Dhaka, Bangladesh has been named the second worst city to live in in the world (an improvement over being deemed the absolute worst last year), according the Economist Intelligence Unit‘s 2013 Liveability Report, which reviewed 140 cities around the world and was published in August 2013.
Given that the world has many many many more than 140 cities, the critic in me is wondering how the basis of choosing the 140 cities were given (the rationale remains absent from the summary report).
However, without falling into the patriotic blind trap of suggesting Dhaka is so much better than so many other cities in the world, I am going to take Dhaka being recognized in this report as a serious reality check for Bangladesh, a moment that can result in much positive change. At the risk of being called non-nationalistic, I adamantly state: Dhaka IS the worst city I have EVER lived at, the worst place I have ever traveled to, and it deserves to be deemed as such by the supposedly neutral foreign bodies examining the rampant disrespect for humanity and humanitarian standards that permeates every facet of Dhaka life.
By no means am I an expert on cities and urban planning, but I have a humbling confession which raised the standards and defined the boundaries of acceptability for me: After I left New York City in 2011, I went to 25 different countries, and visited approximately 76 cities, towns, and villages across three continents. I hiked in 3 mountain ranges, saw 3 oceans, and basked in the sun of 6 different beaches, 2 gulfs, and 1 bay.
At the end of those travels, I chose to move back to Dhaka in order to “do something positive,” for the country where I spent my early childhood. My diary entry, written about one year ago today, reads: I’m so glad to be in this city of dirt and dreams.
After five months of taking CNGs and rickshaws and living in this congested hell hole, which lies in complete contrast to my sheltered beginnings in Chittagong, I take my assertion back.
What I realize now, is that being glad to be in Dhaka is akin to being complacent with the current socio-political status quo: a status quo that does not adequately address the need for a serious and well thought out action plan to address the necessary change that must occur on every facet of Dhaka’s life front, in order to make the city a haven for those who occupy its growing urban sprawl.
The pathetic living standard that surrounds Dhaka life is very visible and obvious to the naked eye.
Imagine five or six cars heading towards you from every direction, spilling trucks filled to the brim with everything from bananas to long steel rods, balanced precariously, meeting motorbikers who give hellcats what can politely be termed as purgatory for a pedestrian. Imagine congestion that turns your spit black. Imagine standstill traffic and “luck” being perceived as half an hour spent on what should be a two minute ride. Imagine standstill traffic being common for hours at a time, and that soon your cough is actually laced with unidentifiable black specks, and you have the definition of hell on earth, incarnated in the form of the byproduct of Dhaka’s roads.
The worst part is that whilst your heart rate has suddenly gone up and you’re literally having palpitations, others are weaving expertly in and out without any regard for traffic lights, piles of shit and litter that smells from miles away along every single road in Dhaka.
Reacting to the Reaction: A Note on Authoritative Evaluations
Dhakaites are angered by the assessment, but in this, there seems to be no justifiable reasoning involved. Sure, Dhaka people are amazing, but this isn’t about them.
I’m appalled, and mostly so because of the unwarranted optimism propelled by quick economic growth that is accepted without question, without enough corporate social responsibility, or even public responsibility, without enough programmes regarding handwashing or food free of formalin. All this is unreflective of the proper legislative and infrastructural reform that is needed to establish a more equitable nation, a more democratic nation.
This reaction is symptomatic of the obsessive way in which rich Bangladeshis find it acceptable to deny the need for “world class” standards of clean air and water to those who cannot afford this luxury.
In a world where the space for our reality is defined by serious thoughts about our next twitter or Facebook update, we are spending so long looking at our screens that unless we stop and go out and ACTUALLY TRY TO TAKE A WALK IN DHAKA FOR JUST FIVE MINUTES, five minutes only, without being stared down, as a female, without lewd commentary for wearing jeans, without the risk of falling into a pothole or walking into spit and betel juice remains, we cannot possibly imagine what the average Bangladeshi goes through as they rely on terrible working and living conditions to pay for their next meal.
