Is it scandalous for the Dhaka dwellers to learn that they live in the most unliveable place on the planet? Or, is it a loud confirmation of their routine plight to negotiate the worst perils of urban living? Perhaps, most people living in the city would find the latter attesting to the stark realities, and hence acceptable. People living in Dhaka know they have woes that are immense, but the fact that the city offers them the worst conceivable conditions to live in is an eye opener, many of whom might not have been aware how heartlessly abysmal the situation is in civilsed standards.
The ranking of Dhaka amid 140 cities around the globe is not too outrageous to take one aback. Dhaka has been a consistent tail-ender in the ranking for quite sometime, and this time it has hit – the only target it was capable of – the rock bottom. This was made known officially by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s 2012 Global Liveability Survey. This ranking is based on 30 factors across five categories: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. The city that topped the list is Melbourne with 95.5 points, while curiously, Dhaka holding on to the rear was not absolutely without points. It did score some – 38.7 points! Genuinely, it makes one curious to know about Dhaka’s score sheet, especially the areas where the survey considered Dhaka capable of scoring.
The five other unliveable (euphemistically least liveable) cities bracketed with Dhaka (beaten by Dhaka) are Karachi, Port Moresby, Lagos, Harare and Algiers. The EIU report is basically compiled for business people from western countries and is meant to work out hardship allowances as part of an expatriate’s relocation package. The report’s authors say, the survey quantifies ‘the challenges that might be presented to an individual’s lifestyle in 140 cities worldwide.’ Seen from such a western perspective, it is therefore not surprising that the survey’s top cities are all located in wealthy western countries.
Now what is it that contributes most to unliveablity? A commoner who has lived in Dhaka for sometime will be quick to refer to its population which, besides being a burden itself, is instrumental in triggering a whole lot of problems with chain effects. In fact, the gross inadequacies in infrastructure, healthcare, education, recreation – to name some of the parameters – are offshoots of the unmanageably large population, 17 million with a density of 45,508 people per square kilometer in the core area. It is difficult to set the problems apart and point fingers at them to seek cures in isolation. To put it differently, the specific and identified problems that have made living in Dhaka difficult or unliveable are actually not problems in themselves but symptoms grown out of the malady called population – not an asset for this city anymore.
Greater Dhaka is one of the fastest-growing mega cities in the world. An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 migrants, mostly poor from rural areas, arrive in the metropolitan area annually. Since 2000, its population has more than doubled and it is projected to grow to 25 million by 2025. With the population growing at this pace, civic amenities are sure to fall apart conceding to anarchy and lawlessness.
Blaming the burden of population is not to avert attention from the role of the government to attend to the myriad problems threatening to render the city dead, steadily and surely. When we speak of population, who do we actually want to account for? Not the people who throng from all over to earn a living here by whatever means they can, disregarding in most cases the barely visible rules and practices of law. It is the governments, all successive governments – democratic and despotic – who for all the past decades have demonstrated a sickening indulgence to population management in the city area. More so, it seems as though everyone from law enforcers to politicians have merrily cashed in on the dust of chaos and indiscipline that the ever sprawling population has offered as a shield for countless misdeeds.
The worst that the Dhaka residents are cursed with due to the mounting number of humans is the interminably long hours spent on the vehicle-choked streets. There were a few studies to quantify the loss of work hours, excess fuel consumed, impact on climate and productivity as result of the city’s horrifying traffic. One study shows that approximately 8.15 million work hours (of which 40 per cent is business hours) are lost annually accounting for Tk 200 billion.
Dhaka today is the casualty of the least lack of vision that could have otherwise salvaged the sinking city. One may well recall the situation in the early and mid eighties when, at the advent of garment factories in almost every nook and corner of the city, a massive 2 million people paraded into the heart of Dhaka to eventually become workers in the factories. The government was totally listless about the consequences. There were instances in not-far-off Sri Lanka where export oriented garment sector was provided with lucrative incentives to set up plants in convenient locations close to the ports. The option was very much open to Bangladesh and easy to replicate at that time. No one bothered. In fact, it was the eighties that saw the beginning of the collapse of Dhaka from a mid-sized manageable metropolis to what it is now – a place utterly wronged and violated.
That things could have been far different in the city are best explemplified during the Eid holidays twice a year when home bound exodus of people presents an opportunity for those who stay back, to see a liveable place that Dhaka is, not in terms of Global Liveability Survey standards but in its own modest ways.
The ruling government and those who will succeed to rule must make it clear to themselves what it means to make Dhaka liveable in strictly economic terms. It is not about climbing in ranking in a race that means little to us. It is simply and plainly a matter of survival.
Wasi Ahmed is a journalist, short story writer and novelist.