Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Bangladesh, the country's flourishing economy had taken a hit. With the government-announced general holidays leading to closures of businesses, offices, educational institutions, shops, eateries, factories and other livelihood-generating opportunities—both formal and informal—life came to a halt in the nation. And so did the livelihood for many. As a result, many who had once come to Dhaka—the bustling hub of the country—with neon dreams of a better life, had no choice but to go back to their roots, unable to make ends meet.
According to a survey conducted by Brac, the general holiday imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 has left 51 percent of households with no income. A report published by a local daily suggests that around 50,000 people belonging to low-income groups had to leave Dhaka having no other option. Overcome by poverty, dejection and desperation, people from the lower to the middle strata of society had to make the return journey home.
Many news outlets, including this newspaper, published photos of families making desperate journeys—often literally—the young and the old huddled together on the backs of trucks, at the top of trains and busses, on the edges of steamers and overcrowded dingy boats, going back to their villages in search of sustenance. In other cases, the main earning members of a family—often the sole one—had to send their dependents back to the villages since daily essentials there would be more affordable. At least back home, they will have something to eat, something to live on.
What happens now to those who have gone back to their ancestral homes? What can we do to make their lives easy in their native places? And can the government transform this tragedy into an opportunity by driving the decentralisation agenda?
"Decentralisation is about power. If local governments are not empowered, then actually what will happen is, people like us who will be left behind in Dhaka will have a bit more comfortable life. But the goal of decentralisation will not be achieved," said prominent economist and chairperson of Brac, Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, while discussing this issue with this writer.
He further added: "I think the government can capitalise on this opportunity if they simultaneously revisit the whole issue of stronger local governments, although the trend is rather towards the opposite. We can now see that the power of local governments is very limited. Party-based local elections that are now taking place have further marginalised this system. Before, there used be a sort of local democracy within the party. Now due to party symbol, whoever is nominated from the top, that person is elected. So it has in fact further reduced the political competition even among the same party base. So, conducting local election under party symbol has also been a strong barrier to more meaningful decentralisation. To decentralise means to give appropriate powers and responsibilities to local governments. If we take a look at the budgets, including this year's budget, we don't see much. The people leaving Dhaka by itself is not an opportunity. If a strong local government reform agenda can be driven in the context of the relocation of population, including financial empowerment of these bodies, only then can this be transformed into an opportunity."
However, while sharing his concern regarding this, Dr Rahman feared that the government neither has the track record nor the political orientation to undertake a massive rehabilitation of the people who have relocated outside Dhaka. He, therefore, suggested that "what they can do is create a more supportive environment, because the people in our country are working to change their lot on their own. All they are looking for is a more supportive environment. And this is within the capacity of the government. If the government can create a supportive environment, people will find their own solutions."
And indeed the government can, and need to, support these people. According to architect and urban planner Salma A Shafi, who is also the general secretary of the Centre for Urban Studies, Dhaka, incentives can be provided to encourage establishment of new industries outside Dhaka to provide employment opportunities to the people who are having to move out of Dhaka.
"Jobs need to be made available for the people who are leaving Dhaka. Some industries can be established outside Dhaka to create job opportunities for those who are moving out. The industries should also provide housing provision for the people they are going to employ. To this end, incentives can also be provided. Why can we not have vegetable canning, food canning, fish canning plants in the rural areas? If each of these plants can employ 50 to 100 people and provide them with housing facilitates, then we will be able to find solution to the current problems." Salma Shafi added.
Along with these, the government also needs to develop the healthcare, educational, and recreational infrastructures outside Dhaka so that those who have been forced to migrate to their ancestral land can live a decent life there.
Good schools, colleges, and universities, modern hospitals, AC shopping malls, fancy restaurants, good movie theatres, clean amusement parks and zoo, along with improved physical and digital connectivity, well-paid jobs, decent housing, and of course an empowered local government, will not only provide people with healthy and satisfying living conditions outside of Dhaka, but also will organically push forward decentralisation. People now are having to relocate from Dhaka because of lack of livelihood opportunities. But once these metrics are improved and required measures implemented, people will voluntarily want to spread out of Dhaka.
While this forced migration from the city is causing a significant challenge, it can also be turned into an opportunity to develop living and livelihood conditions outside Dhaka. This will automatically drive the capital's much-needed decentralisation agenda. Also the government needs to look at the issue of planned allocation of jobs and housing in the rural and urban townships to ensure equitable access to decent living and jobs for everyone.
However, to do this, strong political will would be required. The government would need to make sure that the district administration and local governments rise above their power struggles and work in tandem to create congenial and liveable environment at the local levels. The government would be required to empower the local administration both in terms of decision-making abilities and financial authorities so that they can take appropriate measures that are suitable for their local contexts to create sustainable livelihood generation opportunities for the local inhabitants.
The question remains: does the government have the appetite to drive such an overarching change?
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem