Yangon’s battle against strife

Apartments beside the railway tracks in Ahlone Township.

The ex-capital city – Yangon, the definitive major business hub of Myanmar has a lot to live up to its literal meaning – “End of Strife”.

The bustling city was just a mere 80 square kilometers large in 1988 but by the year 2000, it grew to 240 square kilometers – almost 3 times the size – and by 2014, the total area according to the Yangon City Development Council (YCDC) reached 306 Square Kilos.

Likewise, around 6 million people are now living in Yangon, compared to the data collected in 2014 that states the population to be at 5.2 million, which was only inclusive of those with legal documentation of stay within the city.

It is no over statement to say that ex-colonial city of Rangoon and the YCDC has done inadequately in preparation against the standard woes of a major city; high costs of living, high demand of low cost living spaces and the plight of the homeless as well as several other social issues.

Yangon’s native population growth rate sits at 0.7 per cent but ever since 1988, migrant workers from ethnic and far off areas have been steadily streaming into Yangon over the years due to availability of employment, raising the population growth rate to 2.3 percent.

Going along this calculation, the amount of people crammed into this city will reach 12 million by 2040.

By then, Yangon must transform into a mega city to meet the inevitable demands brought on by demands from local populace as well as foreign investors; central business districts, office spaces, drinking water, electricity, sewage and drainage systems, housing and transportation.

For that, Yangon needs to address its current problems and must solve them in advance.

In the last decade, the cost of living in Yangon has leaped drastically, especially taxing to those who have moved to Yangon from rural areas, seeking employment and a better life. For them, renting a place by themselves is impossible. Some share a flat or a house with co-tenants of multiple families while some rent what can only be described as “floor space for sleeping” in rundown dormitories.

“We came to Yangon around seven years ago and in 2008, dorm rates were around Ks 15,000 to 20,000. That was considered a little bit pricey. Now, a dorm will cost a person about Ks 50,000 for a decent place. The life in a dormitory is depressing and troublesome. So right now, three friends including me, are renting a flat together. It costs around Ks 120,000. It is very costly to live in Yangon,” said a company staff hailing from a rural region.

Back in 2000, a 600 square feet wide apartment at the 4th or 5th floor would fetch around Ks 30 to 60 Lakhs, a huge difference in comparison to price in 2010 of the same apartment that went for Ks 250 to 500 lakhs.

Such high costs were the results of the property market bubble as well as several other factors such as untaxed money flowing into a loosely regulated profit guaranteed market and that in turn, was brought on by the steadily diminishing living space.

It is often that you will find a house being rented out by 2 to 3 families with the tenants on the lower floor while the owners stay on the upper floor. These very real scenerios are not only the symptoms of less well to do, suburban townships but are also present in townships that are considered to be prosperous i.e. Bahan, Tamwe, etc.

Adding to the trouble are the occasional house fires, even more damaging when homes are clumped up together and situated on narrow roads, which of course means that fire trucks will either have limited or no access to.

The average population density of Yangon is calculated to be at 16,000 per square mile and townships close to central business areas such as Sanchaung, Kyimyintine and Kamayut are the most dense.

As a result of the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing, the problem of squatters only intensified.

According to Zin Min, research enthusiast on the squatting problem of Yangon, he gathered data from all 19 townships under the Yangon municipality and concluded that there are at least 43985 homes built by mostly trespassing on state owned properties with Hlaingthaya Township taking first place with at least 100,000 squatters.

Data from the ministry of construction confirms that at least 30 percent of Yangon’s population are squatters.

As most of the squatters are on government owned lands, they were often forcibly cleared out but every attempt simply served to chase them away to another area.

The so called affordable housing projects, meant to give homes to squatters and the poor, are given rights of purchase via lucky draws but priced out of the reach of the middle class in Yangon with apartments going for Ks 100 lakhs and above which leaves only the wealthy and property agents to buyout the places.

So far three of such places are also built in faraway places such as near Shwe Lin Pan river in Hlaingthaya Township.

“The idea behind low cost, affordable housing is generally good. I myself won the rights to purchase an apartment from Bo Ba Htuu project which is worth Ks 285 lakhs but it is impossible for me. Even the first installment requires me to deposit at least Ks 107 lakhs. It is important to actually think of the lower class citizens and their needs, it will never work out if everything just went to the cronies,” said Kyaw, an ethnic minority from Thingangyun Township.

There is another solution that was made itself known when criticisms erupted on the high price point of the affordable housing projects; rental housing projects. A total of 12.534 acres were reserved by the Yangon State government with a budget of Ks 20 billion.

The rental rates were targeted to be at Ks 30,000 to 50,000 per month but have yet to be approved by the government.

The worry on everyone’s mine is that this will be more of the same; just another ineffective project that was never really aimed at those who cannot afford housing but others.

Housing and its related costs are not the only issues Yangon faces and it is something of a problem that has surfaced fairly recently – traffic.

There are now over 500,000 vehicles in Yangon and while one can argue that it is a problem every major city faces; one must not forget that everywhere else will utilize systematic and effective solutions where else in Yangon, many tries have been attempted with little to no results.

Under the current government, four overpass bridges were built in Hlaedan, Bayintnaung, Shwegondaing and Myaynigone and three more that are in construction as we speak. Likewise, 100 road were chosen as no parking areas which just lead to vehicles moving to streets to park their car which, logically, causes the smaller streets to choke, adding on to the congestion issue.

The lack of parking space also contributes greatly to the problem as well due to the over import of cars having no where to park except within the roads and streets within the districts and the wards. It has reached a point where on 16 December; a man was stabbed and murdered over an argument over parking space in a central area township such as Latha.

Shops and offices also makes the problem worse by utilizing signboards and other things to reserve parking for their own vehicles or vehicles here on company business; an illegal activity ever since 2013 when YCDC stopped the sale of private parking spaces and claimed that every vehicle was free to park anywhere if within the confines of other existing laws.

The cherry on top of all the issues to solve is the problem of public transportation – specifically buses.

Around 80 percent of the population moves via buses but as it is with a city; there are more buses that heads toward the downtown of Yangon. There are a total of 7,000 vehicles registered with the transport ministry of which at least 75 percent run towards the heart of the city.

A multitude of other problems such as faulty mechanical problems, accidents, pickpocketing, and molesting as well as extremely rude behavior happens on a daily basis.

Those are the issues that the upcoming government must seek to grab hold of the reins on because if these things are not done in a timely manner, Yangon will fall further down the cesspool of where there is no return from.