Dhaka's Primacy: Rome without Empire?
THE mayors of Rajshahi, Sylhet and Gazipur as well as a number of councillors have been dismissed by the government. Newspaper reports also show that a large number of Upazila and other elected representatives involved with the opposition politics are either in prison or on the run. The scenario contrasts with the government's promise to empower the newly elected ruling party-backed mayors of Dhaka and Chittagong, including granting them ministerial status.
The removal of elected mayors and councillors does not bode well for Bangladesh's local governance system. In the absence of a functional elected body in various cities and the grassroots, the ultimate sufferers are the common people deprived of a plethora of services. This also goes against the pledge of the government to strengthen the country's local governance allowing elected representatives to function with greater autonomy.
The experience of city governance of the country shows that in the presence of a strong centre that holds and exercises enormous power over city corporations and other apparatus, an effective local governance system remains a far cry.
Thus, the heart of the problem, be it city governance or overall governance of the country, lies in the country's de facto centralised governance system. Excessive concentration of political and economic powers to a handful of ministries and bureaucratic offices, primarily located in the capital, is making the country a highly centralised state.
This has led to the rise of power and resource gaps between the centre and periphery. The political parties that rule the country, for instance, is highly centralised from decision making process to formation of party leadership. When it comes to economic concentration of power, the resource gap is mounting between the capital and rest of the country. The development budgets of the Dhaka City Corporations (North and South), for example, are 13 folds larger than that of Chittagong City Corporation, although the latter hosts about one-third population of the former.
The primacy of Dhaka, which is highly associated with centralised governance of the country, is overwhelming. The capital hosts 28 percent of the country's urban population and 25 percent of economic activities employing 35 percent of the total urban labour force.
A primate city generally dominates over other cities literary in all aspects - politics, economy, media, culture and education, inter alia. According to urban economists, unitary governments generally favour the national capital, creating a primate city bias in public services and infrastructure investments, among others. Rent seeking and urban bias by central government bureaucrats result in the centralisation. This favouritism draws in immigrants. However, according to a World Bank study, the degree of urban concentration in Bangladesh is higher than many of its comparators with Dhaka's primacy rate being 32 percent, which is much higher than its optimal (21 percent) level.
What are the costs of urban primacy of Dhaka for the periphery and the country in general? A number of studies show that the nexus between overexpansion of primate cities and economic growth is negative. Economic models suggest that centralisation increases urban concentration. Research also shows that when the primate city is the national capital, it is 25 percent or more, suggesting that resource centralisation goes with political centralisation.
More worryingly, over-concentration of political power, often in the capital, could make states fragile. Nassim Taleb, author of the best-selling title Black Swan argued that prior to its civil war, centrally governed autocrat Syria looked more stable than politically volatile Lebanon. However, Syria was exhibiting only pseudo-stability, its calm facade concealing deep structural vulnerabilities.
In a recent article, Nassim Taleb also identified the lack of political variability as a source of state fragility. Genuinely stable countries experience moderate political changes, continually switching governments and reversing their political orientation.
Finally, excessive urban concentration leads to degradation of the quality of life owing to congestion, contamination of ground water and poor air quality, among others.
The next point to ponder is how to break the urban primacy of Dhaka? Experience suggests that in developing countries, urban concentration increases in the early stages of economic development. Thus, part of the problem is structural. In fact, most developing countries have witnessed the rise of primate cities- Bangkok in Thailand, Jakarta in Indonesia, Manila in the Philippines and Colombo of Sri Lanka are some examples of primate cities. But their concentration varies widely. Nevertheless, there are numerous ways to lessen urban primacy.
Externalities such as congestion or pollution arises from higher population density should be priced (through tax and other measures). This could lead to de-concentration. The lack of pricing or ineffective regulation means that immigration into the capital city is underpriced or subsidised.
Investment in modern intercity transport and communications may prompt urban de-concentration as manufactures could locate their firms in hinterlands.
Globalisation could also help reduce urban primacy, provided trade and other reforms are carried out. The literature on new economic geography predicts that a country's exposure to trade may encourage hinterland development.
Finally, local political and fiscal autonomy could help in reducing urban primacy. Studies indicate that the key to a successful local political process is local participation in political processes (voting outside the influence of the central government and reasonably unconstrained by national-level party officials) and local determination of revenues and expenditure levels.
That said, history is full of evidences that over-concentration of political and economic power, often in the capital, leads to the fall of many kingdoms, empires and states. Citing the example of Pax Romana, urban economists discourage over concentration of power in capital cities. Rome used its political and military might to suppress potential competitors to its rule and to extract resources from its empire. The result was that the parasitic character of the Roman metropolis was not only responsible for a weakening of the Italian economy, it also played a central role in the collapse of the empire.
The outcome of power concentration is no different in other instances- Pharaonic Egypt and the Ming dynasty in China tightened the reins after, not before, they prospered, but this could not save their collapse. Dhaka seems to be following the same path. Taking lessons from history, the government should act now and show its commitment toward decentralised governance.
The writer is an economist, currently based in China.
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