Our love affair with the modern city is evidenced by various appellations given to it-metropolis, megalopolis and conurbation. Dhaka is no exception. However, the question which has taken on urgency is: has it grown to a point where Dhaka actually deflects economic development from other towns and cities. Initial research-based evidence supporting this thesis was presented at the Policy Research Institute (PRI), a think tank, recently. While urbanisation goes hand in hand with economic growth, the study concluded, an inflection point is reached when the phenomenon backfires.
There were several eyeopeners from the talk given by PRI's Director Dr. Ahmad Ahsan. Externalities associated with Dhaka's growth are pollution, traffic congestion, and the deterioration of sewerage system. Dhaka, and its environs, by concentrating the bulk of economic activities sap the vitality of its regional competitors. Chattogram, despite locational advantages, is not even a close second. Rajshahi, Khulna and Sylhet are downright rickety.We may contrast this with other middle-income countries (MICs) where middling cities flourish alongside their capitals. The lesson: economic activities need to be dispersed evenly for equitable and inclusive growth to take place.
Dhaka, a verdant and pleasant town of yore, accommodateda few hundred thousand people in the sleepy sixties. Up until the mid-nineties Dhaka was livable: housing was affordable and commuting wasn't problematic. The twin forces of population growth and the city's new-found status as the capital caused a rapid and haphazard transformation. Overwhelmed and over-burdened, our pride and joy is now a claustrophobic urban nightmare.
Economic agents tend to band together within the secure confines of a city. Lawyers, accountants, banks and transport providers, in short, people who lubricate the wheels of commerce are to be found in cities. Storage space is available in secure buildings as are middlemen, distributors and wholesalers. Peddlers, hawkers and workers come in search of livelihoods. Commercial practices evolve and governments collect taxes. Dispute settlement procedures, arbitration and litigation, are made available by trade associations and the government respectively. Military encampments and administrative centres may follow. A fine example is the inception and flowering of Baghdad in Abbasid times.
A plausible contributing factor to the growth of Dhaka is as follows. In 1947 and thereafter large numbers of Indian Muslims came over to the then East Pakistan. We may assume they settled in urban centres, namely Dhaka and Chittagong. Their descendants, mostly Biharis, now inhabit these cities. Saidpur is another pocket of non-Bengali people. Contrast this to the Hindu migrants who left in several waves from all corners of the country.
The economic dominance of Dhaka was unpacked by PRI within the economic geography of Bangladesh. It examined such variables as earnings, consumption and government expenditure on a per capita basis, rural-urban wage divide, density of commercial establishments, small-scale industries and road density. Interesting and valuable facts were scoped out which need to be further refined for enduring conclusions to be drawn.
Participants emphasised the necessity of strengthening local governments, which now lie totally subservient to the unitary form of government. Relevant laws rot in shelves while donors nudge authorities to no effect. China has vested local governments with substantial powers, results have been impressive especially in the coastal belt. Devolution is the way forward.
With the recent establishment of special economic zones (SEZ), the Government of Bangladesh is trying to inject life into far-flung areas. While local and foreign investors have shown interest, only time will show the efficacy of this intervention. Economic activities coalesce organically. Chandpur and Narayanganj developed into jute trading centres over time. Locational advantages do matter. While growth cannot be engineered, inducements (such as tax and tariff breaks) and favourable business conditions go a long way.
Another insight is that upazillas are far too small and insignificant for governments to bother with. Put another way, development initiatives (and dollars) are best directed at district towns that are now anemic.
Raihan Amin is a Part-time Faculty, United International University.
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