Bridging the infrastructure gap

Additional infrastructure is needed to ease the congestions that afflict the lives and productivity of millions. Photo: Raj Anikat/ DrikNews
Fabio Pittaluga and Sabah Moyeen
BANGLADESH can reasonably aspire to become a middle-income country by 2021.This transition will ultimately require further shift in the economy towards higher value-added manufacturing and services. Such a transformation, among others, will require substantial investment in physical infrastructure (especially power sector, ports, industrial estates or economic zones, and transportation) all of which has a physical “footprint” — land.

At present, the situation in Bangladesh is characterised by a combination of inadequate power supply, congested ports and underdeveloped transport networks — including roads, bridges, and railways. Recent surveys by private sector operators consistently cite access to power and gas among the biggest obstacles to investment. Energy shortages are choking households and businesses alike.

Furthermore, bottlenecks and horrific traffic jams in Dhaka and inter-regional roads have become a part of daily life. There is no doubt that additional infrastructure is needed to ease the congestions that afflict the lives and productivity of millions. While sustained development is possible and is underway, major infrastructure gaps need to be filled to relieve the stress on the quality of life of the citizens. However, the challenge of getting access to a significant footprint in a land scarce and overpopulated country is seldom addressed adequately. Yet, implementing agencies of the Government, financing institutions and private sector leaders deem access to land for growth and development as one of the primary stumbling blocks in bridging the “infrastructure gap.”

In the past, the issue of “public good” related to benefits accrued to society at large via infrastructure projects was seen by states as an overriding benefit vis-à-vis those impacted by land acquisition. Many legal frameworks — including those in Bangladesh — were based on the principle of “eminent domain,” or the right of the state to expropriate for the sake of public good (electricity, water, roads, etc.).

Eminent domain legislation is based on the principle of legal rights to lands that the affected person has to demonstrate to the state in order to obtain compensation. In Bangladesh, however, this is complicated for two reasons:

* Complexities in determining legal claims over lands;

* Existence of many squatters (or illegal occupants) that are part of the fabric of Bangladeshi society and many of whom are the victims of river erosion.

Furthermore, forced evictions are not indicators of democratic processes, as they often result in a “re-cycling” of poverty rather than eradication. And it is often the poorest sections of the Bangladeshi population who are affected, because there is no possibility of voicing their concerns.

It is difficult to estimate how many people will be affected in this journey to middle-income status, but if we put together the proposed eastern by-pass road, the need for additional fly-overs, roads, rehabilitated canals to prevent flooding, transmission lines, power generating plants, and so on, it is not difficult to envision that a large number of people will be affected by such projects.

Currently, the legal instrument for expropriating lands for public purposes is the 1982 Land Acquisition and Requisition of Immovable Property Ordinance. The Ordinance presents significant challenges in its application. Only people who can demonstrate legal title to lands are eligible for compensation, compensation rates are often inadequate, and no assistance is provided to affected people to move elsewhere.

Effectively, there is no resettlement policy to facilitate people’s movement from the areas of impact to other zones. In practice, this means that compensation alone does not allow people to retain the same standards of living in other locations, and in many cases their situation is exacerbated.

However, despite the weak legal framework on land acquisition and the policy vacuum on resettlement of affected people, the government has taken some very good steps to implement projects where affected people are fully safeguarded. This happened during the construction of the Jamuna Bridge in the 1990s and is currently the case in the preparation of the background work for the Padma Bridge.

In the case of the Jamuna Bridge, for example, the government implemented a resettlement program. Similar steps are being taken for the Padma Bridge, which requires the relocation of approximately 4,000 families. In both cases, the government has also chosen to provide compensation for squatters — people with no legal title to lands and who are not covered by the 1982 Ordinance.

The Jamuna Bridge also signaled a shift in focus from compensation alone to restoration of livelihoods for affected people. An ex-post Brac study concluded that, while not perfect, considerable success was attained in other aspects of the resettlement program, such as a significant increase in affected people’s average annual income despite their shrinking land-base, and the quality of housing for the resettled ones also improved.

In addition, as a result of the resettlement program, affected persons had better access to health services, drinking water and sanitation — not an insignificant achievement in Bangladesh.

However, despite the good practice emerging from the Jamuna Bridge experience, to date Bangladesh has no clearly formulated resettlement policy for project-affected people. The experience of the Jamuna Bridge has established a “precedent” — linked mostly to large infrastructure projects — rather than a “tradition” for formal resettlement plans to mitigate project impacts on affected people.

At this historic juncture, when there is a possibility of leaving poverty behind, Bangladesh needs to reform the domain of land acquisition and resettlement and move on to a more conducive legal, policy and implementation environment to ensure that its growth potential is not compromised.

There are a number of innovative approaches to resettlement, from market-based examples to community-driven ones where the state invests in the capacity of people to find their own solutions as opposed to providing ready-made options. The concept of “benefit sharing” with affected people is also being experimented with in various countries. But there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that can be readily replicated.

Bangladesh will need to find its own solutions, homegrown out of a dialogue between the different parts of its body politic. To that effect, Brac Development Institute is spearheading a policy dialogue with the government, the private sector, civil society and the media to explore homegrown solutions.

The experiences of Jamuna and Padma provide fertile ground and should not be relegated to large infrastructure projects, as effective and responsible resettlement planning is equivalent to poverty reduction and improved standards of living for those affected.

Fabio Pittaluga is Senior Social Development Specialist, World Bank, BD. and Sabah Moyeen Social Development Specialist, World Bank, BD.


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