Like many fast-growing megacities in Asia and Africa, Dhaka, in Bangladesh, is often overlooked as one of the most unlivable cities on Earth, due to overcrowding, slums and substandard housing. The Bangladeshi capital has about 23 million residents.
In the 2023 edition of its annual global livability index, the Economist Intelligence Unit (the research and analysis division of the Economist Group) ranked the Bangladeshi capital 166 out of 173 cities. As Helemul Alam told the Daily Star, that ranking makes it the “seventh least livable city in the world.” While such lists tell a compelling story, they are inherently biased.
The Economist’s global livability index is based on the experiences of expats rather than citizens. This kind of ranking inevitably privileges the views of some urban dwellers and workers over others, often overlooking communities on the urban peripheries.
We show that people move back and forth between urban and rural areas. They move between jobs, localities and shelters.
Our research is based on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork that we conducted between 2015 and 2018. We examined two types of spaces involved in seasonal and labor migration: rickshaw garages and mess dormitories. These are mostly located on the fringes of the city in neighborhoods like Mirpur, Rayerbazar, Kamrangirchar, Shonir Akhra and Badda. We interviewed over 100 people who pass through these spaces in search of work and income, from rickshaw drivers, construction workers and garment workers to small business owners.
We found the dormitories and rickshaw garages bustling with activity and business. They accommodate different numbers of workers throughout the year, depending on the seasons. They suppress the functions of sleep, work and business.
In a 2019 paper for the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies, Khandoker Abdus Salam and Rezaul Karim estimated that there are 1.1 million cycle-rickshaws plying the streets of Dhaka, parked in garages across the city.
Rickshaw garages vary greatly, from cramped tin sheds with a few rickshaws to large half-open structures of bamboo and corrugated iron. Some simply consist of an open field with anything from a few rickshaws to 200 vehicles.
Rickshaw drivers are almost exclusively men. They rent cars by the day. Most do not have a permanent home in the city. Instead, they use temporary, free housing provided by garages.
In their study, Salam and Karim found that only 45% of rickshaw pullers rent a room in the city with their family. More than 80% spend at least one week in their rural home every six months.
One driver we interviewed, Jalal, usually runs a fish farm on the coast and turns to the rickshaw industry to supplement his income:
“I will not drive a rickshaw permanently. I have only been in Dhaka for four months. I lost my fish this monsoon due to heavy flooding.”
Every night, Jalal sleeps on a bamboo platform above a garage in Dhaka with about 25 other people. He hopes to be able to return to his home and business in the countryside after the rainy season.
The mess dormitory hosts a wider segment of the rural-urban migrant population. The men, women and families living there work in many industries: domestic help, construction, garment factories, rickshaw and car garages, small businesses, street food stalls and local restaurants.
Some dormitories are horizontal two-story buildings. Some are built vertically, rising four or five stories. Although usually made of permanent materials, these dormitories look useless, because the most common living arrangement inside them is on the floor. There were no beds provided in the male dormitories we visited.
Sometimes walls made of cardboard create separate sleeping quarters for women. Since moving to Dhaka, ten years ago, Ishrat, a 38-year-old home-based embroidery worker and a widowed mother of three, has moved eight times, in search of cheap rent and the ability to work from home so she can look after her children. As he explained:
“Every morning I rearrange this room with only one bed into a workshop. I teach needlework to women in the neighborhood and don’t mind sleeping on the floor as long as the room has enough electricity to keep going at my work tonight.”
The dormitories offer flexible rental arrangements, from daily or weekly rentals to monthly and yearly options. This allows people to move constantly.
Cities as workplaces
Urbanization in south Asia is often portrayed in the media in dystopian terms. Cities are said to be overwhelmed by the pressure of migrants from rural areas, who have no choice but to settle in slums.
Two false assumptions underlie this type of narrative. First, that the city is a bounded and self-contained unit that somehow overflows. Second, that rural-urban migration is a one-way process, leading to permanent settlement.
Demographers have long shown, however, that the divide between the city and the countryside is widening.
A major driver of Dhaka’s rapid urban growth is rural-urban migration caused by land loss, unemployment and river erosion. But this kind of movement does not happen in a linear way, nor does it have to be permanent. As development studies expert Rita Afsar emphasizes:
“Migration includes a spectrum of movement, from commuting or temporary, homelessness for a few days at a time to seasonal or permanent relocation.”
Dhaka is not just a place of arrival or residence. It is formed by what the geographer Benjamin Etzold calls “translocality”: people who organize their lives and their livelihoods in different places. Doing so, as Ishrat and Jalal’s stories highlight, requires a great deal of effort.
Cities should be discussed not only in terms of their livability but also in terms of their employability. What makes a city work for people like Ishrat and Jalal is access to informal labor markets, affordable travel options, flexible housing and rental arrangements. It is also the possibility of maintaining translocal networks and livelihoods—of continuing to live between places.
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Citation: City livability rankings tell a biased story: Dhaka research explains why (2023, July 17) retrieved 19 July 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-07-city -livability-biased-story-dhaka.html
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