Just over a decade ago, Shajahan Bepari made a living by farming paddy and jute on a small scale and selling poultry reared on his 0.15-acre land in Shariatpur's Zajira.
But then, the government came calling as plans for the construction of a hitherto elusive bridge over the Padma gained steam, reports bdnews24.com.
Shajahan soon parted with his land and a place to call home for a sum that was one and a half times higher than its market value.
The septuagenarian is now living with his wife in a house that stands on a small piece of land assigned by the government to those who were displaced by the Padma Bridge project.
Shajahan works as a guard in a market while picking up odd jobs to make ends meet. But when the going gets tough, he seeks financial help from his daughter and son-in-law.
While life has undoubtedly become harder than it once was, Shajahan is anything but regretful. In fact, his face lit up with a smile when the conservation turned to the potential benefits that the Padma Bridge would bring to the region.
”If Allah permits, I’ll now be able to travel to Dhaka easily,” said Shajahan, while recounting the hassles of travelling by ferry or launch from Shariatpur to sell ducks, chicken or goats in years gone by.
As many as 22,593 families in three districts gave away their lands and homes to facilitate the construction of the country's longest bridge, which is expected to breathe life into the southwestern region by establishing a direct road link to Dhaka.
The government acquired 2,527 hectares of land in Munshiganj, Madaripur and Shariatpur until April 2022 for the mega project.
It spent Tk 30.46 billion to acquire the lands at one and a half times their market price. Aside from the compensation for the lands, the government set aside an additional Tk 7.59 billion in financial aid for the affected families.
A total of seven rehabilitation centres have been set up under the project, where 2,973 families have been allocated plots as of April. Also, 1,141 families received assistance to build homes in other places.
The prices of plots per decimal at the rehabilitation sites were equivalent to the prices the government fixed for land acquisition. And those who did not get any money for their land have been allocated plots for free.
Although the project was completed without any funding from the World Bank, officials said the rules and regulations formulated by the global lender for the rehabilitation process have been implemented.
"Financial assistance has been provided to those who were displaced due to the project so that the World Bank can never say that their indicators have not been met or that the rehabilitation has not been carried out properly," said Shamsul Haque Mridha, livelihood development specialist at the Eco-Social Development Organization, which is involved in the rehabilitation project.
Those who have been displaced as a result of the project have received assistance in several phases in keeping with international standards, according to him.
The rehabilitation process is progressing "very smoothly" as it is being done by the book, he added.
Harun Bepari's family has acquired 100 acres of land in Mawa's Dakshin Medinimandal. Having lost their homes and shops along the river, they have now taken shelter at the Yashaldia Padma Bridge Rehabilitation Site.
Their land is currently submerged in the water flowing from the old ferry terminal as part of the river training work.
The 55-year-old Harun used to run a small shop to provide for his family. He has built their home on 0.025 acres of land within the rehabilitation site where they have been living for the last nine years.
Harun expressed satisfaction over the “fair prices” of his land and compensation for the losses he incurred as a result of the project.
Harun also got his livelihood back after setting up a shop at the market developed as part of the project four years ago. His 19-year-old son was also employed as a construction worker for the bridge project.
His younger son is a ninth-grader at Yashaldia High School, just outside the rehabilitation site.
Although the family is doing relatively well now, life isn't what it was before for Harun, who feels like a ‘prisoner' in the project.
But he finds solace in the fact that the entire nation will reap the benefits of the project.
"The country will benefit from the bridge. It opens a path to prosperity. Our locality is also seeing development," he said.
Liza Akhter, a homemaker for her family of four, had to give up their house in the Mawa Chowrasta area, where the link road to the Padma Bridge has been constructed.
Within two years of her marriage, Liza, a native of Madaripur, had to start afresh in a new home 3 km away at the Yashaldia Rehabilitation Centre.
Liza's husband used to work as a bus contractor. He now works for a firm in Dhaka's Gulshan. Their two children attend the Padma Bridge Primary School in Yashaldia, which was established under the project.
