Accelera-ting urbanisation is the defining story of contemporary Bangladesh. Projections show that by 2050 urban population will overtake rural population. As Bangladesh hurtles towards its urban future, what a storyline of contradictory hues is unfolding! Economic growth. Ever-newer windows of consumption and luxuries. Stupendous every-day miseries of the common citizens. Degraded environment. Palatial abodes and slums jostling for the same urban space. The comic twist is the unending but ever-fruitless dialogues on planned urbanisation!
Why is the state of urbanisation in Bangladesh as it is? It is not as if there have not been efforts to analyse and understand the problems and challenges. Policy documents and analytical reports making credible efforts to pinpoint the issues and explore solutions have been aplenty. However, what have been out of focus are a few critical policy blind spots, which arguably are driving the urban mess. The first of these blind spots is how we view and assess the presence of the urban poor in our ever-expanding cities. Policy and urban elites and even a section of the academia point at the numerical preponderance of the urban poor as the principal barrier to balanced and planned urban development. The reality is quite the obverse. The urban poor are a critical pillar upholding the economic growth of the cities. Take the case of RMG. Entrepreneurs have certainly played a dynamic role, but can we deny that the biggest selling point for the sector continues to be its “low-cost workforce?” So is the case with many of the other urban growth sectors.
The subterfuge—“karchupi”—in reasoning is quite blatant here. On the one hand, low-cost workforce is a key driver of the growth process. On the other, no logical connection is made to the required agenda of minimal improvement in the quality of lives of these same “low-cost workforce.” The larger consequence of this policy neglect of the urban poor is that the larger urbanisation process itself is becoming a victim. Why? Because the very sectors that should have been given priority are also the sectors that ensure balanced development and greater liveability in the cities. For example, public transportation, low-cost housing, urban primary healthcare, and skills education. These are the very sectors that are missing out in the policy and budgetary attention.
If public transportation had been prioritised, this would have served not only the urban poor but also become the backbone of a liveable and dynamic city. Again, if low-cost housing had been prioritised, this would not only have served the poor but also ensured that the entire spectrum of the urban housing sector had benefitted from modern technologies and building efficiency, thereby producing a more appealing and liveable cityscape. While these solutions are obvious and eminently rational, the reality is that the policy perspectives are being trumped by narrow but powerful group interests that force the policy process to be focused only on their economic advantages and prevent any attention to the issues and priorities of balanced urban development. It is these narrow sectional interests that are dictating what routes will be active, what types of roads will be prioritised, how will urban land allocation be made among differing demands. Thus, we see in Chattogram flyovers that see little traffic, while inner moholla roads are in a terrible state. Same is the case in many other cities including the capital.
If Bangladesh is to seriously pursue its middle-income dream, it has no option but to prioritise a shift in the policy mind-set to support a transition in the economy from being one of “low-cost workforce” to one of “skilled productive workforce.” Middle-income status will not come by itself. We do not have the luxury of natural resources like oil or gold. Our prime resource is our workforce—hard-working, innovative, aspirational. Addressing their legitimate needs is the way forward towards middle-income status. For this, we need to invest in good public transportation, market-responsive skills education, accessible and affordable quality healthcare, and affordable housing. Each of these sectors ultimately contributes to the human capital formation of the urban poor. But it is exactly these investments in which we—the planners, the budget-makers, the higher policy actors—are “missing in action.” The problem has more recently been compounded by a new type of policy conceit—a reluctance to use the word “poor” on the reasoning that admission of poverty will pollute our “development image.” Such conceit is both ironic and contrary to facts, because the very basis of our “development image” is the hard-working “low-cost workforce”—whether it is in the RMG sector or in remittance earnings.
Prioritising the neglected urban agendas is a key challenge for the new economic managers. We need to prioritise urban health, particularly urban primary healthcare. Dhaka has many shining hospitals but why do our policymakers, our elites and even many of our common citizens prefer to seek healthcare abroad? Why the lack of confidence on the available healthcare? Because we may be creating islands of expensive healthcare but we are not being able to create a well-structured healthcare system in the cities for all citizens. The urban poor in particular require quality primary healthcare. The situation here is very disjointed with significant gaps. The health ministry has very little footprint in urban primary healthcare. City governments and NGOs have taken up the slack but services are inadequate, disjointed and expensive. The same goes for affordable housing. It is not as if the urban poor are seeking handouts from the policymakers. They are already paying more rent per square foot than even those from the middle class and the upper class. They are very much part of the spending classes, driving the economic wheels. But their needs are not what are keeping bodies like Rajuk awake, who routinely opt not to keep adequate provisions for low-cost housing in their succession of housing schemes.
There is also a second policy blind spot or karchupi we need to bring into focus. This is about urban local governments. In the scheme of power configurations, urban local governments remain confined to playing second fiddle to national bureaucracy and national political actors. Hundreds of projects are being taken in the name of local government budget but those are actually within the purview of central government departments. There is great reluctance among central bureaucracy and national politicians to see urban local governments as capable bodies. The shockingly low budgetary allocations to these bodies are a sure indicator of this policy ambivalence. The policy karchupi here is to tell urban local governments to become self-financing bodies while severely circumscribing their scope for raising revenues or getting access to a defined share of central tax revenues. For example, local governments get only an infinitesimal share of the tax on land. Responsibilities galore but a financial cripple—for many urban local governments, this has become a self-fulfilling fate. A typical argument of the central bureaucracies is that local governments lack accountability and have major capacity gaps. But is it not the case with many of the central agencies too? The karchupi in reasoning is very clear from the convenient perpetuation of a constructed myth that urban local governments are still “infants” that cannot progress without the guidance of the central murubbis, i.e. central bureaucracies.
If our cities are to be rescued from the ever-deeper reality of the urban mess, there is no alternative to confronting these policy blind spots head-on. The urban poor are not the driver of the urban mess. The driver is the policy mind-set that ignores the economic centrality of the urban poor and the consequent need to prioritise their needs for transportation, skills, healthcare and housing. It is not weak city governments that explain the urban mess. It is the plethora of disjointed central projects in the cities, often working at cross-purposes, which drive the urban mess. Projecting the urban poor and the urban local governments as the weak links on the path to balanced and sustainable urbanisation cannot be further from the truth. Perpetuating such perceptions has pushed Bangladesh towards a path of anti-poor urbanisation.
In this budget season, the policymakers and indeed all who embrace the aspiration of graduation to a middle-income country would do well to look beyond the budget maths and confront the policy blind spots that continue to confine the economy’s selling point to a “low-cost workforce.” If we can confront and go beyond the prevalent anti-poor urbanisation mindset, we can move not only from urban mess to balanced urbanisation, but also set our economic transformation more firmly on a base of skilled and productive workforce from one that rests on the narrow advantages of a low-cost labour economy.
Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman is Executive Chairman of the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) and a former Advisor to Caretaker Government. He can be reached at email@example.com.