- The low and middle-income groups including marginalized communities of Bangladesh experience affordable housing crisis due to factors such as overreliance on private sector to satiate housing demand, lack of access to finance, socio-economic exclusion, climate change, and global economic disruptions.
- The Ashrayan Project by the Government of Bangladesh is aimed to solve the affordable housing crisis as well as socially and economically uplift the destitute by not only providing shelter but also training, finance, and necessary amenities.
- Despite the advances made by the government, the project needs to prevent irregularities and other shortcomings to ameliorate the sufferings of the people.
“I had to sleep in a station with mosquitoes, flies and bad odor. Hasina arranged a house for me. I am very happy. I pray that Allah will keep Sheikh Hasina happy,” words stated by 60-year-old Hamida Begum, a beneficiary of the Ashrayan project in Gazipur, who had to spend numerous nights at the Kauraid railway station in Sreepur.
Like Hamida Begum, many Bangladeshis suffer due to a lack of affordable housing. Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world where nearly five million people are homeless and around 124 million live in squatters, slums and mud houses. There are broadly FIVE factors that non-exhaustively cause and/or exacerbate the affordable housing crisis in Bangladesh.
The first factor is a fragmented housing delivery system. The country mostly relies on the private sector to satiate the massive demand of housing whereas the government fulfills only 7 percent of the annual housing demand. Two reasons this overreliance on the private sector is detrimental for the low and middle-income groups: first, the private sector mainly targets the upper and upper-middle class population, resulting in scarcity of housing offerings tailored for the low and middle-income class. This makes housing for the poor virtually inaccessible. Second, the supply of housing from the private sector is still very limited. Since the aggregate demand for housing is significantly higher than the aggregate supply, the housing prices in Bangladesh skyrockets which further makes the housing rental market dysfunctional.
Lack of access to finance also exacerbates this crisis. In Bangladesh, the mortgage market caters to only the affluent class while ignoring the huge demand for low and middle-income housing finance. Hence, the destitute segment of the population in most cases cannot access the required finance to fulfill their dream of home ownership.
Social and economic exclusion of many groups is another obstacle. The International Center for Research on Women reports that women in Bangladesh possess only 5 percent of the nation’s land while men own 95%. The archaic and patriarchal female inheritance laws restrict women to inherit the fair share of property from their family’s estate. Many minority and disadvantaged groups also suffer due to their inaccessibility to housing. The Harijan community, a sub-division of Sudra according to the Hindu caste system and the Bede community, a nomadic tribe, cannot access a better life in most cases due to not owning a land or home. A large segment of the more than 50 indigenous ethnic minorities and Hijra community in Bangladesh live uncertain, impoverished lives due to not having a roof over their head.
Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. The country regularly witnesses several cyclone storms. In particular, floods and coastal erosion induce havoc in the low-lying coastal areas. In June 2022, Bangladesh endured one of the worst floods in the century as over 30 lakh (3 million) people became homeless. The climate refugees of the country are one of the most vulnerable groups who desperately require shelter to survive as climate change and natural disasters play a key role in causing the housing crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion on Ukraine caused a global supply chain, energy, economic and food crisis which directly influenced consumers’ purchasing power. A survey shows that at least one person in an estimated 14.7 million households lost their job in Bangladesh during the pandemic. A lack of job or stable income restricts individuals to afford a place to live which exacerbates the affordable housing crisis.
In order to solve the affordable housing crisis and construct an inclusive development model, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Government has undertaken a massive public housing project named “Ashrayan” (meaning sanctuary) to ensure access to housing for the low and middle income classes. The project non-exhaustively targets eight vulnerable groups to effectively target the individuals who need a home the most- (1) landless, homeless & dispossessed population, (2) beggars, (3) widow & women who are abandoned by their husband, (4) Bede & Harijan community, (5) third gender or the Hijra community, (6) climate refugees, (7) ethnic minorities, and (8) impoverished members of the society.
The project was launched in 1997 during Sheikh Hasina’s first tenure as the Prime Minister. The first Ashrayan project rehabilitated the victims of a cyclone which hit the coastal areas of the country on 19 May 1997. Under both Ashrayan and Ashrayan -2 projects, so far, more than 5 million (5,09,370) families have been rehabilitated from 1997 to July 2022.