They live in a single-storey house on 0.025 acres of land in the project area. Liza admits that the narrower confines of the house make her feel a bit uncomfortable at times. Another issue facing families at the site is the water pump, which she says, breaks down almost every year, leaving each of the households to pay for its maintenance.
But as the construction of the bridge has been completed, Liza is hopeful that the journey to Madaripur to see her father will be less stressful. Instead of making the trip by launch once every year, she intends to visit her family more often now that a road link is in place.
"The bridge will of course be beneficial. I've only been able only to go [to Madaripur] once a year by launch but now I can travel directly," she said.
Sujal Khan was evicted from the southern zone of the old ferry terminal in Mawa and had to relocate to the rehabilitation site in Yashaldia. His family has allotted 0.11 acres of land under the bridge project.
Before moving to the site, Sujal ran a drug store in the old ferry terminal area. He is now the chairman of the rehabilitation site's management committee.
Enlarging on the mood in the area, he said, "Everybody here has to go work on the other side. They're all in a bit of hardship.”
However, Sujal believes the environment is satisfactory as there are paved roads and educational institutions, including large marketplaces and high schools in the vicinity of the project, even though the market inside the project is not very active.
But Sujal laments the fact that he is mostly without work and his savings have dwindled.
Even then, he believes the bridge is in the best interest of the country. "Everyone had to make some sacrifices for the greater good. But you have to give up a few things for a bigger return."
"Some of us are doing well while others aren't. But the people in the south will especially benefit from the bridge. We have seen them suffer a lot. We are very happy for them."
Kanchan Sheikh's family has lost almost a dozen houses in Mawa's Uttar Medinimandal area.
They received a total of Tk 3.6 million for the land and as compensation. Apart from that, they were handed another Tk 400,000 as financial assistance.
The family was doing well with the rent they received from shops and the money from other small ventures. He left his home and moved to the rehabilitation site in Munshiganj's Yashaldia nine years ago.
Kanchan lives with his wife and daughter on a parcel of land given to his mother. His wife got a job as a cleaner at the Jashaldia Padma Bridge Primary School inside the rehabilitation site.
His family lives off his wife's monthly salary of Tk 6,000, supplemented by Kanchan's earnings from minor jobs inside the rehabilitation site.
But Kanchan has no regrets about leaving his ancestral home to live at the rehabilitation site. "I am happy with the space we have and the facilities in the project, even though there I don't have a fixed source of income.”
He is excited by the prospect of development in the area with the opening of the bridge. "Everything will be better because of the bridge. It will ease the suffering of travellers. Once mills and factories are built, we will also get jobs.”
FAMILIES DEMAND SHARE OF TOLL
Gias Uddin Chakder's 33-acre plot and house in Shariatpur's Jazira were acquired by the government for the project. The bridge's link road now passes over it.
The government paid about Tk 750,000 for the land along with compensation for the houses and vegetation, he said. Although he received some additional financial assistance, he claims that the amount he was paid for the land was much lower than its market value.
Gias lives with his wife and son in the house he built on the 5 acres he was allotted at the rehabilitation site in Naodoba.
The 70-year-old said he spends his days without too many worries, planting paddy, jute and other vegetables on his land. The family depends on his son's income as a mason's assistant.
Although some people are struggling from losing their land and homes, he emphasised the advantages stemming from the bridge.
However, the elderly man also made a few demands on the government to alleviate their suffering. "The government has done its best for us. But the toll that will be raised from the bridge can be used to help us. We want the government to do that. ”
He also called for the provision of rations for the needy and the able-bodied alike.
Sujal, the chairman of the rehabilitation site management committee in Jashaldia, also called for a special allocation of funds raised from tolls for the families displaced and affected by the project.
"The government will generate a lot of revenue from tolls. We demand that part of that toll be set aside for the expenditures of the affected families.”