Migration to Dhaka
MILLIONS of people are now leaving their poor rural surroundings, once the hub of their dreams and aspirations, for the lights, action and glimmer of opportunities that big cities of the country seem to offer. The lure of that apparently happy crowd has transformed the cities, once sleepy towns or manageable urban centres, into bursting human hives. From Dhaka to Chittagong and even to Khulna, there is no turning back.
These changes within the two principal cities, Dhaka and Chittagong, have come with an awesome swiftness that has caught the already laggard administration unprepared. The capital city of Dhaka, that was designed to accommodate 10 lakh people at best in the '60s, now teems with more than 100 million people -- with a population density of 10,000 persons per sq km according to statistics revealed by the press.
Now there are as many as 3.5 lakh mechanised vehicles plying on the city streets, choking the city in blue noxious fumes that are highly hazardous to health. Dhaka city has only 220 km primary roads, but automobiles in the capital lined up bumper to bumper in single file would stretch longer than this. The city is suffering serious growing pains. There is hardly any single decent sidewalk or pavement for people to walk on. Shockingly true, the pedestrians in the city seem to be hunted animals.
New arrivals are pouring in at the rate of 5 lakh a year. With each new wave come greater problems. Half of Dhaka city's people are under 22, and almost all of them without jobs. Almost 45 percent of the population are slum dwellers, with about 4 to 6 persons, most of them underage, living in one room in ramshackle sheds made of plastic sheets and crate lumber.
In recent times, because of climatic disruption, things have taken a very horrifying turn. River erosion victims from Rangpur, Gaibandha, Nilphamari ,and Aila and Sidr-affected people from Barisal, Barguna, Patuakhali, Bagerhat and Satkhira, are coming to Dhaka for a living. Many of them live in makeshift slums in different locations of the city.
The migration has been spurred not so much by rural restlessness as by catastrophes like droughts, untimely floods, cyclones and loss of farm land and houses by river erosion and, last of all, famine-like conditions in the rural areas because of the absence of a job market in those areas. With a quarter of a million pavement dwellers and the quota of the poor, Dhaka city epitomises the country's urban nightmare and bitter poverty. Tourists may marvel at the city's gleaming glass skyscrapers or admire the modern high-rise apartments in certain locations of the city, but the average family income is a horrific $1 a day for most of the workforce.
Even a relatively prosperous life on the farms, and determined government efforts to prevent rural migration, have not dimmed the lure of the cities. It is on record that to stem the exodus from South Korea's countryside, Park Chung Hee, the then president of South Korea, initiated a series of economic incentives to keep people in agricultural work.
Analysis suggests that incentives for farm activities in Bangladesh during the last two decades have been disappointingly low as a consequence of non-availability of subsidies in the form of fertiliser, irrigation facilities and price protection. Farmlands, on the other hand, have given way to shrimp farms in large areas of greater Khulna, Satkhira, Bagerhat, Barisal and Chittagong, benefiting only a few landlords. More so, price stabilisation and price support to rice, potato, pulses, sugar cane and vegetables at the growers' level have been alarmingly non-existent.
This brought in its wake ominous consequences in the form of severe commodity shortage and price spiral in the recent past. The government, after very careful consideration, proposed creation of a sizeable agricultural subsidy fund to boost production in view of the food shortage the country underwent immediately after its takeover. The measure, it is believed, would go a long way in relieving the distress of the rural populace dependent on farm activities
The present government must learn the bitter truth from the previous government's neglect in giving priority to agricultural production. Shockingly, the past governments in the last two decades hardly took any measures to create growth centres beyond the city limits. In many ways the cities are self-feeding monsters, perpetuating their own growth in some selected areas by devouring the country's resources. Dhaka perhaps controls about 70% of the country's money supply. Of the country's capital investment, more than 60 percent is invested in Dhaka and Chittagong. Most of the other cities and the vast rural landscape remain brazenly neglected.
This discrimination, even after construction of the Jamuna bridge, connecting Dhaka and Chittagong with North Bengal, continues to create a great imbalance in income generation of the districts. This sort of pathetic neglect has given rise to tensions and mounting discontent that tend to bedevil the good works done in some selected areas. All told, this unrelenting exodus to cities can hardly be stopped, even by draconian measures, because of the condition of the rural surroundings remain much neglected.
Dr. Sarwar Jahan, professor and head of URP department, Buet, in a recent interview with Prothom Alo, stressed the need for stopping migration to Dhaka city to save the city from the all-pervading squalour and chaos. This can only be realised by implementing the proposed "one house, one farm" policy in rural Bangladesh.
With mass migration going unabated and the number of vehicles steadily increasing, Dhaka's skyline is covered with soot. The noxious black fumes from the city's dilapidated buses, trucks and three wheelers have turned the city into a dark, slate-grey maze, exposing the city dwellers to dire health hazards. Along with this, the city streets appear to be a human sea that moves in massive tidal surges. People breathe this foul air almost without complaining, and eat the adulterated food of all varieties because there is hardly any way to know what they are eating. Most city dwellers, while traveling on the roads or eating food, vegetables and fruits sold in the market, are not even aware of the hazards they pose, or that some insensible and avaricious businessmen are poisoning them day in and day out.
Pathetically, there has hardly been any effort to stop this menacing avarice of enhancing wealth through such sinister means, other than the drives that a team of BSTI officials and judicial magistrates have launched in recent times to put an end to this menacing trade of killing people by producing and marketing adulterated food items. The ills, squalour, poverty and crime in the dying Dhaka city have frustrated the people's hopes and aspirations of a happy and healthy life.
It is worth mentioning that Singapore's vaunted cleanliness was achieved by effective administrative action. To discard a cigarette stub or chewing gum on the street is to invite a heavy fine. Almost everything in that city runs with computerised precision. Priority in admission to primary schools is given to those having a family of two children. The generation that remembers poverty, however, considers Singapore's modernisation as nothing less than a miracle. Could we at least try to attain a standard near the level Singapore has achieved?
Shockingly, the way that the city's inhabitants, with indulgence from the administration, have been fouling the air and polluting city streets and surroundings defeats all hope of bringing about a change in the quality of life, efficiency, and dynamism in the working populace. City dwellers are painfully aware that, along with other difficulties, hospitals and schools are overcrowded -- with community services deteriorating, drug use proliferating and crime and violence escalating to an all-time high.
The fear lurking in many minds is that the present urban conditions can easily breed frustration, which may spawn social violence. And the stark fact is that we are witnessing these pathetic developments in our everyday life. The growth of consumer materialism, which allows the principal cities and other urban centres to overlook social ills, can prove to be too costly for the whole country. At the same time, if the cities are allowed to grow at the expense of the rural villages, the cost may be too high.
Md. Asadullah Khan is a former teacher of physics and Controller of Examinations, BUET.
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