Dhaka has been on the list of the least liveable cities for long. Covid-19 pandemic has now made the city a real threat to the rest of the country.
The sole purpose of the ban imposed on plying of long distance buses is to prevent people from carrying the virus to their homes countrywide from the capital – a hotspot of Covid-19 in Bangladesh.
But the measure aimed to prevent people from going to their village homes to celebrate Eid falls flat, triggering outcry and fear among health experts about another spike of virus in coming weeks.
The underlying messages of the failure to enforce the restriction is noteworthy for policymakers.
The general side of the failure looks simple: there are weaknesses in planning the lockdown measures and lacklustre enforcement. This speaks about the inefficiency of the administration in delivering when needed.
But here is an all-important question: Is it possible to enforce these restrictions? The answer lies in the other side of the failure, which tells a bigger story – the appalling story of vicious inequality.
People are desperately leaving Dhaka by any means.
Is it just for holidaying and celebrating Eid with families in villages and hometowns?
Not for all of them.
"There are people who do not have any means to live in Dhaka as they have lost work in lockdown," says economist Sayema Haque Bidisha.
The risky journey of home-goers by crowded ferry boats could have been 25% less if low-income people in Dhaka slums were provided with some social protection or food rationing, she believes.
Another 5% rush could be reduced if garment factories could stagger the Eid holidays or offer workers "compensatory leave" next month if they avoid going home for Eid, she thinks.
These people once rushed to Dhaka for a living. Now they are forced to leave the city as the pandemic has robbed them of their livelihoods. Dhaka does not own them; no one is there to care for them.
People who made desperate journeys home belong to this section – the floating people of Dhaka.
During the shutdown, they left Dhaka last year, fearing starvation as they lost their source of livelihoods. They came back again after the shutdown for their livelihoods. And they will come back again this time for the same reason.
House rent, cost of food and other services have made life in Dhaka expensive, and almost unaffordable for low-income people, Sayema, a professor of economics at Dhaka University, points out.
Even then, these people rush to Dhaka as they somehow eke out a living here – either pulling a rickshaw, or guarding an apartment or serving a family.
Unplanned and unequal development policy over the years turned Dhaka into a centre for everything – from politics to power, administration, business, education, health care. Other cities and towns remained out of focus and offer fewer opportunities for livelihoods.
"A centralised system of employment, mainly Dhaka-centric, has been created. If someone in Rajshahi could have a living in their hometown, they might not have come to Dhaka," Prof Sayema points out.
But Dhaka is not geared to generate enough jobs for the unending influx of people from all over the country. The capital city is choking under the excessive pressure of its population and haphazard construction of infrastructure to reduce that pressure – not to mention the terrible traffic situation and hazardous pollution.
The unplanned rise of Dhaka has rather appeared as a threat to becoming an upper-middle income country.
Development strategists link well-planned, productive and liveable cities to ending poverty. If Bangladesh wants to rise to an upper middle-income country by 2031, Dhaka needs to become a more productive city, said three urban development specialists of the World Bank in an article in 2019.
In a blog series, they said Dhaka can be transformed into a vibrant and resilient megacity if a new approach is taken to manage urban growth and create jobs. They believe Dhaka has economic potential and the government needs policy support to leverage that potential to help Bangladesh reach her goal of gaining upper middle-income status.
Why Dhaka matters
Dhaka has been the country's engine of economic growth and job creation. The city's role as a commercial hub has led to a rapid population growth, making it one of the fastest growing cities in South Asia.
Today, more than one-third of Bangladesh's urban population lives in Dhaka, with 440 persons per hectare – denser than Mumbai, Hong Kong, and Karachi.
Ranked 137 on liveability out of 140 cities, the lowest for any South Asian city surveyed, Dhaka's low liveability disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, such as the poor, women, and the elderly, says the World Bank blog series article.
Another article of the series offers the most important message: an upper middle-income Bangladesh starts with a liveable Dhaka.
The authors – John Roome, Annie Gapihan and Hyunji Lee – cited global experience showing that no country in the world has moved up within the middle-income status without developing its cities.
"Most countries that achieved middle-income status did so when the majority of their citizens were living in cities – high-income status is mostly accompanied with 70-80% of people living in cities," the article said.
Bangladesh is currently 38% urban, meaning that the country needs more people moving to urban centres and to make fast-growing cities liveable and productive to make sure that gains of urbanisation are shared by all.
"Urban development was disproportionate; Dhaka has four times more population than in Chattogram, the country's second largest city. Dhaka accounts for one-third of the country's total population, one-fifth of national GDP and one-third of all jobs," says the World Bank blog article.
An earlier World Bank poverty assessment showed despite economic growth, Bangladesh's progress of national poverty reduction has been slow due to slower job growth in cities like Dhaka and Chattogram. Research organisations PPRC and BIGD found that the pandemic created 3.7 crore new poor due to income loss during the pandemic.
Another research organisation Sanem that surveyed the impact of the pandemic on employment and income found 49% of internal migrants had returned from Dhaka to villages due to job loss during the first wave of Covid-19.
Almost everyone returned to the city and started recovering until the second wave hit in late March and forced them to set for a risky journey home, defying health risks and restrictions, as fresh lockdown robbed them further of jobs.
Bangladesh's path to upper-middle-income status will hinge particularly on leveraging Dhaka, its economic and political centre, reads the post, co-authored by Regional Director of South Asia Sustainable Development John Roome and Annie Gapihan, an urban development specialist.
Urban planner Prof AMM Amanat Ullah Khan also believes that efficient and functional urban centres are directly linked to economic development of a country. "Overall progress of a country follows planned and efficient development of cities. Look at major cities in the US and Europe, and you will see how those cities have propelled economic growth there," he said.
"A city must have some vibrancy, which generates a lot of economic activities. Dhaka has enough economic potential which is why people from all over the country throng the city," said Prof Amanat Ullah, adjunct faculty at Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP).
He referred to a number of infrastructural projects like upgrading highways and building economic zones, which will facilitate faster communications between Dhaka and other districts, and reduce pressure on the capital by creating employment elsewhere.
"These activities indicate that we are in the right direction. But the ongoing projects should be implemented at a faster pace so that the country can derive the benefits earlier," he said.
Road networks have improved and now people from Cumilla can travel to Dhaka in an hour and go back home in the evening. Railroads need to be developed similarly, so that people from southern and northern districts could travel to Dhaka for work and return home daily, he suggested, citing affordable train services to and from Indian city of Kolkata.
"Then we have two figures of Dhaka's population – one for daytime and the other for nighttime."
Apart from Dhaka, port city Chattogram, Khulna, Rajshahi or Sylhet, some other cities and towns – like Cumilla, Mymensingh, Joypurhat, Faridpur and even Bhairab Bazar – need to be developed with necessary infrastructure and connectivity, depending on individual specialties and characteristics.