When I moved back to Bangladesh last September, I wrote about hope, but after a year of living in this ridiculously corrupt nation at the interstices of deciding what it wants for itself, I find the assertions that Dhaka is, to say the least, the most messed up city of anywhere in the “peaceful” world, is a correct assertion, and I am hence, truly appalled by the Dhakaite reaction to this report.
A Summary of Some of the EIU Findings
To understand why I reckon that Dhaka deserves its rating, let’s examine the EIU findings. The EIU report findings were assessed on the basis of five categories: Stability, Healthcare, Culture & Environment, Education, and Infrastructure.
Below are the top 10 best cities to live in in the world:
An overall rating of 100 being the most ideal, and 0 representing the least were used to determine the conditions of each city. Barring the warning bells that go off in my mind about who defines culture and entertainment and the several other criticisms I have about the findings, there are some several trends in the top cities.
These cities made the top 10 cut, in order, in case you can’t see the image: Melbourne, Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Australia, Sydney, Helsinki, Perth, and Auckland. Four of these are in Australia, three in Canada, two in Europe, and one is an island nation off Australia.
The worst were somehow almost all dismally situated either in Africa or in the Muslim world.
The worst, in order of worst to best of worst are Damascus, Dhaka, Port Moresby, Lagos, Harare, Algiers, Karachi, Tripoli, Douala, and Tehran.
The report findings suggest a correlation between the cities at the top of the rankings- usually mid-sized in wealthier countries with a low population density. These cities are able to foster recreational activities “without leading to high crime levels or overburdened infrastructure.”
There seems to be a healthy body of people reading the news tragedies who have identified two of the worst humanitarian disasters in 2013, the Savar tragedy of Rana Plaza in April that killed over 1100 people as a garments factory building collapsed, and over 1 million children serving as refugees from Syria, according to a recent UN study. That is what I choose to see, as I inwardly cringe at the over simplifications in what is a very complex situation on the ground.
I’m okay with last year’s rage that erupted in Dhaka regarding the ratings and being put ahead of Syria, when Syria and Kabul and so many war zones, are in the mix, but DENSITY, and the infrastructural responsibility that comes with responsibility is something Bangladeshi politicians have never tackled well, and human beings are objectified, reduced to the level of cattle as resources to expand upon the wealthiest’s wealth.
Yes, the consortium of global political leaders have been too long in taking any form of a serious stance about Syria, but let’s please just stop right there.
Politicians and peacemakers should never be guided by politeness when assessing the disgusting conditions that have prevailed in the systematic breakdown of political stability, and this applies to everywhere.
I’m not going into the details of the commodification of the report, and how affordability in terms of economic investments are the guiding principle behind the risk evaluations provided by the conservative Economist stakeholders, or even the demonizing logic of media attention which belatedly find Damascus at #1 today but had it at #10 even though the war has been three years on the rolling.
The report has its flaws, I won’t deny that for a second: I’m glad we’re thinking of Syria, really. Syrians have deserved our attention from Day 1, not Day 1000, but I’m not even here to discuss the delayed reaction of the world to Syria.
The EIU report is legitimate on one ground, all other reflections aside, because it showcases that there is a healthy body of EIU voters reading the news who have identified what are arguably two of the worst humanitarian disasters in 2013, and have stood their grounds on how to address these.
A Place for Nationalism, and Nationalism in Its Place
It seems the “experts” are as confused about Bangladesh’s stability as Bangladeshis themselves: Bangladesh scores 50 on stability whilst Syria is at 20- the only factor that ostensibly puts Dhaka at #2 instead of #1. Perhaps the revolutionaries are being given crumbs of recognition for wanting their freedom in Syria, but really, the only reason, I would argue, that Syria suddenly shot up in the list is the new US interest to bomb it.
Dhaka, on the other hand, has been a damnable mess all along.
Perhaps the Dhakaite outrage is directed by the fact that once again, Bangladesh is close to the worst city of the bottom in the pile- and it is the first city in a “peaceful” political state that is in this condition.t
Saying that Dhaka is “not that bad” is not being a true patriot, if we are using nationalism as our tool of analysis. By stating thus we legitimize a creepy and terrible reality: that any of those of us who are able to sport Gucci bags, Pucci shirts, Armani sunglasses, and roam around in our overtly air-conditioned BMWs whilst checking our smartphones for reactions to our social media updates, and call ourselves the “cultural” ambassadors of this nation are nothing but incorrigible fools in the face of the reality of all the challenges Bangladesh faces per equanimity, and we are hence simple parrots of our politicians, echoing that such an offensive reality of disparity is acceptable.
