Environmental displacement and socio-economic status in Khulna, Bangladesh

Jasim Uddin

January 20, 2019

I recently traveled to Khulna city and tried to experience life in one of its slums the way locals do through ethnographic research. My specific intention was to learn about the socio-economic lives of the migrants who had left their area of origin due to environmental reasons.  During the first few days of my fieldwork, the residents seemed not to be willing to talk with me, and many were busy working. One reason for their reluctance was that many had experiences of talking about their situation to representatives of NGOs without getting any tangible benefits from these encounters. I, nevertheless, began a conversation with a rickshaw puller. I asked him about his work and how long he had been living in the slum. When he started to talk to me, some other slum dwellers also came forward.

Many of the residents of this slum have migrated from their area of origin due to the cyclone Aila which hit the western border of Bangladesh on 25th of May in 2009 affecting an estimated 3.90 million people in coastal Bangladesh. The life stories of the people I talked to were pretty much the same: they had lost everything they had—their homestead, house, cattle, etc. Ironically, the slums in Khulna, like elsewhere in Bangladesh, are the abode of hundreds of thousands of people whose work makes the lives of the better-off citizens easier and comfortable, while the slum-dwellers themselves are forced to live in the worst of conditions.  They do not have access to basic needs like working toilets, safe water, and proper housing.   Shelters are crammed to each other, and light barely enters through the corners. People reside in single rooms in tiny houses.

When I asked them how they felt living in the slum, they replied that they were unhappy with their way of living. They had migrated to the city from the coastal area of Khulna district (villages of Bagali and Gilabari of Koyra Upazila). Many of them wanted to return to their village and their homestead, but they had nothing left there, although the Bangladesh Government and NGOs have introduced a number of policies to solve the problems in coastal regions. NGO activities have been limited to short-term measures, whereas governmental organizations have been involved in both long-term and short-term measures. The major governmental initiatives and programs include installation of deep tube wells for safe drinking water, re-excavation and construction of ponds, a Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) program (each VGF cardholder receives 10 kg rice per month), cash transfers for house repair, construction of new houses with sanitation facilities, reconstruction of cyclone centres and the embankments, the distribution of agricultural inputs and saline-tolerant juvenile fish, small cash transfers for new livelihoods, as well as promotion of awareness about ways to reduce disaster risks. Both government and the NGOs have initiated Cash-for-Work or Food-for-Work schemes to repair rural infrastructure.

People of the flood-affected regions have been struggling to fulfill minimum basic needs like food, shelter, water and sanitation facilities till now. Many people still stay on the embankments in makeshift tents. The reconstruction of dams and roads has not been completed; thus, tidal flooding still affects the farm and homestead land. Cyclone Aila increased the salinity of their farming land so that the water has become brackish, more saline than freshwater but not as much as seawater. Therefore, cultivation is no longer possible, and the water is not fit even for drinking. The government has also sought to develop agricultural production, for example, by introducing saline-tolerant rice but the outcome has not yet been satisfactory in terms of quality and quantity of the rice production. The government has given some people twenty thousand taka to build a house, but that amount of money was not enough to build a house; moreover, new houses could not help with the scarcity of jobs in their native places.

In the city of Khulna, men work as fishmongers, day laborers, vegetable sellers, construction workers, van and rickshaw pullers earning 5000–10 000 taka per month. Many women work in the local shrimp processing factories; few have opened small grocery shops and some work as domestic helpers. The women who work in the shrimp processing factories said that their hands turn numb from handling the ice and they were suffering from skin diseases. These women earn 4000–5000 taka in a month, but those who are working as domestic helpers earn barely 1500–2000 taka in a month. Due to their low incomes, most people were willing to return to their native places in case the conditions there would improve.

The government and the NGOs have introduced several short-term policies to improve the life-conditions in cities such as the construction of roads and drains, solid waste management, health and hygiene campaigns as well as social mobilization projects. However, these policies have yet to make an impact on the lives of the migrants I studied in Khulna.