Wasi Ahmed

Dhaka: The city wronged

September 1, 2012

reflections1Is 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.

trafficjamThe 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.

dhaka-bangladeshGreater 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.

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Wasi Ahmed is a journalist, short story writer and novelist.

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24 Responses to “ Dhaka: The city wronged ”

  1. Andrew Eagle on September 18, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Of course in western cities children are raised in daycare, have little contact in particular with their extended families, both parents must work to pay for the cost of living, there are very few people who can afford services such as doormen, caretakers, buas etc., many other services such as cobblers, barbers (for shave) are absent, people have to walk further because of no rickshaws (even with better public transport networks available)and good luck if you wish to buy fruit and veg or a chicken from the street in front of your house!

    Houses / residential architecture in western cities are arguably more cookie-cutter in many instances to keep costs low (as opposed to the more attractive middle class apartment buildings in Dhaka). I mean new housing projects.

    Rules apply to absolutely everything, including fines, such as crossing the road at an angle or how high one can build a fence on one’s own land (might sound nice from a Dhaka perspective but does one really need policing / government in every life minutiae?). Routine might be refreshing but can also be boring when every day is the same.

    Even things like free medical care often involves waiting lists and public schools… depends on the area. In western cities people have been known to die alone in their homes and not be discovered for several months since there is so little in the way of community (but much in terms of privacy). It’s lucky to know the names of the neighbours.

    And although the traffic is worse in Dhaka, travel times as compared to say, Sydney, where I was born, are not. Sydney is a very spread out city and it is usual to take an hour at least to reach office from home. An hour and a half is not unusual either and some live beyond the city limits and commute two hours each way per day (because it is so expensive to live closer). The distances covered are greater but again, time is the same!

    And whenever you have greater density (like Dhaka) there are greater numbers of shops available. Dhaka dwellers may not be able to imagine having to travel one kilometre by car for a bottle of milk because it is a Sunday (here Friday)… or that everything shuts earlier in the west (in general). And on the weekends, please wait up to an hour for a train service to the city centre since passengers are so few.

    And after a hard week at work for both mum and dad, let them spend friday cleaning the house (because there is no one else to do it).

    And there are still jams, still crowded trains and buses (though maybe slightly less packed than in Dhaka) at least during peak hours when you need them.

    Of course I don’t mean that Dhaka doesn’t have its problems, but living anywhere has pluses and minuses. The idea of a liveability ranking is well, the usual ‘west is best’ thing, as you point out, from the viewpoint of western businessmen and hardship allowances.

    And surely we love our Dhaka regardless? Just saying…

    • Shelley on September 1, 2013 at 12:28 am

      Dhaka is a cesspool. Those who say they still love Dhaka have never lived any where else and do not have a clue what the rest of the civilized world, including living in neighboring India, is really like. Please stop romantacising a cesspool. The author is right: it is the fault of all the governments who have been in charge. It is a free for all situation – and the corrupt governments and business men are the only Dhaka dwellers who benefit from this self-created cesspool. It is almost as though everyone else has rights but the original “aadibashis” of Dhaka, the educated middle class who have been marginalized. No I no longer love the city I was born in. And please don’t tell me I should feel any guilt for that. Anyone who says they love Dhaka either have no idea what it means to be a human being with the right to certain minimum standards of living or are actually living in a safe distance away in other countries and romantacises Dhaka.

  2. imtiaz on September 9, 2012 at 2:48 am

    The best option for the government would be relocating the capital of Bangladesh. I know it would be difficult but not impossible with all those remittances coming in from abroad.

  3. Ali on September 6, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    The 400 year old city is now the capital of a proud, independent country. But only recently bestowed with least livable city in the world title and least facilitation available to do business, etc.!
    We all can make a long list of DECAYING and STINKING complaints about the worst conditions imaginable. The conditions are SO BAD that at times it seems that Dhaka will never ever revive to a relative decent place to live. Is the decay really irreversible?
    Can the authorities prove me wrong? They can if they read these comments and take more action on remedies. They always miss the chance to serve and BUILD.