Dhaka’s Streets Are Not Different to a Warzone
The report should serve as a complete reality check: Dhaka is akin to a war zone, all day, every single day and night of every single year, for anyone who is unable to, or chooses not to, drive a private car, anyone who is unable to afford health care, the next bribe, or who wishes to practise an art, any art, and does not have the comfort of doing so with their daddies footing each living expense bill.
Really, when was the last time you drank out of a water fountain or enjoyed a walk in the park without being harassed, or when was the last time you heard of an outrageous artist not being sent into exile (or more recently in 2013, even agnostic and atheist bloggers sent to jail) in Dhaka?
No, don’t tell me that “this is Dhaka, not America,” as though you’re telling me some state secret.
Believe me, I know. I never realized how much I took my forty blocks of daily walking for granted until I realized that it is a luxury and an unreal goal in Bangladesh.
I also know that people in glass houses should not throw stones at others and am hence very aware that I’m not the most legitimate spokesperson for what happens beyond the falsifiable glory of the bubble that my peers and contemporaries and I have created for ourselves with our gated communities, a bubble that bursts just as soon as we go flying down a pothole or encounter a gridlock traffic jam that is intertwined with pathetically maneuvering cars and buses that wouldn’t have passed a carbon emissions test in 1930, let alone today.
Corrupt Ideals Goes a Long Way to Handicap A Country
Corruption decrees several development projects are continually benched when stricter monitoring and evaluation of funds are put on the table (note the Padma bridge project that was due to receive World Bank backing until we botched it because we did not want to provide accountable numbera), and our lovely country Premier, Ms. Hasina, has the audacity to shun Hillary Clinton’s state visit even though the US has long supported Bangladesh through USAID projects. Then our Prime Minister went on a photo shoot to Moscow, just earlier this year, with Vladmir Putin, to reestablish Russian backed nuclear plant building funding and supposed friendship.
Also, is it a surprise to us that Bangladesh is the hub for an 18,000 strong scientist factory coming in as foreign aid to study the country’s diseases?
Yes, I’m glad people are studying diseases too. We desperately need some cures, but really, an Australian ICDDRB researcher had the insensitive nerve to gleefully suggest to me that Bangladesh is a haven for researchers for her, and how excited she was for diarrhea and cholera season to begin.
Dhaka is incredibly unstable. Healthcare is ridiculously expensive or infinitely misguided (a doctor in Dhaka told me that I needed to have a cyst removed which was apparently carcinogenic. Multiple expert opinions in the western world suggested that I am just a lumpy person, and this is not to mention my dad being told he was having allergic reactions to his medication when in reality he was suffering 11 silent heart attacks over the course of the year 2001).
And ironically, we’re the ones who are able to afford a correct diagnosis.
This lack of public knowledge and education on key issues of health issues and education is deplorable.
Public school education in Bangladesh is fraught with an excess of developmental messages and a lack of those pertaining to anything beyond basic life skills.
To be fair to the city, Dhaka has a burgeoning art world, bohemian and heavily underrated, and moreover, a lost generation of critics thanks to a public that oozes hatred for anything complicated or intelligently critical, a hemorrhage to the country’s history that provides the perfect excuse repeat the vicious cycle of exploitation, of political witch hunts that have allowed us to hysterically assassinate and hence hideously lose out on an entire generation of important thinkers, somehow makes up for the current absentia of powerful criticism that permeates so much of the literature surrounding this tiny South Asian nation.
Sure, Dhaka has its quick foreign fixes of decent Japanese grub (read Samdado, and for the extravagant types, Izumi and Wasabi), and Italian fares as well as its local food options, but other than the short culinary escape routes that appease and appeal to our foodie tendencies, Dhaka is a city that, even by my paltry patriotic standards as a Bangladeshi, is deeply perplexing, terrifying and incredibly disturbing, for any human being choosing to take a walk on its streets, let alone one who is not “disenfranchised.”