On November 14, 2023, Sheikh Hasina distributed 5,397 houses among landless and homeless population of the country in 132 subdistricts (upazilas) of 46 districts constructed under the Ashrayan-2 project. She has declared a total of 32 districts of the country landless and homeless-free, including Panchagarh, Magura, Madaripur, Gazipur, Narsingdi, Joypurhat, Rajshahi, Chapainawabganj, Chuadanga, Manikganj, Rajbari, Mymensingh, Sherpur, Dinajpur, Thakurgaon, Naogaon, Natore, Pabna, Kushtia, Pirojpur, Jhalakathi, Tangail Munshiganj, Narayanganj, Kishoreganj, Jamalpur, Brahmanbaria, Meherpur, Jhenaidah, Patuakhali, Sylhet, and Moulvibazar. Sheikh Hasina also announced 394 subdistricts landless and homeless free.
A total of 221,224 houses have been distributed so far to landless and homeless individuals and families. A total of 2,778,085 individuals from 555,617 families were rehabilitated from 1997 to July 2023.
For the low and middle income segments, accessing happiness through home ownership is becoming a reality. A third grader of Kajaldighi Government Primary School, Jannat previously had to live in a shabby tin-roof house built on government land with her parents. Now, a happy Jannat expressed, “I used to see other people’s homes and dreamed of having one of our own someday. The prime minister has fulfilled that dream. I love her very much and will invite her to our house in Panchagarh whenever I get the chance. I am Sheikh Hasina’s Jannat!”
The homes provided under the Ashrayan project allow the ultra-poor to feel secure and defend themselves against the harsh elements. For the destitute families in the country’s northwestern region, jute sacks and beds made of hays were the only means to survive the cruel winter. Now, around 90,866 low-income families in the northern and western regions are residents and owners of the comfortable houses with brick walls and tin shades.
Sixty-year old Dudu Miah said, “There was no end to suffering during the winter. Sometimes we cried, failing to manage warm clothes for our children. We can now sleep in peace as the Ashrayan gave us a comfortable permanent abode.”
However, only establishing homes for the low and middle-income groups will not, in itself, ensure the beneficiaries’ integration back into the mainstream economy and society. An entire ecosystem has to be put in place to create livelihoods for them. Thus, the Ashrayan project provides the following facilities to build a sustainable inclusive development model-
- To ensure property rights of women, ownership of land and house is given in the joint names of husband and wife.
- To cut the bureaucratic red tape and empower the families to avoid any future legal disputes over ownership, the ownership of the land is handed over to the beneficiaries on the spot along with the registered deeds and requisite certificates.
- Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) programme provides food assistance from the government for 3 months to make relocation easier for the families.
- The resettled families are given vocational and practical training to transform them into skilled manpower so that they can engage in income generating activities to support their families.
- Through an inter agency support, micro-credit is disbursed for the socio-economic development of the rehabilitated families to increase their access to finance. Government agencies such as Bangladesh Rural Development Board, Cooperatives, Department of Women and Children, Department of Social Services and other social organizations as well as NGOs are relentlessly working to include this marginalized population into the mainstream economy under the project.
- Each house under the project receives free electricity.
- To ensure access to safe water, tube wells are being installed at the project sites.
- Prayer houses, graveyards, ponds, roads, and community centers are being facilitated to integrate them back into mainstream society and bridge the social gaps.
- Members of the rehabilitated families are being encouraged to participate in agricultural work.
According to a research report by the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division of the Government of Bangladesh, the beneficiaries of the project saw an increase of 108% in their income in the past six years till 2022. The report showcases that more than 25 lakh (2.5 million) beneficiaries of Ashrayan have been uplifted out of the poverty line. As the survey notes, 16.83% of beneficiaries who have received training in agriculture, poultry, fisheries, animal husbandry, tailoring and handicrafts under the project have been able to participate in income generating activities. In the last six years, the school enrolment among the beneficiary families has increased by 68.5%.
Following are the major advances taken by the government under the Ashrayan project to empower the marginalized and disadvantaged groups of Bangladesh:
Shelter for Ethnic Minorities
As of July 2022, a total of 600 specially designed houses have been built to uplift the ethnic minorities of three hill districts. After receiving an abode in Pirganj under the Ashrayan project, fifty-year old Lokesh Mardi from the Mahali ethnic community shared his sufferings during winter and storms,
“We had no piece of land of our own and our ancestors used to live in ‘tatari ghars’ for generations, accepting the situation to be their fate. Our parents would cover us with jute-sacks, an identical practice we followed until days ago to protect our children.”
