In the classic novella "Heart of Darkness", the author Joseph Conrad tried to decipher one of human civilization's basic instincts, and in doing so, drew a parallel between an urban society and a poverty-ridden foraging society. Whether it is a pre-liberalist colonial world or a post-modern liberal one, urbanisation and poverty are the consequences of any structural development of a society.
Since independence, Bangladesh has experienced a thorough asymmetric growth in the field of economic solvency. Dhaka, the 400 year-old capital city has been the central point of all that. With the country's rapid economic growth in recent times, the metropolitan city continues to experience an ongoing urbanisation process.
People residing in suburbs and rural areas have always had fewer civic privileges than those in urban areas. So, a transition from rural to urban areas is not at all an uncanny trend. In the case of our country, capital Dhaka is the pivotal standpoint of political, economic, cultural, and educational centralization. During the past few years under the current government, this megacity has been associated with many sophisticated modern amenities and rapid industrial growth. As a response to such rapid modernization and industrialization, people outside the metropolitan area have moved into the city making the area even more densely populated than before.
In basic terms, urbanisation refers to the population mobility from rural to urban areas. But if we look back and analyze urbanisation's history, there is a direct association with significant economic and social transformations. For instance, living in an urban area is directly correlated with higher level of literacy as well as improved education and healthcare. It also means lower fertility, longer life expectancy, greater access to services, and enhanced opportunities to participate in culture and politics (Source: UNDESA).
Widespread urbanisation results in a parallel rise in poverty. The urban expansion process in Dhaka has blessed a skilled and educated part of the population with numerous opportunities. In contrast, another class of less experienced and uneducated rural immigrants got deprived of the fruits of urban expansion. Leaving their livelihood, they seek to reside in the city not because they feel that they can also go to shopping malls and eat at Burger King, but because the monetary transition is frequent and mobile here.
This poverty ridden mass of people contributes to the currency exchanging mobility. Depending on that, urban growth expands, and more rural residents get attracted to city life. This process is a vicious cycle that runs like a speedy wheel and keeps the monetary system functional, swift and agile, and creates more room for increasing poverty.
Urbanisation in Bangladesh; Mere Development?
All of this led more Bangladeshis to embrace urbanisation. The policymakers also deemed this to be the way forward for development, and politicians promised more digital urbanisation in their election manifestos. In that process, Bangladesh has pushed herself to achieve urbanisation. On paper, Bangladesh's overall economic success is strongly commendable. Not only has Bangladesh qualified for LDC (Least Developed Country) status graduation by 2026, but we are also the fastest growing economy in Asia.
While on paper, our overall wealth and development have been favorable, the extreme inequality between the rich and the poor has not declined. An urbanisation plan that fails to protect the poor has made the situation even worse. Given the unique socio-economic and political scene in Bangladesh, urbanisation has had individual impacts. Some significant reasons that have directly resulted in increasing poverty are explored here through the following points.
Poor infrastructure; a significant concern: Since Bangladesh's urbanisation in its primitive stage was not very well designed, the capital city has become the center-for-everything and a victim of improper divisions of roads and buildings. This has resulted in weak coherence and communication, plus an overall low standard. For instance, a better urban road design would decrease traffic issues. This issue also extends to inadequate housing options, lack of clean water, and health care services, all of which trickles down to the poor.
Myopic dream of opportunity; a fatal lie: while it is accurate that urbanisation creates more job opportunities, more often than not, the number of people who need the job is much higher than the opportunities created. Citizens come to Dhaka and other urban areas with a hope to get their dream jobs. Nevertheless, the number of people migrating to urban areas is much higher than the number of jobs.
Furthermore, even in cases where the poor get jobs, say at an RMG or a construction factory- they are highly underpaid, they receive no stimulus packages in times of need as well. A labor worker is often paid the minimum wage which is as little as 8000 BDT (nearly 85 Euro) (Source: CCC) meaning, the dream of a better life for the poor in most cases does not come true.
No alternative; an infinite loop of suffering: The poor, in most cases, don't have options of earning a livelihood in their native rural areas. Even when they do, urbanism's outer colorfulness tricks them into believing that life in urban areas is better. In most cases, they are not adequately educated and trained to do something for themselves or their family, meaning they are left stuck in this never-ending loop of suffering.
Exploring the Breeze of Urbanisation & Poverty
The ever-increasing urbanisation and poverty are the two faces of the same coin. And the coin itself is the development system of a state. Here one side gains to the maximum, and the other side falls into the abyss.
But as soon as society reaches the threshold of urbanisation, another class of third-party vendors rises to accompany the urbanized consumers with much luxuries and comfort. In the last few years, there has been a boom in our local startup industries. These market-oriented and tech-based industries provide services like ride-sharing, takeaways, online education, healthcare, and whatnot. As a result, a stagnant monetary system gets more lubricant allowing 'the engine' to run more efficiently.
The metropolitan-based residents are witnessing the rising disparity between urban stature and poverty daily, the latter one being the undesired supplement of skyscraping urbanisation. The unequal coexistence is disturbing, yet the parallelism has existed for so long that it barely catches our attention as society's habitants. All the aspects of a developing economic system like ours are connected by an interlinked web and the policymakers are doing very little to change the existing order.
It is nothing but the "Invisible Hands" of Adam Smith's classical economics that operates the vicious circle and flips the first card to trigger the domino effect.
Ahmad Tousif Jami is a research associate at Youth Policy Forum. Mr. Jami recently graduated high school from Dhaka College, currently exploring his academic interests.
Mohammad Sifat is an Associate editor at YPF Bangla Editorial Team. Mr. Sifat is a student of International Relations at the University of Dhaka. They can be reached at ypfbd.org
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.