Railway Families Still Smarting After 2 Years

Efforts by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to restore the living standards of families evicted by its railway rehabilitation project continue to fall far short of expectations, and urgent action is needed if the bank is to comply with its own safeguard policies, according to a new report.

Some 1,000 families have been evicted from homes to make way for the project to rehabilitate the country’s dilapidated train tracks, and thousands more have lost—or may lose—pieces of their land. The ADB, which paid the bulk of the $143 million the project was originally predicted to cost, was pushed into a remediation plan by its independent Compliance Review Panel in 2014 following a formal complaint.

A man smokes near homes built next to railway tracks in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
A man smokes near homes built next to railway tracks in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The panel’s second annual monitoring report on the plan’s progress, released in late June, says the ADB made progress over the past year but is still falling short on five of the six main recommendations approved by the bank’s board of directors, including critical debt relief for the evictees.

The report says the ADB and the government’s Interministerial Resettlement Committee, the bank’s partner in enforcing the remediation plan, “must be complimented” for making “significant progress” on all six recommendations.

But it says they are failing most severely on two: helping families climb out of the debt they were forced to take on because of their evictions, and helping them earn at least as much income as they did before they were moved.

On those two points, the panel says, “the remedial actions fall far short of the board-approved recommendations. Urgent and concerted action is required on the part of ADB to ramp up efforts to close these gaps and ensure that remedial actions meet board requirements and expectations. If that is not done in a timely fashion, the [railway rehabilitation] project is unlikely to be brought into full compliance with ADB’s operational policies and procedures.”

In 2013, a resettlement expert commissioned by the bank to assess the project’s impact on affected families said the debt they were forced to take on was at “crisis” proportions.

But the government refused to endorse the debt relief plan, forcing the ADB to partner with VisionFund Cambodia, an NGO. Despite the widespread debt among evictees, however, the panel report says the NGO had, as of April, arranged only “about 38” debt relief contracts, in part because informal lenders brought into the project refused to sign repayment agreements in the hope that the families would default.

“Apparently some informal lenders were not keen to sign off on the agreements, supposedly as they do not wish repayment as they would like to capture the resettlement plot once final land titles are issued,” the panel says.

What’s more, the debt relief contracts won’t even be available once the project is discontinued this year.

The panel says it is also “regrettable” that after two years, a separate program meant to bring the evictees’ income levels back to where they were before they moved to resettlement sites has yet to be brought into full force, with “little to no” job training during that time.

It says, too, that the bank repeatedly applied unduly low inflation rates to calculate the various compensations the families were owed. The panel says it cannot understand why the ADB used a 9.7-percent inflation rate to compensate evictees in Phnom Penh when the government suggested 34.5 percent.

Chheng Bunhak, whose family has been resisting government pressure to leave its track-side home in Poipet City since 2003, said on Wednesday that roughly 90 percent of families who moved were still in debt.

“Most of the families lost their jobs after moving to the relocation site because they are far away from the market and they have to pay 10,000 riel [about $2.50] to go there and come back, and they earn only 20,000 to 30,000 riel a day,” he said. “The site has no health center and they live with poor sanitation.”

Eang Vuthy, director of the NGO Equitable Cambodia, which helped the families file the complaint that triggered the remediation plan, said he and his staff were seeing fewer and fewer people at the resettlement sites strung out between Poipet and Phnom Penh each time they visited.

“They’re moving out,” he said. “The job is the main problem. There are no jobs at the site.”

Mr. Vuthy said he was also worried about the imminent end of the debt relief plan, for all its faults, and did not see an easy way out of the mess.

“This is still a problem and we don’t know what the ADB is going to do about it,” he said.

The ADB’s country office did not reply to a request for comment. The government’s resettlement committee could not immediately be reached.

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)


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