Skyline von Schanghai

7.7.2007 | Von:
Shayer Ghafur

Dhaka has still to mature

The city is missing good governance and visions

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bpb: Dhaka is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. It is considered as a chaotic, heavily populated and poor city. How do you see Dhaka?

Ghafur: What are we "looking at" when we "see" Dhaka as chaotic, heavily populated and poor city should perhaps be the approach to understand Dhaka. These discrete as well as inter-linked observations are in fact the outcomes of the absence of good governance at the city and national levels. Increase in city population without supporting employment, infrastructure and other urban amenities continues without due capacity to manage urban complexities. Good governance is not just underperforming, it is absent. Critical observers would argue that this absence of good governance affects liveability and urban productivity of the urban poor more than others.


bpb: Every day people from the country side are coming to Dhaka in the hope to earn some money. What does this mean to the city life, is it cosmopolitan or rural?

Ghafur: Distressed migrants´ arrival in Dhaka for gainful livelihood is a common scenario across the developing world, and has been seen prompted, among others, by the urban-rural wage differentials. In Dhaka, migrants are invariably absorbed in the informal sector and live in the informal settlements; unfortunately, this informal nature of their earning and living is unlikely to change without restructuring of the world economy. Migrants, whether newly arrived or consolidated, find their rural connections and experiences contributing to their establishing and maintaining a social network as part of their survival strategy. Most of these migrants´ rural habits, customs and mores find expressions in their urban living. Adherence to culture is arguably another contributing factor. Here anonymity, arguably a key feature of western cosmopolitan life, in Georg Simmel´s sense is least preferred.

On the other hand, some aspects of the migrants´ life also go through transformation: they drink Coke, watch cable TV, use mobile phones, and get habituated to items of (multi-national) mass production like toothpaste, shampoo etc. But urban life in Dhaka is not homogeneous; social stratifications with concomitant living preferences show diversity in urban living. Bracketing urban life in a binary way, i.e. either as cosmopolitan or rural is perhaps not the best approach to understand the city life, urban living, in Dhaka.

bpb: More than 6 million citizens of Dhaka live in slum areas, around 44 percent of the households are poor. What are the practical approaches to reduce urban poverty?

Ghafur: Researchers in Dhaka might view these figures as exaggerated to some extent. However, a context for reducing urban poverty remains. A conceptual premise that understands urban poverty as a multi-faceted deprivation, not just income deprivation, is required. Policies and interventions based on this premise should not take the urban poor households homogeneously and gender neutrally. Acknowledging the difficulty, if not impossibility, of outlining practical approaches to reduce urban poverty in Dhaka following broad issues are worth considering.

Im schicken Stadtteil Gulshan, arm und reich dicht gedrängtThe posh Gulshan district, densely packed with rich and poor people (© Darko Penjalov)
First, ensure urban poor´s access to health, education and income to contribute to their human development; output of these inputs should help the urban poor, especially the women, develop their asset base which guarantees their invulnerability against unforeseen crises. Giving income generation loans, training of skills, marketing knowledge and helping them organising socially and politically are important considerations. Second, extend affordable services and secure tenure to make them feel legitimate citizens of the city. Third, explore beneficial linkages between the formal and informal sectors to expand and ensure their sustainable livelihoods. In all these activities, government, non-government and community organizations have to work in collaboration.

bpb: You did research on homelessness in cities in Bangladesh. What are your results on Dhaka?

Ghafur: I tried to understand the nature, causes and consequences of homelessness in Dhaka as part of a broader international research, led by CARDO [Centre for Architectural Research and Development Overseas], Newcastle University upon Tyne in UK. Homelessness causes among an individual or a social group rooflessnees, rootlessness and resourcelessness. A three-fold typology of homelessness is the major finding; they are floating homelessness (pavement dwellers), situated homelessness (squatters) and potential homelessness (vulnerable urban and rural people, especially women). Systematic causes of homelessness include pervasive poverty, social setting, natural disasters, political exclusions and evictions without rehabilitation.

bpb: Like in the whole of Bangladesh fundamentalist Islamic parties and groups are on the rise in Dhaka as well. Due to corruption and increasing poverty they present themselves as a "moral alternative". Would you say Dhaka is threatened by a radicalization? Changing the political, social and religious life?

Ghafur: The alleged "Islamic radicals" are, to say the least, an unfortunate outcome of the dysfunctional bi-partisan politics in Bangladesh. Common people in Bangladesh do not like extremes of anything; people are Godfearing but do not like doing politics in the name of God. Radical Islam, yes, has a presence as one would expect to have in any democratic society but to consider them as agents of change is going to far. The critical observation is that they thrive in a political vacuum, in absence of and as a failure of real politics.

bpb: Dhaka is the economical and financial hub of the country. For example Bashundhara City exists since 2005, a huge business centre with one of the biggest "shopping-cum-recreation complexes" in South Asia, as said by the sales promotion. Are there "two Dhakas" today, a deeply poor and a progressive, prosperous one?

Ghafur: For information, the promoter of Bashundhara City and his sons are now at large and under investigation for different criminal offences by the present caretaker government. Dhaka shows most indicators of a duel city. There is indeed a social divide. Dhaka, according to Rehman Sobhan, an eminent local economist, has two societies and two economies; one is local and indigenous, and the other is linked to the global economy. The later has been rightly observed as progressive and prosperous and the former as not. This trend in the overall urban setting has been consistently evident in the rising Gini-coefficient [measure of inequality], i.e. greater proportion of wealth is accumulated and concentrated among the rich compared to the poor.

bpb: Dr. Ghafur, what do you like most about Dhaka?

Ghafur: Dhaka celebrates human survival in extremes amidst constant let down by the authorities and politicians. Dhaka´s absorptive capacity to provide livelihood and shelter, however meagre and miserable, without conflict and sectarian violence is difficult to match. Dhaka now is more like an adolescent city, held captive in a transitional state. Given proper care and allowed time – good governance, guidance and vision – Dhaka has the capacity to grow to a maturity of her own kind.

Interview by Sonja Ernst


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