The political economy of Dhaka centrism

Ridwanul Haque | Published: 00:00, Oct 27,2019 | Updated: 14:32, Oct 27,2019

Ridwanul Haque, Washington DC, Hollywood, Malaysia, India, USA, Dhaka, political economy, Los Angeles, California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Florida

— New Age

There are no nearby visible rich agricultural activities but there are several research centres for agricultural research in Khamarbari. It is sheer planned centralisation. And it has been taking its toll for a long time by generating regional inequality at the expense of other areas’ prospects as well as causing other form of deformation in many areas of our life. Such centralisation has links to colonial governance system and is also working as a breeding ground for countrywide socioeconomic inequalities. The making of Dhaka arrested most of our dreams and potentials. Our hopes are dying in Dhaka’s custody, writes Ridwanul Haque  

Despite securing the 3rd place among world’s most densely populated cities and again, being named the 3rd worst city to live, our capital — Dhaka, is not losing its appeal. Most of us see Dhaka as a land of opportunity and once we hit the streets of Dhaka, our dream of city life, vis-à-vis ‘urban myth’ unfolds: whether you are skilled or not, fit enough to face the struggle and competition or not, go to the city full of glamour, glitters and rush, and try your luck; every year more than half a million people are pouring in! The making of Dhaka has been dictating a situation where the development process is purposefully asymmetrical.

We could have some specialised cities for different types of operations like India, the USA and Malaysia have. See the USA has administrative capital in Washington DC, Hollywood — the premier film industry in the world is situated in California’s Los Angeles, the technological hub is situated more than 300 miles away from there in Silicon Valley, Pennsylvania has heavy industries, Florida is place to space research and premier meteorological structures, Detroit has automobile industries and Massachusetts is education city.

India with such a large population and volatile weather also took the same path. It has its heavy industries located in different cities. Film industry — Bollywood is in Mumbai, New Delhi is administrative capital and technological hub is in Bengaluru.

These cities were not built in a day. A country’s different regions may have different potentials like a port city can handle export and import related hustles and industries built there can enjoy less transportation cost, a region dominated by agricultural economy may enjoy a city within where the agro product will go through processing, icy cold zones can be cost effective for food preservation, terrains with humongous reservoirs can be of great help for setting up plastic and steel plants.

What advantages all these have? A city might get infected by an endemic and city life might come to halt but distant cities can be saved by taking immediate measures and country’s all area of operations will not stop; a high magnitude of earthquake may destroy one city but that will not thwart activities in other cities. Civil societies are powerful there because they are scattered in different groups in different cities. Hence it is not easy to stop them from raising their voices against all odds.

There are no nearby visible rich agricultural activities but there are several research centres for agricultural research in Khamarbari near Farmgate! Film making division — Bangladesh Film Development Corporation (BFDC), countries most of the prestigious educational institutions, head offices of most of the commercial and financial institutions are in Dhaka, even our major news medias’ head offices are there.

A good chunk of the capital’s economy is underground economy. There are employers who will hire almost every type of labour available, so, you have to be there. It is sheer planned centralisation! And it has been taking its toll for a long time by generating regional inequality at the expense of other areas’ prospects as well as causing other form of deformation in many areas of our life. How?

Colonial history shows that areas with relatively greater population density were easy to capture with suppressive administrative system and establish strict surveillances afterwards. Look at the history of Latin America’s urban centres — cities in central Mexico and Andean Peru had population densities over or up to 400 people per square kilometres, but in the USA the number was less than a person per square kilometre. Ergo: it was easy for the colonialists to rule those densely populated cities, establish more centralised system and look over the surrounding territories.

Also in Africa, cities like Johannesburg and Lagos got established nearly in the same way. In cost benefit analysis it is easier and cost effective to allure so many people to be in one place and set up modern day surveillance and suppressive system to keep hold of power. But a city like Dhaka, with every degree of centralisation as discussed above, works as a break on many other possibilities too.

Our capital is place to near 20 million people that is one-eighth of our country’s total population. Dhaka has verisimilitude- near similar political economy of Lagos, which contributes nearly 30 per cent of Nigeria's total GDP and has high crime rate and accumulation of power and wealth. Bangladesh is 149th and Nigeria is 144th in corruption perception index prepared by Transparency International.

A report jointly produced by BBS, World Bank and the UNWFP shows Dhaka alone contributes the highest — 35 per cent of the GDP, also it is place to 32.3 per cent of the country’s total poor people. According to an estimate in 2014, the slum dwellers of Dhaka are contributing 8 per cent of capital’s total GDP. They mainly serve as household workers and as a part of small cottage industry workers who have no good sanitation and pure drinking water facilities. They are vulnerable to airborne and water borne diseases, add both sound and air pollution - making it an asphyxiating netherworld. Many of them are living hand to mouth and an increase in price level will push them through revolving door to severe poverty.

Now take into account — the crime rate in Dhaka’s metropolitan area, which is the highest in the country; since 2017, monthly average of arrested people for drug related crimes are more than 2000 excluding other form of crimes. So, the prophecy inked by Henry George in 1879 that said both beggars and prisoners are also indicators of development just like the protuberant prayer halls, sumptuous prayer buildings and elegant villas are - has its manifestation in Dhaka.

Consider the scandals of Dhaka Stock Exchange, Hallmark Group, casino mafias, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) detected corrupted system’s headquarters within, and the astronomical amount of capital flights. Administration, power and wealth co-exist in this centre. Our civil societies are highly Dhaka-centric. Sum these up. May be such a system is also working as a breeding ground for our version of ‘Robber Barons’ and country wide socioeconomic inequalities! This is the political economy of Dhaka as a highly centralised capital city.

We could build our port city Chittagong as our commercial capital by investing heavily in infrastructure for better export import handling power. Barishal division is full of greeneries and grains and fisheries. Rajshahi and Rangpur divisions need heavy investment in irrigation and transport related investments. Khulna’s Mongla port can share the burden with Chittagong port in many ways. Instead, our government is used to invest in mega-projects in Dhaka, giving an impression like — if Dhaka is developed, the country is developed and the lesser people live elsewhere! The degree of centralisation and the incessant development spree in Dhaka are two of the major causes of underdevelopment in other regions.

Also our regional cultural celebrations are declining, family bonds are getting loosened, and the rate of assimilation is rising. Many of the home grown children are heading towards Dhaka for better future prospects; instead, they could have stayed within the vicinity of their hometowns, could reach closer people and serve better in every possible way. Yet the Dhaka is taking them away. The making of Dhaka arrested most of our dreams and potentials. Our hopes are dying at Dhaka’s custody.

If nothing happens to decentralise Dhaka, we might hope for destructive warfare or for an unstoppable endemic like bubonic plague to visit us, or for a very high magnitude of earthquake demolishing its infrastructures making it non-liveable — whatever you wish or not!

These can reverse the asymmetric development process. Now I do sound like a Malthusian preacher, Do not I? Or who else can do it?

Ridwanul Haque is interested in political economy and cultural anthropology

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