Add this to the fact that formaldehyde, the chemical used to preserve dead cadavers, was the most imported chemical into Bangladesh in 2012 and all fruit and vegetables become subject to this trend, I am a bit surprised that Bangladeshis complain about how the report is unfair. It is unfair as long as we are lumped with war zones. But as a peaceful nation, Bangladesh IS a war zone for its disenfranchised.
Renting an apartment as a single female some few months back, I have also become subject to much gossip and irreverent accusations made of my character, to the point of being harassed by several different persons on the phone and in the lifts and the streets, about who I am, and why I have been living alone as single Bangladeshi in my late 20s, in Dhaka city alone.
For the average Bangladeshi, it seems easy to get beyond the questions requires the prerequisite protection of heavily monied parentage. Hence I would argue that anyone who manages Dhaka’s streets with a car with cannot possibly speak for the average Bangladeshi.
A History of Turbulence
In the 42 years after its independence, Bangladesh has achieved the status of being the most densely populated nation on the planet, with a total population of approximately 148 million people. Approximately 1032 citizens occupy every square kilometer of the country, in a geographic mass that is smaller than the state of New York. The country’s capital, Dhaka, which was an undistinguished district headquarter during the time of the subcontinent’s Partition in 1947, is today considered to be the fastest-growing city in the world. Dhaka is home to 15.3 million people, signaling nearly a four-fold increase in the last 25 years.
Out of the total population of 63 million children, 46 per cent of children in the country live below the national poverty line, 23 per cent in extreme poverty, and 59 per cent of this total amount live on less than 1.08 dollars a day.  Deprivation of seven basic human needs including nutrition, health, education, water, sanitation, shelter, and information, are higher among children living in poor income families than their counterparts, hence showcasing a significant correlation between poverty and the capability to access improved living and social situations.
Chronic malnutrition pervades all social-economic stratas in Bangladesh, affecting 56 per cent of children among the poorest and 32 per cent among the wealthiest quintiles. Bangladesh is projected to have an estimated 220 million inhabitants by 2040, and on top of this, Dhaka, which is already a megacity, is projected to have an even more rapid influx of migrants than what it currently faces.
Add this to the horrendous water conditions- two water treatment plants supply all of Dhaka’s water, which is ultimately laced with arsenic to such an extent that my eye doctor has adamantly insisted that I don’t consume anything but bottled water, or even wash my face with anything but purified water (a daunting challenge to taking showers, as I’m sure some of you will sympathize with).
On the basis of infrastructural developments or the easing of “instabilities,” Dhaka scored lowest on infrastructure amongst the 10 others which made it to the list for the EIU findings, at 26.8. In all the other regards, except for education, it scores worse than Damascus: 29.2 on healthcare to Damascus’s 41.7, 47.9 on Culture in Damascus to 43.3 in Bangladesh, the same 41.7 on Education for both, and Damascus is of course, better at 44.6 to Bangladesh’s 26.8 for infrastructure.
Unstable political terrain over the course of forty years has, so to put it, left the fastest growing city in the world massively unequipped to deal with its crumbling edifices as much as it’s heavily burgeoning population, and the high levels of migrant influxes.
Complacence Legitimizes Instability
The criticism of the EIU seems to hurt several otherwise laconic Dhakaites in a place that is usually reserved for the nationalist ego meeting recent cultural acumen that is ready to prove their worth and value in a manner that has no space for criticism, whilst planning their weekend getaway to Singapore or Langkawi.
Being complacent or adamant that the report is biased is hence an assertion of political nonchalance in a way that I would argue, is the symbolic equivalent of generation X, Y and Z getting together on their phones and playing Angry Birds and romanticising the failed Shahbag movement of February 2013, which was already the only public political display of any form of stress regarding the often unhinged political situation, the ridiculous infrastructural slides, the spit on our doorways and the crows that hover alongside the piles of shit outside every time we go for a walk to buy a bottle of water from the corner shack at the end of our road, a road that has been dug up in the middle of the ongoing monsoon in order to complete repair work and hence leave puddles and pools to wade through daily, in order to get to work, whilst the road remains rutted and gutted.
