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Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

There is an irresistible symmetry between the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the people of Narayanganj. Both have been underdogs in their respective political domains. The Occupiers are liberal-minded everyday Joes and Janes, tired of predatory capitalism’s oppression of their lives. Before the recent mayoral election, the people of Narayanganj were condescendingly seen by the media and the rest of the country as hapless bystanders in the nexus of electoral politics. Both the Occupiers and the people of Narayanganj seem wary of known political figures and their tall pre-election promises. Both groups challenge the establishment and status quo.

There is also a vital difference. The Occupiers’ movement is mostly an abstract, ideological battle against plutocracy, greedy CEOs, and all forms of economic injustices. The Occupiers seek a paradigm shift in the ways corporatist economic systems create a minority of haves and a majority of have-nots. However, it is unclear when and how this goal will be achieved. It is also fuzzy how the Occupy movement’s gusty wind will yield electoral advantage.

On the other hand, on October 30, 2011, the people of Narayanganj fought a very tangible battle with both objectivity and abstraction: exercise voting rights to elect the best candidate, while at the same time take on the system that patronises thuggish and self-serving politics.

The Occupy movement that has gone global with makeshift encampments in iconic public places is largely symbolic and nobody knows where the movement is heading. It seems that the Occupiers would actually do well to visit Narayanganj, instead of just waiting it out on Wall Street. The way the people of Narayanganj have owned their city could offer a suitable model for the Occupy movement, as well as other projects of achieving social justice.

Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

What is most noteworthy about Dr. Selina Hayat Ivy’s victory in the mayoral election of Narayanganj City Corporation is that she has occupied her city, along with the people, with an equal dose of humility and resolve. She doesn’t shout and she dismisses crass showmanship as an election campaign strategy. In a post-election statement, she said that no loud mikes and environment-polluting wall posters are necessary to win an election. Her message states that one wins by diligence and sincerity, not by extravagant display of macho power (one hopes that this message does not diminish when routine sets in).

After her stunning win, the mayor-elect’s conciliatory tone, rather than the usual boastful barking, is a welcome change in our idolatrous political culture. Ivy’s statement, “I am ready to work with Shamimbhai and Taimur Kaka,” is hardly a conventional talking point when somebody wins a landslide victory in Bangladesh. Thus, it won’t be too farfetched to say that Ivy exemplifies a fledgling political figure: you can be a party loyal without a Faustian bargain; that is, party protection and rewards by selling out the soul.

Whether Dr. Ivy’s professional career, outside exposure (she lived in New Zealand), and her illustrious political pedigree (she is Narayanganj AL leader Chunka’s daughter) helped her develop a humble but confident political personality is an open question. However, it seems that she has created a new political landscape that now must be propagated across the country. Without overemphasising the increasingly audible theme of the “third force” in the Bangladeshi media, blogosphere, and talk shows, the message of Narayanganj could be harnessed with great results for the future of Bangladeshi politics.

environment-pollution 098As history shows, there is every chance that the opportunity that has emerged out of Narayanganj for political renovation might be squandered. Hyperboles like Ivy would change the last 40 years’ politics would only blur the long-term political meanings of this mayoral election. A new coterie of sycophants is now most likely to encircle Ivy like other leaders in the national limelight. And the party would try to reclaim her in its own patronising terms.

We hope that Dr. Ivy would resist easy temptations of party rewards. Instead of uncritically obeying dictates from Dhaka, she must stay her course in expanding the scope of the mayor’s office, while influencing the party itself to embrace the ethos of reason and transparency.

The best scenario that might come out of Ivy’s victory in Narayanganj is the empowerment of the institution of local government. Bangladesh is urbanising rapidly (according to a UN report, the country will become urban majority by 2030) and the country’s historically agrarian worldview is now colliding head on with hyper-urbanism, creating all kinds of unexpected twists and turns in urban governance.

Dhaka, for instance, has recently been sliced into two City Corporations because the government erroneously decided that the capital had become too large for one mayor. Instead of adopting a policy of decentralisation, population control, urban growth boundary, and capacity building in the mayor’s office, the government tragically opted for more divisiveness. On the other end of the spectrum, mayors like Sadek Hossain Khoka waste a valuable position by sitting idle and hiding their mediocrity behind the lament of not having enough power. Enterprising people who take bold initiatives, under any circumstances, may convince adversaries.

Under the tutelage of Dr. Ivy, Narayanganj could be a new model of holistic city governance. Given Narayanganj’s strategic location on the flat Padma-Brahmaputra-Meghna alluvial plain of central Bangladesh, we hope that she would make environmental stewardship and sustainable growth of the city as her administration’s motto. One of the oldest port cities in the country and an important jute trading and textile production centre located 20 km south-east of Dhaka, Narayanganj has been fast losing its ecological hinterland in the west to Dhaka’s inexorable expansion. Shitalahkya, its lifeline, has been encroached upon by political mafias.

