Dramatic urban development in Bangladesh

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by Hans Dembowski

Dhaka – a fast changing agglomeration

I’ve just returned from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I had not been there since 1997. The city has changed tremendously, almost beyond recognition. I expected it to be different now, but I was surprised by how different it has become.

Back then, everybody was talking about the garment industry’s take off. Today, everybody is well aware of Bangladesh being a global hub of textiles production. In the past decade, the economy grew by a rate of six to seven percent every year.

There definitely has been some trickle down. Everybody seems to have a mobile phone these days. After a Bangladeshi friend told me that “nobody” in Dhaka was barefoot anymore, I started to pay attention to the matter. And indeed, in an entire afternoon spent on crowded streets, I only saw two barefoot persons, One was a beggar and the other one was a man riding on the back of a truck who had probably left his sandals inside the driver’s cabin so he would not lose them.

Cycle-rikshaws have changed too. Many now have a small electric engine. Some rikshaw-wallas must still pedal hard, but my impression was that the majority of them now buzz along easily without much physical effort. They are also better clad than in the past.

What I found even more striking, however, was that women’s dress code has changed completely. Twenty years ago, almost all women wore saris. That was the Bengali tradition among Hindus as well as Muslims. Muslim women had a way of covering their hair with the end of the sari, and many Hindu women did so too. In the rural areas, the tradition is still alive. On Dhaka’s streets, however, most women wear other kinds of clothes. I saw lots of blue jeans and T-shirts, lots of shalwar kameezes (wide shirts and trousers, the traditional dress for Muslim women in Pakistan and northern India) and many other dress styles.

Though I was told that ever more women were covering their hair or even their faces, I did not have the impression that fewer had done so 20 years ago. I had always noted some individuals adhering to a strictly religious dress code, but they were a small minority, and I personally did not notice any big difference now.

While the situation of the poor seems to have improved, the situation of the middle classes must have improved even more. There are many new private hospitals. Moreover, many private universities are advertising their courses on huge posters, and I was told that demand for their programmes is so strong that universities find it difficult to hire enough competent lecturers for law and business-administration classes. Apparently, many people hope graduating from higher education will enable them to find well-paid work abroad.

Traffic in Dhaka used to be dominated by rikshaws. It was slow, but pleasant. There was not much noise and the air was cleaner than in most agglomerations of developing countries. Now the streets are full of cars. There are so many of them, that the traffic often clogs. The jams are terrible. All too often, the traffic is not stop-and-go, but plainly not moving. The air, moreover, is seriously polluted. Everything feels dusty.

A lot of the dust results from the many construction sites in the capital region. New buildings, including many high rises, are coming up fast. Dhaka is becoming ever more crowded, and the agglomeration’s fringes are becoming urbanised.

I had the opportunity to walk around such areas in Savar, which is the municipality in the Dhaka agglomeration where most garment industries are based. My impression was that Savar is growing without serious urban planning. Yes, some roads are being built, but there is no systematic zoning, and even now, the road space seems too small. Things will become worse. Additional factories are being built, office buildings and housing are coming up. It will be very difficult to widen the streets in the future. Most of the space will be used for other purposes.

In my eyes, it is a pity that today's building spree is creating future problems. When I told a local friend so, his reply was: “What do you mean by 'future problems'? We’re suffering the problems now.”

The cities of Dhaka and Savar are tough places to live. Most people there, however, have recently seen their personal situation improve. They have benefited from economic growth, and they hope to benefit even more. To people escaping poverty and moving upward, the downsides of development are not the major concern.


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