  4. Dr. Md Anwarul Hoque on September 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    Dhaka has been named worst liveable city in the earth. Being a Bangladeshi, I feel ashamed about it. Can’t we do something to improve the situation? Can’t we keep our Buriganga river clean? I beg to our polititian, please do something for our own cities rather than touring beautiful cities around the world. Please, do something if not for yourselves, for the sake of future generations!

  5. Dr. Md Anwarul Hoque on September 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Dhaka has been named world’s worst liveable city in the earth. Being a Bangladeshi, I feel ashamed about it. Can’t we do something to improve the situation? Can’t we keep our Buriganga river clean? I beg to our polititian, please do something for our own cities rather than touring beautiful cities around the world. Please, do something if not for yourselves, for the sake of future generations!

  6. Mozammel Haque on September 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    A nice write up.
    Dhaka is the capital.Not only it there are others cities to have the same reputation.
    Again it is a good shelter for village touts after committing crimes.It is a shelter home for jobless youths under the umbrella of political workers.
    It is a good den for those who love indiscipline and make money out of it.
    So Dhaka is Dhaka and it will be fine to see 25 million its population.
    Even there are many open space at night and how soon it will be occupied by sleepers let us see.
    Every one has reason to do his job at day and night.So what to a rickshaw pullers if gallons of fuel is burnt,so what to a van puller if a man dies in the ambulance,so what to a hawker to do business on the road side when people leave the foot paths to walk on the road.
    Every one is a citizen of this Dhaka. There is another occasion leaders call for political agitation and stop roads and public argue in its favour or against it in the traffic jam.
    This is Dhaka.
    Let us see the same in other cities one after one.
    Even then there are some fools who think about the volunteer force or discipline force.
    They are going to control.Is it possible?Is it near?

  7. Engineer Abdur Rahman Bhuiyan on September 2, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    Thanks to Mr. Wasi for his most informative writing on the world ranking status -the root cause of problems and most interestingly, the beneficiaries out of peoples’ sufferings.
    In my opinion backwardness in the development of the communication sectors, especially the Railway is the root cause of all problems. Had there been an improved railway communication for the people to safely travel from the nearby district towns, not only the working class people many others would do their jobs in and around Dhaka from their home towns. In Parallel the district towns would also develop for health, education and other facilities.
    Lots of problems are being accumulated to our life in the capital city of Dhaka. But, I don’t consider it to be impossible to mitigate as yet. The requirement is an honest, sincere and religiously devoted leadership. A truly independent and unbiased media can play the most significant role in this contest. The sooner the better.

  8. sajjad on September 2, 2012 at 10:41 am

    so what could be a solution?
    essays on problems are fine, millions can write better, solutions are rare.

    • Engineer Abdur Rahman Bhuiyan on September 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm

      Please re-visit my earlier response. I think there is indication of at least one sort of solution. Improve the transport to and from Dhaka and improve the condition of basic needs (health and education in the district and Upazila levels so that people feel their village home more comfortable than the crowdy and lousy Dhaks.

    • Naima Chawdhury on September 4, 2012 at 7:41 pm

      Don’t you know the solutions? Midnight talk shows give instant solutions to all our maladies. But do they help? Does anyone in the hot seat listen?

      • Nadira Chawdhury on September 4, 2012 at 7:54 pm

        Rather than looking for solutions on each and every aspect of deteriorating city life, the only one government has to address is the population management. The writer did give ample hint to the blunder of having so many people in one place since the early eighties. He is absolutely correct in pointing out the beginning of the collapse of the 400 year old city. Can the government rectify the damage done? At least it should apply its mind on future policies in this regard.

