On the banks of the Buriganga, Old Dhaka’s boatmen only ever rest a moment before making their return journey, endlessly ferrying passengers back and forth across the river.
They pick them up at the Sadarghat docks, the historical trading hub that helped build the city, and row them towards the sprawling suburbs that have crept across what used to be open farmland two decades ago.
Old Dhaka is no longer the economic and political heart of the city, but Sadarghat is still the defining image of its perpetual movement and growth, of commuters living and working across the Buriganga, and new migrants forever stepping off crowded ferries, arriving from the countryside.
Dhaka reflects the trajectory of Bangladesh in the 50 years since independence, on 26 March 1971. At that time it was a small city of a million souls in a poor and underdeveloped nation, after decades of Pakistani neglect.
Now Dhaka is a megacity, an economic hub that has grown chaotically – outwards and upwards – to absorb the 20 million people who live there, with 400,000 arriving each year. Many have migrated with dreams of economic opportunities they cannot find elsewhere.
Asaduzzaman Asad preceded most in his migration to the capital, arriving from the western district of Jhenaidah in 1966, when Dhaka was still the capital of East Pakistan, with the idea of starting a business.
“This town was very small. The number of three-storey buildings were few and you mostly just saw tin-roofed homes. There were ponds and canals and very few people. It was peaceful,” says Asad.
After independence in March 1971, Asad settled in Mohammadpur, an area still taking shape in the newly-settled north of the city. Dhaka was expanding quickly. In some areas the government allocated land for new arrivals to settle on, encouraging more migrants to head to the city. In other places, swathes of wetland and farmland were swallowed up by new neighbourhoods.
New roads made travel and trade easier and Asad reaped personal rewards, with more customers for his grocery shop.
Bangladesh was infamously described as a “basket case” economy in 1971 by Henry Kissinger, who had opposed its creation. Half a century later, the country’s leaders often take pride in pointing out that they have proved him wrong.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted in October the country’s economic growth would still hit 4.4% in 2021 despite the coronavirus pandemic halving the previous year’s growth.
Most of that has been driven by Dhaka-based industries that have spawned a rapidly-growing class of super-rich, who live in leafy neighbourhoods, dine out on international cuisine and shop in gleaming malls or abroad. These industries feed on a constant flow of migrants fleeing deprivation or climate disasters, who move to places like the Kallyanpur and Korail slums, or the suburbs between Dhaka and satellite towns built for garment factories.
“There are problems here. There is also work here. As the crisis in our village increased, I came to Dhaka to find a living,” says Parveen Begum, 45, whose home in the coastal Bhola district was engulfed when the river flooded.
She settled in Kallyanpur, on a patch of government land known as a bosti, and found work in a garment factory. In the decade since, she has seen the area’s bamboo huts replaced first by tin homes and then more solid but haphazard structures along a network of paved alleyways.
Parveen and her husband pay 2,000 taka (£16) a month to rent a single room, in which they must keep the light on permanently because there is no natural light. Outside, the drains regularly clog with sewage.
“It’s not that I’m good here but there are more job opportunities than in the village,” she says. “We don’t want to live in this dirty slum, we’re always wishing we could go back.”
The 300 taka monthly salary Parveen earned when she arrived in Dhaka has increased to 3,600 taka. She believes that unless there is investment in rural Bangladesh the higher wages will compel many more people to leave their villages for the city.
Dhaka could become the world’s fourth most populous megacity by 2030, according to the UN, and few believe the city is well prepared for this growth.
Residential buildings keep getting higher with no regard for planning laws. There is little space between buildings, electricity cables are slung low in a tangled mess and the sewage system, which is still cleaned manually, is routinely overloaded by heavy rains.
Dhaka’s air quality routinely ranks among the worst in the world and the roads are so congested that traffic has slowed to almost walking speeds of 4 mph, down from 13 mph a decade ago.
“Sometimes I think the whole of Dhaka is a bosti, you cannot simply have a decent city life, even if you have a nice apartment,” says Dr Shahadat Hossain, an urban planning expert at the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany.
“You cannot see any park developments, children go to school and come home and stay inside … social infrastructure is absolutely missing,” he says. “Your relation with the city is with your apartment, your workplace and the school your child goes to, but you have no relationship with anything in between because the roads, the community you live in, is foreign to you.”
Hossain says that while industry has thrived, there is been a lack of comprehensive strategy to support the city’s residents. Corruption has made things worse, leaving the powerful able to exploit laws or, in the case of the Keraniganj suburbs, buy up land for affordable housing projects then sell them at prices beyond the reach of ordinary workers.
Asaduzzaman Asad sees benefits in the changes to the small city he came to in 1966. Today his business is thriving and there are opportunities that exist nowhere else in the country. But he is worried the city is becoming an intolerable place to live.
“We need decentralisation, we need good medical treatment in villages, good education and alternative livelihoods,” he says. “We can easily predict the future of Dhaka. If this unplanned development continues, this city will become uninhabitable.”
Courtesy – TheGuardian