Some 200 government and private entities have reached out to the Chattogram deputy commissioner, seeking to construct establishments at the Salimpur Jungle area in Sitakunda, spanning 3,100 acre, which houses the biggest slum of the port city with an estimated one lakh people living there.
The Chattogram district administration recently recovered 700 acre land from this area after conducting eviction drives as part of the move to preserve hills and reclaim government lands. Recovering the rest of the land is also in the plans.
This recent drive drew everyone's attention to this place, prompting the government and private entities to seek land in that area over 45 hills. These entities include BGMEA, Chattogram City Corporation, Chattogram WASA, National Heart Foundation, Rapid Action Battalion, Police and Ansar.
The Chattogram district administration itself wants to build several government facilities, including central jail, Novo theatre, hospital, national information centre and a night safari park there.
Adjacent to the Sitakunda reserve forest and just outside the Chattogram City Corporation, the Salimpur Jungle area once used to be a hilly forest region. At different times following the eviction drives at city slums, homeless people started to settle there in the nineties. This neglected region of the homeless people came to be known as Chinnomul slum.
On 12 September, a task force was formed in a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office to formulate a master plan for taking up multiple developmental projects by clearing 3,100 acres of land in Salimpur jungle.
With the news of government plans to implement projects in the hills, influential people have started lobbying at different levels of the government to get allocation of land in the hills.
Chattogram City Corporation has requested 123 acres of land to implement 9 projects including the establishments of an entertainment zone, multipurpose convention centre, kitchen market, holiday market, residential area and shopping complex.
The BGMEA has asked the government to allocate 10 acres of land for setting up a university and 200 acres of land for setting up an independent garment zone.
However, Chattogram Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Mominur Rahman told The Business Standard, "We have so far received 200 applications from various organisations to get land allotment in Jungle Salimpur. However, there is no scope to develop any type of private establishment on government lands. Only special priority projects of the government will be implemented, that too according to the master plan."
Experts say, while the announcement of eviction of illegal settlements from the hills is good, the subsequent announcement to build infrastructure on the hills is alarming. When evictions are being carried out to protect hills, infrastructure construction activities are not acceptable.
Chattogram University Forest and Environmental Science Department Professor Dr Khaled Mesbahuzzaman said, "I do not understand why a prison, hospital or Novo theatre should be built in the mountains. People are being evicted for cutting hills. The irony is that to build government facilities, the administration will also do the same. Urbanisation will begin centring the buildings, which will threaten biodiversity."
How the settlements grew
Thousands of homeless people in Chattogram and nearby districts, who were forcibly displaced due to various reasons related to climate change, have been making settlements in the abandoned forests of Salimpur since 1990.
In the past, thousands of displaced people have been evicted from at least 20 slums including Dewanhat slum, Batali Hill, Motijharna, Dhebar Par slum, Barishal slum, Laldiar Char, Noman slum in Chattogram city. Chinnomul and Ali Nagar became the address of these evicted people as well.
Apart from various coastal upazilas of Chattogram, climate refugees and low-income people from Cox's Bazar, Barishal, Bhola, Noakhali, and Cumilla also settled in the area.
About 70% of the slum dwellers of Chattogram lost their habitats due to climate change, said Reza Kaiser, former chief urban planner of Chittagong City Corporation.
They are all low-income people, mostly garment workers, rickshaw pullers and day labourers, he said.
According to Chattogram Mohanagar Chinnomul Bastibashi Samannoy Sangram Parishad, Chinnomul and Ali Nagar slums are currently home to about 24,000 families, where about onelakh people live.
However, according to Chittagong district administration data, there were only 4,544 families in 2010. In 2017 a Sitakunda upazila report said, 10,950 families live in the slum.
This settlement in the jungle of Salimpur is controlled by the Samannoy Parishad, which was formed in 2004.
In the last 18 years, this organisation divided the government khas land into 11 parts and developed thousands of plots. They built roads, schools, mosques and madrasas in their own way without any government facilities.
The main road, which is about two kilometres long, has been constructed by the residents with their own funds. The residents have been using commercial transmission lines after not being able to get residential electricity connections legally.
Law enforcement agencies had a hard time overseeing these slums as it was a forest area. Outside the 850 acre area of Chhinnamool in around 2,250 acre area, land grabbers sell and rent out houses to poor people in various ways. When the settlement started, many people including government officers, police, political leaders, journalists took plots there and rented those among the poor.
Chattogram University's former vice-chancellor and social scientist Dr Iftekhar Uddin Chowdhury told The Business Standard, "The hill settlement in Jungle Salimpur grew due to the failure of government institutions. Rehabilitating such a large population is a challenge at the moment. However, if the government wants to, it can take the initiative of rehabilitating them in the huge Khas lands in Hathajari."
Following a writ appeal filed by the Chattogram Metropolitan Bastibasi Sangram Parishad in 2017, the judgment delivered by Justice SM Emdadul Haque and Justice Bhishmadev Chakraborty said, "We find the in order to do justice the members of the petitioner's Chittagong, Mohanagar Chinnamul Bostibasi Somonny Sangram Parishad may not be evicted from the land in Question unless they have been rehabilitated elsewhere."
Lawyer Monzil Morshed told The Business Standard, "There is no legal scope to build a government establishment on the hill. If people are evicted only from that area (Chinnamool) for the construction of government facilities, then there will be discrimination."
Millions of homeless heading to cities
The number of slum dwellers in Chattogram city is increasing day by day due to various reasons including search for work, natural disasters and evictions.
According to a study titled "Coastal Climate Change, Soil Salinity, and Human Migration in Bangladesh" by Arizona State University and Ohio State University in 2018, "Due to rise in soil salinity, Chattogram and Khulna districts are likely to witness highest within-district additional migration, estimated between 15,000 and 30,000 migrants per year."
Every year the number of incoming people is increasing in the cities and new slums are being built. Sometimes slums are being built in the name of their area such as Sandwip para of Hathazari—built as the people displaced in Sandwip Island.
An average of a million people are displaced in Bangladesh each year due to climate-related disasters such as tropical storms, flooding, and other natural disasters, while only cyclones displace 110,000 people each year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
These homeless people who have taken shelter in the city are repeatedly facing eviction, human trafficking, sexual harassment, child marriage and drug addiction. Not only here, hundreds of thousands of people are living in 18 slums of the city.
Experts say, as a climate vulnerable country, laws and plans should be adopted to ensure the rights of these people. The plight of Bangladesh's climate refugees needs to be well highlighted in international forums or the situation will become more dire in the future.