In conversations with approximately two dozen Dhakaites in the last month about this report, “rightful outrage,” has been expressed regarding how “unfair” the findings are by almost every single person interviewed.
The pro-Dhaka camp can easily find ways to defend the city: Dhaka is a city abundant with lovely hospitality, commercial growth and possibilities, and frequent glimpses of a fragmented, archaic, and romanticised past filled with fractured architecture and wrongfully demonised academia, I will definitely grant the city this much.
Bangladeshis being defensive about Dhaka embody what I believe is a a certain class related nonchalance which comes from years of accepting the status quo of filth we have grown up with, just the way our politicians have selectively impaired our social memories to the reality of the assassinations of of the 1950s and 1960s, so we are mentally assassinating the common Bangladeshi man and woman, who have to face Dhaka’s streets without the distant language wars and epistemological warfare.
Yes. I’m guilty of embodying the Bangla rendition of the infamous Greek socialite who is the epitomized ode of Pulp’s Common People song, and for the measure of full disclosure, will let on that I’m fully aware that I can be airlifted out of whatever political ire the dysfunctional morons who run Bangladesh are wont to engage with, but there is more than a slight danger in protesting this report on the grounds that it’s dismissive of how great our life is in Dhaka.
Denying that Dhaka is hideously unlivable, is symptomatic of fully accepting disgraceful levels of violence,and is therefore akin to endorsing this daily violence, and the daily fact that Dhaka’s most disenfranchised are our children who are devoid of parks to play in or walkable streets, or implemented laws regarding child marriage and labour and corporal punishment, proper education and nutrition or health become the stuff that “impossible” dreams fissured with the frenzy of NGO workers are dealing with- with little to no sustained and continued support from the Bangladeshi government.
Dhaka for the Future
If we think for a minute that as we lead our supposedly middle class lives that Dhaka is not the worst place on earth, we have helped forget about the little girl who is living a shack and has been married off by the age of 8, or 11 or if she is “lucky,” then 13 or 14.
We will have forgotten, and we will have silently endorsed, the daily corruption and violations of allowing ourselves to live without clean air, drinkable water free of arsenic, clean roads that are beholden with flowers and without dust, green streets devoid of pollution and filled with fountains, of education and nutrition and a world without child marriages and a disparity in wealth so wide that what is ironically joked about as the tristate area of Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara seems rather ludicrous given that living conditions are not really equitable even within the confines of these areas, and regardless of where you are in Dhaka, there is no scope of taking a walk without the scent of pee or dirt and grime that makes you wonder about the horrible grime and diseases your body and lungs are blackening into.
No, the really bothersome element of the report to me is not that Dhaka is at #2, but the self righteous folks who are outraged that we are compared to a war zone.
We need change, we need it now, and hence being complacent, or denying the reality that Dhaka is the world’s worst “peaceful” city on liveability grounds is a heinous violation and folly.
The country has been built by crooks looking to make easy money, and their misdeeds have caused four decades of an already volatile nation, already sitting on a tectonic plate, to be further susceptible to natural disasters such as earthquakes: Dhaka is a natural time bomb waiting to happen: the area experiences a massive earthquake once every 150 years, and guess what, we’re over a century overdue.
All this occurs whilst the city’s flesh is ravaged daily by villains executing both high and low level petty crime and the worst living conditions of anywhere in the world, allowing for Rana Plaza to happen with a quick bribe, and for continued violations of human rights violations occurring with every single step on Dhaka’s roads going unchecked, whilst the police serve as aberrant to peace efforts, not instigators of sustainable change.
Making Dhaka livable comes initially through accepting the unlivability and working to systematically change the status quo, not denying its existence.
 Lower poverty line of Cost of Basic Needs method is considered as extreme poverty line.
- Pollution (mondiradashiya.wordpress.com)
- Making Dhaka Livable (alalodulal.org)
- Dhaka: Fastest Developing Mega City In The World & 5 Reasons (uninetbd.wordpress.com)
- 20/20 Vision and the Best Doctor’s Diagnosis, EVER (wondersonder.wordpress.com)
- Dhaka rated 2nd least liveable city (thedailystar.net)