16 Mar, 2015
Twelve out of the word’s 21 megacities are in Asia, and the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka is perhaps the fastest growing of them all. As per Demographia, Dhaka’s density is the highest in the world at 44,000 persons per square kilometer. The Economist Intelligence Unit touts it as the 3rd least liveable city on earth.
With all its problems, Dhaka is Bangladesh’s main city, holding roughly 40% of the country’s urban population. The dual primacy of Dhaka and Chittagong is not merely demographic but economic as well and the country’s remaining 9 city corporations and 307 paurashavas (municipalities) remain in the shadows. Many of these paurashavas are not more than rural towns, with no real economic opportunity or job creation.
Dhaka continues to grow and its urban extensions like Gazipur, Savar and Romgi are industrializing rapidly as hubs for the leather industry and the world-renowned readymade garment industry. With such a concentration of economic activity and little focus on planning, these urban outgrowths struggle to manage infrastructure; and urban poverty and a proliferation of slums are prominent and unfortunate features.
Decentralisation for better management
With a view to improve city management and governance, Dhaka was fragmented into three separate municipal corporations in 2011. Besides the division of Dhaka in North and South, a third area comprising of three small municipalities of Narayanganj Sadar, Siddhirganj and Kadam Rasul were merged to create the Narayanganj City Corporation that is home to over 500,000 people.
With an urbanization rate of 33.54 percent that is higher than the national average of 1.47 percent, Narayanganj and other similar areas have taken the brunt of Dhaka’s growth. Carving Narayanganj out into a separate governance unit—a shadow city, as it were—was expected to provide it the autonomy to address issues like affordable housing and basic services. Moreover, the move was meant to leverage the urbanization and foster growth.
The reality, however, has been rather different. As per the ‘State of Cities 2012-13: Re-thinking Urban Governance in Narayanganj’ brought out by the BRAC Institute of Governance, the creation of a separate corporation “creates a dual challenge for the newly elected city government—on one hand, they have to address the rising expectations of city dwellers and on the other, in order the fulfil these, the newly formed NCC (corporation) needs fiscal strength more than the former Narayanganj municipality.” Sounds like the chicken and egg story, with lots of caveats thrown in!
Limited autonomy despite policy to boost decentralized and participative governance
Besides being burdened with high expectations and little wherewithal to meet these, the city corporation’s biggest challenge has been the lack of autonomy. In Narayanganj, BRAC observes that the central government “interferes and controls” most of the city’s functions, leaving the city government with no role in “determining the city’s economic future” and reducing it to a state of “limited governance” that concerns itself largely with providing services in a difficult and disjoint scenario. The problem is not just of financial dependence, nor is it limited to Narayanganj alone. Prof Nazrul Islam who heads the Centre for Urban Studies in Dhaka, observes  that even larger cities like Dhaka and certainly the newer municipal corporations like Narayanganj have limited functional jurisdiction as well. Functions like town planning and urban development, and even water and electricity supply have “been taken away from them and given to separate autonomous but unelected authorities under the central government.”
This lack of functional autonomy is particularly curious in Bangladesh because the country has been proactive in passing legislation to decentralize urban governance and make it more participative. As recently as 2009, changes were made in the Pourashava Act that mandated the creation of Ward Committees, each of which had to have at least 10 members, 40% of which must be women. Also, a Town Level Coordination Committee (TLCC) has to be instituted in the pourashava and these must have adequate representation from civil society.
Many variables in service delivery
Narayanganj’s city government has a mixed record when it comes to service delivery. Whereas the BRAC report finds that “the rich areas of Narayanganj have better service options and enjoy better access to services”, the poor areas of the city are underserved with slum dwellers being “extremely critical” about the service delivered by the City Corporation. The conflicting interests of powerful stakeholders—be they the business elites, the bureaucrats or even NGOs and local elites who aid the poor in gaining access to services—need to be kept in balance by the city government. While the city has been able to forge working partnerships and developed public-private approaches to address some issues like waste management and immunization services, citizens also felt the corporation could be pro-active in the delivery of a larger array of services than it currently handled, as per the BRAC report.
A raw deal for the urban poor
Narayanganj’s industrial importance has been both a boon and a bane. An old riverine port, Narayanganj has traditionally been a centre for knitwear and hosiery. The BRAC study estimates that the number of knitwear manufacturers in Bangladesh grew from 700 to 1906 between 2005 and 2013. About 55 percent of these are located in Narayanganj. And they employ an estimated 0.7 million workers. However, because industry owners have failed to provide worker housing, the city’s open spaces are now converted into slums. In 1978, 28 percent of the land in Narayanganj was agricultural; today not even 3 percent remains so.
Soon after its creation in 2011, UNDP’s Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction (UPPR) decided to replicate in Narayanganj the Settlement and Land Mapping (SLM) process it had piloted in another Bangladeshi city Gopalganj. The SLM approach is unique in its involvement of a variety of local stakeholders along with the government and it was able, for the first time, to gather substantial data about poverty in the city. The study highlighted that the city had a large number of poor settlements, 908 in number as compared to the official number of 35 at that time! And that these were rather dense.
On the other hand, the BRAC study found a serious lack of public social spaces and a “debilitating” disregard for community in Narayanganj’s approach towards poverty and land use. It is not surprising, therefore, that when UPPR planned, in 2012, to put in place a community resource centre in Narayanganj that would provide recreational and leisure facilities for the urban poor in the city. Their plan was obfuscated because the corporation wanted to use the valuable piece of land to build a multistory facility to earn more revenue. UPPR’s focus on accessibility to the community was not in the corporation’s scheme of things.
A fertile ground for new ideas, an opportunity to work with small urban units
By all accounts, the problems faced by Narayanganj in the first year or two of being an independent city corporation do not appear unique; experts feel larger cities like Dhaka have similar problems. What then are the advantages of creating smaller urban units, if governance does not see any significant improvement?
Kishore Singh, International Extreme Poverty Advisor Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction (UPPR) Bangladesh, sees a bright future for small cities in the country. Speaking from his experience of creating community resources in urban areas across Bangladesh, he says, “as far as projects are concerned, it is easier to work in smaller cities and easier to grab the attention of municipalities that are resource deficient. Also, in a smaller town, it is easier to cover the whole town and possible to adopt a town-based approach. In this way, we can create more impact.”
While Kishore points out that urban issues are not a policy concern in Bangladesh, he remains optimistic: “I feel that Bangladesh is fertile for new ideas at this time.” His optimism is particularly reserved for smaller municipalities and sees the central government making some distinct moves to improve conditions there. “In the last 2 to 3 years there has been a move to strengthen municipalities, especially in the areas of staffing. We see, for instance, slum development officers being places in paurashavas so that they can take over from the projects that bilateral agencies are running.” The move to reduce dependence on bilateral aid and develop independent capacities to plan, govern and manage secondary cities could well be the key to Bangladesh being able to maximize the benefits of urbanisation.
 Nazrul Islam, 2013, Urban Governance in Bangladesh: The Post-independence Scenario, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, (Hum.), Vol. 58(2), 2013, pp. 289-301
Banner photo by Bishwa Ijtema Tongi,Dnaka,Bangladesh
Photo 1 by Wikipedia commons