My memory of Narayanganj is a dusty, dirty, and crowded town. It is the type of town with a heavy concentration of environment-polluting industries (such as textile in its all stages of production, soap-making, metal re-rolling, and wood furniture making) that one would not like to consider for a second trip.

Could the mayor-elect Ivy take charge and lay down an urban vision that would provide a healthy environment to the people of Narayanganj, while inspiring other smaller towns in the country to follow suit? It would not be fruitless to study the urban reform programs that had made Jaime Lerner, the mayor of southern Brazilian city of Curitiba in the late 1980s, a living legend.

Narayanganj has been Occupied. Now it has to be rebuilt sustainably. Best wishes, Dr. Ivy.

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Adnan Morshed, architect, urbanist, and associate professor at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.

8 Responses to “Occupy Narayanganj: Can the mayor-elect be the harbinger of good urban governance?”

  1. Kazi Saifuddin Hossain

    A lot has been said about this Narayanganj mayoral election on bdnews24.com and yours has added a few more points to ponder.

    I would only say that the main two political parties, namely the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, should set examples of decency by awarding nominations to honest and sincere, patriotic and competent candidates in future elections. Both the parties are all that we have and like parties in successful democratic countries, they should also engage in politics in a likewise manner.

    In other words, the mindset of the politicians must change; they should not run after their petty interests. Welfare of the people and development of the country should be their only preoccupation. Both the parties should shun dirty politics, especially BNP’s toying with religious sentiments and pledging solidarity with pseudo-religious political parties.

    Best wishes to Dr. Ivy.

  2. M. Siddique

    While I am glad that the election in Naryanganj were held without much hitch, peacefully and fairly, we should wait and see what Ivy is actually capable of delivering!

  3. russel

    Good write-up.
    Yes, it could be a harbinger of good urban governance. But it would be a fruitful prelude if it was installed in our country’s democracy.

    Alas! I can’t help but gasp.

  4. Syed Imtiaz Ali

    Thank you for making the people of Narayanganj and AL (all in fact), think about the real and far reaching message the election and its result and aftermath can bring about in the local and national lives of us.

    Dr. Selina Ivy being a physician by training, and what she must have seen and experienced in New Zealand she can try to gradually improve the health sector of NCC, along with so many other areas.

    If the local people unite to a single purpose, and if there is effective leadership, then no ‘special’ affiliation is required to serve the people. It has now been proved that general people want and look forward to peace, honesty and that promises are kept in delivery of service.

    Let this spirit prevail and spread; be contagious for us all to derive the UP SIDE of it! But do people who matter, read and be part of this forum and opinions at all? Do they give it a thought? Or remain intoxicated to personal and party gains only?

  5. John Doe

    The article is of typical North American perspective and consists of vague and naive comparisons and suggestions. On what basis exactly is it similar to Wall Street and NCC elections? Your given logic is a joke! Shamim is a well established criminal and everyone is well aware of that, but out of the basket of the bad apples, Ivy is probably the least rotten…what about her credentials? She went on serving for eight years without any systematic regulations, which outline the terms of any mayor in that part of the country, or for that matter, in most parts of Bangladesh!

    She has the designation of ‘Dr’ before her name, but what kind of a ‘Dr’ is she? If she was so successful in New Zealand, why didn’t she stay back? Let’s face it, the majority of Bangladeshis (but not all) are not in the best positions, career-wise abroad. She does not have the potential in making it in New Zealand either. Secondly, nepotism rules in Bangladesh, especially in the political arena. After, probably failing to make it in New Zealand, she decided wisely, to return to Narayanganj and use her family brand name for politics. How did her family survive abroad? Where did the money come from for her children’s education and other expenses? A lot of questions are unanswered!

    The major difference between politics in home and abroad is, established professionals turn to politics with their life experiences and knowledge whereas semi-literate or illiterate individuals in Bangladesh enter politics to make a livelihood out of it. In this case, both Shamim Osman and Ivy fall into it. Time will tell what kind of change she brings…

    • Golam Arshad

      Reveal your true identity John Doe! Sound partisan of interest!

    • Kazi Saifuddin Hossain

      I am inclined to accept your views as constructive criticism, especially the part regarding the political leaders. It is true that they require their life experiences and knowledge for running the state. You said, ‘Semi-literate or illiterate individuals in Bangladesh enter into politics to make a livelihood out of it’. I would term it semi-educated or uneducated. Because, there are some literate people posing as the intelligentsia or the civil society, who support their respective parties blindly, while being unmindful of the question as to whether their party’s policy is right or wrong. Whereas, in the successful democratic countries, the civil society remains impartial, and whenever it voices something, the political parties listen to its voice. In sharp contrast, the so-called intellectuals in Bangladesh are nothing but lackeys to their respective political parties. How do we overcome this drawback?

  6. Golam Arshad

    Adnan: True! Ivy’s win a sonic boom in the vortex of current politics in Bangladesh. We have to wait and see what transpires next in coming days and months. Good job!

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