He was the Chairman, until recently, of the Local Council for ten years. He is highly respected by the other board members and generally by the people in Sylhet. During his last tenure he has been responsible for supervising the UNICEF sponsored Urban Basic Services (UBS) programme of the local government. As such, he is well-acquainted with concepts such as “community participation”, “empowerment” and “social organisation”. He understands the importance of social organisers, documentation and monitoring. However, he is more interested in metaphysics, Bengali literature (both sacred and profane) and Islamic theology.

The man of action in the board is Engineer Mohiuddin Ahmad. The office of the Trust is also located in his office premises. Until recently, Mohiuddin Ahmad was a senior engineer in the local government office in Sylhet. He now has his own consulting firm which is building houses and commercial buildings for the well-to-do in Sylhet and infrastructure projects for the local government. Mohiuddin Ahmad has a razor sharp mind; extensive knowledge of history, current affairs and politics; and conventional engineering technologies. However, he has little or no knowledge of working with communities or of upgrading indigenous technologies. His approach to the housing problem is that of an engineer but he understands the limitations of his approach, and given his intelligence he can easily come to terms with the procedures and strategies of involving communities.

The Chairman of the Board and Engineer Ahmad, true to the tradition of the first generation urban middle class in Bengal, are both very anxious to do “some good” for the poor in their town. The other members fully support this “noble” desire.

2.2 Problems With The Organisation

The organisation has three major problems. First, it has modelled itself on the St. Pancras Housing Association (PHA). Its constitution is also a copy of the Constitution of PHA. As PHA builds houses for rental purposes, SHT also feels that it should build rentals, although its members feel that common sense and the Sylhet situation demands a somewhat different approach. There is a feeling in SHT that funds would only be provided for the building of rental accommodation.

The second problem is that the active members of SHT can only think in conventional engineering terms and this means high cost solutions without community participation or involvement. And third, that somehow the SHT members have received messages that community participation is essential if the project is to be funded by HI.

These three somewhat conflicting problems have created a lack of direction and confusion in the organisation. An attempt has been made by the monitoring team to sort out this confusion and set a direction that is related to the Syhlet reality and the objectives of HI. It has been conveyed to the board members that community participation is essential for HI funding. It has also been explained that the identification of a community before the project is finally designed is helpful, if not necessary. Trying to develop a community participation project without a community is like trying to prepare a chicken curry without a chicken.

Another issue that surfaced was that the organisation could not be cleared by the Bangladesh NGO Bureau until HI funding was guaranteed.

3. The Sylhet Housing Situation

3.1 Sources Of Information

The Sylhet situation, described in the sub-paragraphs below, has been developed by information gathered from taxi-drivers, waiters and staff in the hotel, slum landlords, slum tenants, local government staff and members of the SHT council. By and large, there were no major differences in the information provided by the different sources.

3.2 The Poor In Sylhet

Sylhet has a population of about 700,000. Forty per cent of this population lives in slums or sleeps on pavements inside and around transport terminals or in parts, playgrounds and other open areas. The poor are mostly rickshaw-pullers (there are 40,000 rickshaws in Sylhet and as such about 80,000 pullers), construction labour, domestic help and petty hawkers. It is estimated that 20 per cent of the poor are bachelors or workers whose families live in the country-side.

3.3 Land: Availability And Costs

Land holdings in Sylhet town and around it are very small. The measures of land are a decimal which is equal to 44 M2. Within the city most unused or under-utilised land is owned by poor landlords and most of it is in 1-8 decimal lots. For large projects land assembly therefore becomes necessary. Given the nature of land distribution, such assembly is a next to impossible task in the absence of radical laws and institutional arrangements to support it. Conditions on the periphery are better and lots of upto 20 decimals are available.

Land in Sylhet is expensive. One decimal within the city costs between TK 100,000 to TK 125,000. On the city fringe (3-8 kilometres from the centre) the cost is between TK 30,000 to TK 60,000.

3.4 Housing Conditions

In the city centre landlords holding 1-8 decimals of land have built small (about 12 M2) one room shacks of mud plastered bamboo walls and thatched roofs. In an increasing number of cases thatch is being replaced by tin roofs. About three rooms are constructed per decimal. Cooking takes place within the room or in the open space outside the hut. There are no elevated pathways and so during the rainy season most settlements are flooded and access to the houses is difficult and unhygienic. The tenants construct makeshift communal latrines that are almost never maintained and are inadequate in number. Children invariably excrete in the open space between the huts. Water is acquired from a landlord owned hand pump or from the houses of the well-to-do in the neighbourhood where women and children work as domestic help. The landlord, in most cases, lives within the settlement and his home is not very different in structure from the other huts. However, it has more than one room, a courtyard and an independent wash area and kitchen.

Rent is collected regularly and anyone defaulting is forced to leave. Few tenants stay beyond a 3 year period. Reasons for their leaving could not be ascertained due to shortage of time and difficulties in communication with tenants.

The rent of one room varies between TK 375 to TK 500 per month. Yearly maintenance of the bamboo and mud walls costs between TK 1,500 to TK 2,500. The cost of building a bamboo and thatch roof room is TK 2,500 to TK 3,000. A mud plastered bamboo wall and tin roof room costs about RK 5,000. The floor is always of rammed earth. The tenants who were interviewed earned between TS 2,500 to TK 4,000 per month. This was their family income. They can afford to pay a maximum of TK 700 to TK 1,000 per month for purchasing a home.

A brick wall room with concrete floor, tin sheet roof and proper community latrines costs about TK 16,000 to construct. It fetches a rent of TK 600 to TK 800 per month. A few landlords have built such rooms. However, most landlords are too poor to afford to build such accommodation and credit facilities are not available, although they admit that such construction would bring them better returns and save on maintenance costs. They also feel that they would have better and more reliable tenants for pucca houses.

Inner city landlords that were interviewed claim that no one has ever approached them for purchasing their land. They also claim that if they were approached they would not sell since after selling they would have no where to live and no income either.

On the fringe construction is similar in technology and size to the accommodation in the city centre. However, rents are lower (TK 200 to TK 250) per month. Much of the fringe areas have been purchased by Sylhet families living in the UK and they are building middle class housing on their land. Those families who are not building at present are constructing bamboo huts on their land and renting them out to the poor. Along with the huts the owners also put up a hand pump. Tenants know that they will be turned out once the owners decide to construct a house. They accept this as normal and say that they would find accommodation elsewhere.

Fringe area residents are willing to pay TK 400 and more for living in similar accommodation in the city centre. They are willing to pay upto TK 1,000 per month for a 10 year period of time for a plot of land, provided it can become theirs at the end of that period.

Landlords, both in the city and outside, are not willing to rent accommodation to bachelors as they are unreliable tenants. Bachelors on the other hand, are reluctant to call their families to the city unless reliable and long term accommodation can be arranged.

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