Dhaka's invisible inhabitants | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 18, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 18, 2012

Dhaka's invisible inhabitants


Photo: Wahid Adnan-Drik News

The unplanned, unregulated growth of Dhaka is explained as a result of a demographic chaos. Dhaka's urban primacy is given as one of the chief reasons for the four-fold increase in its population over the last 25 years. The city is the economic and administrative capital of the nation, offering 51% of jobs in the formal sector (higher than the national average of 20%) with the remaining jobs distributed in the informal economy, according to a World Bank report in 2007.
Officially, it is estimated that Dhaka's population is 12.8 million but unofficial estimates put the actual figure at closer to 15 million. Consequently, a simplistic reading of urban policy challenges in Dhaka puts down problems of unequal access to water, energy, transport and housing to the fact that the city simply cannot cope with its bulging population, thus encouraging Dhaka's rural migrants to return to their villages through programmes such as GhorFera.
However, another reading of Dhaka's urban policy challenges would be that over 50% of the city's population is invisible to formal policy and planning institutions. About 300,000 to 400,000 people migrate to the city each year. Many are seasonal migrants who cyclically arrive and leave the city annually, others come here for upward social mobility enrolling in public universities and gradually move up the social ladder, and many others make urban slums their first home to enter the urban informal economy. A UNDP Report in 2007 estimates that about 3.4 million live in the urban slums of Dhaka.
The process of exclusion starts with the official system for record keeping. Official classification of the city's inhabitants is such that the census and other public surveys can only account for those who live in or own a formal household. As a result while public property, Special Economic Zones, neighbourhoods of upper and middle income groups, commercial districts and even the city's natural bodies are mapped into the administrative boundaries right up to the thana and ward level, the informal settlements that wind through these very areas do not feature in the official maps of Dhaka. In administrative terms, informal settlements on public or private land are a black hole for urban planning agencies. They are an important target group for NGOs and development agencies and indeed for political parties, but in the formal planning apparatus they are non-existent.
Furthermore, only those who own property in Dhaka have the right to vote in municipal elections while the vast majority of migrants living in informal settlements do not. As a result, while many of Dhaka's inhabitants are somehow organised through patronage relations, where their everyday needs from access to water and electricity to a job in the urban economy are mediated through known networks which ultimately feed into partisan politics, in governance terms they are neither eligible as urban citizens with the right to vote in local elections nor do they have the right to public entitlements such as water, housing and electricity. This deliberate omission of a vast majority of Dhaka's people from urban policy-making leads to informal coping mechanisms which manifests in the city space in the form of inequality between pockets of affluence and vast stretches of deprivation, unregulated and unplanned development, political violence on the streets and the constant looming uncertainty of secure life in Dhaka.Let us start with urban informal settlements. These are usually bought by a few private landowners who occupy land owned by public or private agencies who thereon carve the land into smaller areas which are let out to landladies (usually, but also landlords) who in turn sub-let small shelters to several tenants.
Legally, these settlements are not entitled to public services, but through a network of informal channels complicit with the lower reaches of public agencies, electricity and water are extracted and distributed at prices which far outstrip official rates. This politically mediated system of rent seeking, besides costing huge losses of revenue from the public distribution system, also causes environmental damages. Most recently, the pollution of the Buriganga River because of damage in the sewage system is one manifestation of this. Everyday, more and more waste is lethally dumped in the city's water bodies in the absence of a government supported waste disposal system for the informal neighbourhoods.
For the city's planning agency Rajuk, areas outside the administrative limits of the Dhaka Metropolitan Area are terra incognita. Its main responsibility is to maintain public property, which are kept at a high standards as one would note from the administrative areas of Ramna and Dhanmondi, and to support real estate developers to acquire urban land, as is visible from the rapid pace at which opulent high rise buildings mushroomed in the new development areas of Gulshan, Uttara and Purbachal. In contrast, Rajuk's commitment for social housing for workers in designated industrial areas like Khilgaon and Uttara, or even a pro-poor policy for landownership by reducing the minimum land ceiling from the existing 5 katha, takes place slowly, often under donor pressure, and falters in the face of the interests of more powerful lobby groups.
The roads, too, reflect a bias towards middle class preference for private cars over an effective public transport system, with the result that Dhaka's road choke with traffic jams. Rickshaws are just one manifestation of Dhaka's informal economy, offering rural migrants a livelihood option. But if we see the road as policy space, then the general approach has been to reduce traffic congestion by removing rickshaws from the main roads, as if they are the root cause of the traffic problem, rather than the uninhibited way in which private cars drive and park through the streets of Dhaka. Rickshaws, although celebrated as a cultural symbol of Dhaka, in policy terms, much like Dhaka's migrants, are just seen as an irritant and a cause of the transport problem rather than one of the many informal coping mechanisms that the invisible people of the city have to pursue.
On some occasions, it is argued that Dhaka should like China follow a policy of restriction migration into the cities. One wonders whether those restrictions aren't already in place. Migrants have the freedom to move into Dhaka but in terms of their right to entitlements or even as a legitimate subject of policy they are deliberately omitted. Looking forward -- in order to move towards more planned, sustainable, inclusive growth the city's policy process needs to formally recognise migration and the informal economy as an integral aspect of governance and not just something that needs to be tolerated to support populist and partisan politics.

The writer is a Lecturer in International Relations, University of Surrey, UK, and Research Fellow, Institute of Governance Studies, BRAC University.

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