Restoring Dignity of the Hijra Community
The Hatikumrul Ashrayan project, executed in Ullapara upazila of Sirajganj district has rehabilitated 20 transgenders in the five-unit barracks constructed on 0.66 acres of land. Rupa, a member of Hijra community after receiving her abode, said with a smile on her face,
“Before coming here, I used to live where I could not claim any social rights. We have been regular victims of public harassment as we are the people of the third gender. But now, we have a place to live, a place to live happily as we wish…We do not want to beg to survive. We are raising 10 cows and cultivating vegetables around every house. We want to show society that transgender people can live a life of peace and prosperity if we can get some support from society.”
The government has also implemented another scheme under the project to rehabilitate 125 transgender families in the barracks at the Hijra Palli near Bangibecha Bridge in Dinajpur Sadar upazila. The area named Manab Palli is especially designed for the members of the Hijra community in Bangibecha, Dinajpur. 25 barracks, each with 5 rooms, a verandah, 2 toilets and 1 tube well were built on around three hectares of land under this project.
The project allocates funds for trade-based training and loans for the Hijra community to improve their living conditions. Vocational training as well as micro credit have been received by the beneficiaries to live a dignified and secure life. Through a public-private partnership, sewing machines have been arranged and a cattle firm has been established to create income streams for them. There also have been arrangements for poultry, pigeon rearing, and vegetable production.
Climate Refugees’ Rehab Project
The Khurushkul Ashrayan project has been constructed on 253.59 acres of land in Khurushkul mouza of Sadar upazila of Cox’s Bazar district in the financial year 2014-15. On 23 July 2020, 19 five-story buildings were handed over to 600 families impacted by major climate events. For the first time in the history of the project, climate refugees were given alternative free public housing from the government with all the modern facilities and amenities.
Empowering Bede & Manta Community
A total of 59 Bede families – 31 families from Badedihi village and 28 families from Kashipur village under Kaliganj municipality are receiving houses in the Ashrayan’s largest Bede housing site close to Majdia Baor at Jagannathpur village under Barabazar Union in Kaliganj. Throughout history, the landless Manta community have spent their lives on water in Patuakhali’s Rangabali upazila. The government has already provided abodes to 29 of 96 Manta families. Eighty-year old Nayan Tara from the Manta community said with gratitude, “I have been at peace for a year now after getting home.”
The Myanmar military Junta displaced Rohingyas from their homeland in Rakhine state of Myanmar. Bangladesh has so far sheltered 1 million such Rohingyas in camps in Cox’s Bazar. However, the Cox’s Bazar area is vulnerable to landslides and floods. Hence, to ensure safety for the Rohingyas, the government has constructed 120 clusters, 1440 cluster sheds on 40 square kilometers of land to rehabilitate 1 lakh Rohingyas in Bhasanchar.
Though the Ashrayan Project has made significant strides in the aim of empowering the marginalized groups of the country, the government needs to consider the following areas for further intervention:
- Many houses built under the project are vulnerable to flooding because these abodes are built on khas lands situated in low-lying areas. The pertinent authorities need to conduct a comprehensive feasibility study before building the abodes on any site to prevent future vulnerabilities of the houses;
- Khas lands located in low-lying areas require pilling, landfill and other preparations. If the only option is to build the abodes on the low-lying khas lands, then the government must allocate additional funds to prepare these low-lying lands in the first place;
- Some irregularities have been reported in constructing these houses. It’s commendable that the government launched investigations whenever they received any such complaint or report. However, the government has to be more proactive in monitoring the project and punishing individuals who are involved in irregularities and corruption;
- An effective means testing has to be put in place to efficiently target the individuals who actually need a shelter. The government needs to increase inter-agency collaboration and create a local and central database in the longer run to identify the most vulnerable;
- In some cases, non-repair of the houses for a long time made the houses unfit for use. It’s imperative that the government allocates adequate funds to take care of urgent repairs etc.
About the Author
Shah Adaan Uzzaman is the Blog Administrator at The Confluence. A former Bangladesh Television Debate Champion and winner of several policy & debate competitions, he is currently a student of IBA, University of Dhaka.