It was like sticking my head into a beehive or a blender. The result was a beaten down head, intellect and the sense of certainty. But, that is the purpose of any inquiry. A challenge into the baseline assumptions and then a consensus on going forward after a debate and open discussion. I am, of course, talking about the reaction to my most recent post, “Memsahibs of Dhaka – 2012”. In it I suggested that there exists a self-destructive upper crust of women who cage themselves in glided cages because of dependence on cars, drivers, and lack of movement. There was a wide range of reaction and rejoinders. The readers mainly disagreed with my premise that too with some vehemence. There were the usual epithet throwers, the name callers to be ignored but there were some really poignant and personal accounts that challenged my premise and my understanding of the particular situation in Dhaka and the terrible burden the place itself puts on people. Especially the comments by Maruf Ahsan and Sanam were informed by personal experiences, existential angst and most of all sincere and thought provoking cases that directly challenged my underlying research and my worldview.
There is this truism that says, “Check your premises if the outcome is challenged empirically”. This is a classic case of re-evaluating my premises, my research and my assumptions. The single biggest category that came across was the safety and security, OK, lack thereof in the city of Dhaka. The standard cry is that crime is really bad and law and order situation make this an inhospitable place. Hmm, that actually goes against things I thought I knew! People used adjectives like “this miserable city”, “this dreaded city”, “this terrible city” and the “second most dangerous city” in the world. People who live in Dhaka seem to really loathe the place. The other thing most people said was how bad the roads and transportation are in Dhaka. The unending traffic jams, the full to the gill buses, trains and CNGs and so on. So, time to check my premises. But before we do so let’s stipulate that there are two ways of checking one’s premise. The subjective one based on opinion surveys like the recent EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit) livability survey and the hardnosed statistical ones. The surveys are sometimes based on skewed economic interest biases (like hardship bonuses for expatriates). So, I am going with the statistical data because as they say, “And the Truth shall set you free”.
Let me make a bold declaration; on a reported and verified crime statistics Dhaka is a much (I mean much) safer city than Singapore. I am using Singapore as a benchmark because it is the place most people mentioned as an example of a place with less crime. Based on 2011 analytical data compiled by The European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, that is just pure baloney. The Institute based in Helsinki tracks crime statistics for OECD and UN and crunches data nonstop. Their website is: http://www.heuni.fi/Etusivu/Researchareas/Crimestatistics . The table below shows only a smattering of the categories of crime that I think impact the lives of people directly, e.g., assaults, rapes and robberies. In each category Singapore has a higher or similar ranking to Bangladesh/DAC except for rape. Interesting data point huh? All these piety and suppression of sexuality simply manifests as violence against women, which what rape is, pure and simple act of great violence.
As you can see in any category the crime rate when measured in terms of population density is not too far off between the two places. There are outliers; serious assault is 189% more in Singapore than in Dhaka. Whereas rapes 178% more in Bangladesh. In Singapore robberies are 35 times more than in Bangladesh. Let me save you the suspense, I have done the same comparative statistical analysis against Kolkatta, London, Cape Town, New York, Karachi and Kuala Lumpur. The only place that has shown consistently better results is KL otherwise Dhaka/DAC beats the rest of the compared cities/countries hands down, especially Cape Town and Karachi. In my view Karachi is simply an ungovernable and unliveable place, period.
Another hard source of data is to go to the dreaded CIA. The swashbuckling part of CIA is a miniscule part of the organization. Most of the organization is populated by people grinding away at socio economic data. They actually make an interesting distinction in criminal acts. The Crimes of Opportunity and the Crimes of organization. For example; someone snatching your purse and running away or picking your pocket at Gausia Market is a crime of opportunity. Whereas when the Chanda folks come to your organization and asks for protection money (Chanda) then that is a crime of organization. They also have a sub-category for scams and fraud which is related to weak governance issues. The crime of opportunity is typically petty economic crime and can be rooted out with better policing and infrastructure. The crimes of organization and corruption can actually destroy the fabric of a society and hence far more serious. Despite what you may think vast majority of the crimes in Dhaka and Bangladesh are crimes of opportunity. So, the State Department warns the US citizens not to get into a CNG after 9 PM or show too much money around. As if we have to be told not to be stupid.
At the risk of inviting the wrath of the readers I am going to say that the fears of crime is overblown and mainly in our heads! Take back the streets. Someone asked/mocked me in his/her response, “walk, really?” Yes, really, really!
Now the great big mountain of infrastructure (or lack of it) that inhibits and kills the city. I am going to make another declaration, it is not the crimes but the outrageously bad infrastructure that creates the angst and labels of this “dreaded city”. I have been running around Dhaka for the last ten days. Roads are clogged day and night, no one gives a hoot about traffic laws and there seem to be no reasonable explanation as to why some car would go round to the extreme left to make a right turn! I used to be a cab driver in my early days in Manhattan. Those of you have travelled in New York know that the cabbies there are an extremely aggressive lot with a little bit of death wish in them. I tried to drive in Dhaka and promptly gave up. Not so much because of traffic or speed but mainly because there were no predictability to any of the actions by any of the beings, things and ghosts on the roads.
First of all let’s acknowledge that Dhaka is one of the densest cities in the world with population around 17 million and racing towards 25 million. A city that grows by another chunk every few months. I can only compare the transformation to Shenzen in China. In a place growing at a breakneck speed there will be and are problems of infrastructure. But, the stupidity of the of the government bureaucrats simply aggravates a hard problem into an impossible one. So there are too many cars on narrow roads — let’s build flyovers so more cars can get around, besides they look fancy. So what they are trying to solve is a car problem and not a transportation problem. Why flyovers over a light rail or a subway system? Every city that has tackled growth issues has tackled the problem of moving people around in the most efficient ways, which are always more and more public transport options (OK, American cities are exceptions and we pay the price) like light rails, subways and people movers. But, what do the authorities in Bangladesh do? They order up flyovers which are probably the least efficient ways of moving people around. I can list the follies till the cows come home but I will leave it for some other time.
So, at the end of my rechecking of the premises I come to the following conclusions:
• The ghosts of uncontrolled crime in Dhaka are simply ghosts. Apparitions based on fear and loathing and not reality. There are tragic individual instances but on the aggregate the fears are based on hooey.
• The enforcement of traffic laws will ease lot of the burden of day to day living. A remote possibility unless the citizen put on tremendous pressure.
• Focused programs to make efficient uses of resources to move people around should be given far more weight than the signature chest thumpers of flyovers and other projects of pride and nonsense, e.g., the military murals on the way to the airport. If you are going to make ugly things at least hide them.
My dear Memsahibs I am back to my original premise; take back your streets and your city or you will end up living inside the close cousin of Karachi. Yes, the transportation and infrastructure are huge issues but without continuous and dramatic pressure from all of you things are doomed to grind towards chest thumping rather than real solutions.
(The views expressed are the author’s own and not those of bdnews24.com’s).
Kayes Ahmed lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA with his three dogs. He runs a small yet global apparel and design business based in Boulder.