  9. Syed Imtiaz Alli on September 2, 2012 at 3:56 am

    Without going into details, the fact is that if in a 10 x 10 sft room instead of two students there are to be accommodated some 20, there will be hardly any space for standing erect! The scenario of Bangladesh has become exactly same, and alarmingly getting WORSE. Dhaka city is the microcosm of similar computation of 2:20; means we have 10 times of population that BD can afford to sustain in a comparatively resourceful way.
    Bottom line is our HUGE POPULATION, and further worsened by ILL Planning.
    The previous DCC mayor has absolutely NO instance to show or mention that has been taken care of during his long tenure. His time has been PATHETICALLY woeful.
    If we need some respite from further degrading Dhaka, we need to plan accordingly, to:
    1. Remove people from City limits who can stay home and go for work.
    2. De-centralise and relocate some offices to other satellite districts.
    3. Impose a City Tax for entering Capital limits (Taka 5 is enough toll).
    4. REMOVE huge, piled up Dirt and Garbage from both sides of roads.
    5. Coordinate all relevant services to work in sync, for RESULTS.
    6. Impose Fines for Littering and de-facing walls and buildings. (it is easy).
    7. Issue strong warnings of punishable offence for littering etc.
    8. Place Bins and collect the solid waste DAILY bet. 11pm and 5am only.
    9. The Fines and City Limit Taxes can be a part of extra expenses for clean up.
    10. REPAIR ROADS and clean them. This will alone Improve many services.
    It is not rocket science, but a sincere will is required to ACT and Improve the life of Dhaka Bashis. Perhaps remove the stigma of being at the bottom rung of livability as a city. Let us try to get over the sham SHAME.

    • Mozammel Haque on September 3, 2012 at 3:10 pm

      Are there people like them who are called stupid by high class bureaucrats,business tycoons and opportunity finders.
      Thanks for the suggestions.Let us see to happen soon to save its citizen.

    • Engineer Abdur Rahman Bhuiyan on September 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm

      Lots of interesting points. But my question is who is “DhakaBashi”? each and every citizen of the country has a right to come and live in any parts of the country including the capital.

      Regarding the dirt I have seen in some developed countries, the municipalities supplies empty black poly begs to each dweller who accumulate their wastes and then place in front of the house or on the road side. Not a single piece comes out. The begs are sufficiently thick so that the dust bean animals (cats & dogs) can not tear them. The municipality pickers/ trucks picks those at their routine times. Obviously the begs are re-cycled. I am sure it will far far less expansive than our present mode of garbage collection.

      • Syed Imtiaz Ali on September 6, 2012 at 1:57 pm

        Whosoever lives within the city limits of Dhaka, are Dhakabashi. Those who use the city services within such limits.
        Garbage collection in BAGS and Disposal at night time will alone make a good difference. You are absolutely right.
        Only couple of steps can bring about marked difference, to start with.

        Thanks for your comments.

  10. GOLAM ARSHAD on September 1, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    Wasi: You have been an icon to fellow friends and classmates at the English Department. You have been a writer with a Midas touch, writing in simple and direct English. That was the core teaching we both received from our respected Professor lovingly known as Dr.SIC of English Department. Cant’ agree more with your inking thought expressed in this article. We need to have a set of people, patriot and knowledgeable to serve people for the welfare of our brloved country. CHANGE will be coming soon WASI. Good job!!

    • Engineer Abdur Rahman Bhuiyan on September 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm

      I agree with you. We need a set of honest, patriotic and knowledgeable people.

  11. anonymous on September 1, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    I think there are worse cities out there, at least the chances of a suicide bomber or masked gunman a crawling up your alley is less likely than Baghdad or Kabul.

  12. Sixth Sense on September 1, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    Dhaka is dying slowly but surely.There is none to save the city now!

    • Mozammel Haque on September 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm

      If one Dhaka dies there is a chance of another Dhaka to be born.So let the sick Dhaka die soon so that we are fortunate see a new Dhaka.

      • Sixth Sense on September 5, 2012 at 6:32 pm

        Please keep you fingers crossed for a new Dhaka!By any chance,are you connected with a land developer or a real estate owner?

        • ZS.1977 on September 7, 2012 at 8:47 pm

          A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
          ― Winston Churchill

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