Dhaka: Deep Dive into the “Unlivable” City

Dhaka Beats

A symphony of horns beeping, feverish motorcycles and rickshaws dashing by, and political posters of every color and size pasted onto the surfaces of public space- Dhaka can be described as an intense visual, auditory, and sensory experience. After surviving multiple cases where a rampant bus missed my ride by mere inches, squeezing my way through the crowd in the narrow alleyways of the Old Town, and being attacked by swarms of mosquitoes that seem to materialize out of nowhere, I emerged from my trip with a feeling that can only be described as triumphant.

Traffic, pollution, overpopulation, inequality, common issues faced by most urban cities are magnified here, giving Dhaka the unfortunate label of one of “the least livable cities” in the world, just after conflict ridden Damascus in Syria and Lagos in Nigeria.

Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit 2019 Report

Bad as the label may be, the resilience displayed by the residents of this “unlivable” city have have helped it become a city of character. Whether it be the rickshaw peddler, with the sweat-stained shirt, grappling to carry his many passengers by the sheer strength of his two legs, or the street-side hair dresser, with a makeshift salon, tending to his customer alongside the dust ridden lane by the Buriganga River, one thing is certain:

it takes a form of determination and grit to be able to call Dhaka home.

In my time there, I marveled at the chaos that constituted daily life and searched for the underlying rhythms that gave the city its unique beats. I look about curiously and observed different aspects of social issues and norms in their relations to the larger political framework.

Because Bangladesh’s tourism industry is undeveloped, quite often, I would be the only foreigner around. My acknowledgement of my own peculiarity in the eyes of the locals made me more acutely aware of my surroundings, while at the same time heightened my desire to remain an inconspicuous observer, hiding behind the shield of my face mask as I roamed about the city taking it all in.

Political Battles on University Grounds

graffiti walls on campus at Dhaka university
One of many graffiti walls on campus

During my stay, Dhaka University was my base, giving me a prime opportunity to get a taste of student life at the nation’s best university.

Dhaka University was the first university to be established in East Bengal at a time when the whole of India (or what constituted India then) was still under British rule. It symbolized a beacon of hope and chance for advancement for the Muslim majority of East Bengal and Assam, but its establishment was met with fierce opposition from Hindu leaders. Through repeated protests and demands addressed to the ruling British government, the University of Dhaka was finally established on July 1st, 1921. Just like the inception of the nation of Bangladesh, the establishment of the University did not come without struggle, and that revolutionary fervor is still felt within the campus grounds.

Students chatting on the grass in front of Dhaka University’s Physics Department
Students chatting on the grass in front of Dhaka University’s Physics Department

Aside from the usual scenes you’d expect at a university campus- students sitting about chatting on the grass and girls excitedly running off to evening festivities dressed in chic attire- there were also political graffiti on hall walls, which I had a chance to admire before cleaners rushed to scrub it away, and the occasional chanting student protests that circled the campus grounds.

Politics is very much present in student life. Student movements have played an important role in many mass movements in Bangladesh’s history, including the mass uprisings of 1969 leading to the Liberation War, which gave birth to the nation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Graffiti on Dhaka University academic building in remembrance of the murder of student Abarar Fahad
Graffiti sprayed on an academic building in remembrance of the murder of student Abarar Fahad

One of the recent major protests that occurred was sparked by the death of a second year Engineering student, Abarar Fahad, who was beaten to death in his dormitory by members of the ruling party’s student organization, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL). His crime? Some claim it was for writing a Facebook post that criticized his government’s new water dealwith India. Others say he was suspected of being a member of Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir (BICS), the student wing of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party. Whatever the reason behind his murder was, it is shocking to find that such politically aggravated campus violence is quite run-of-the-mill at universities in the nation’s capital.

Student political groups have become a micro-representation of the larger political forces at play and have shed light onto some of the shadier side of national politics.

“New students in both student dormitories and in the academic areas are systematically bullied, beaten and harassed. Later these victimized students themselves join the Chhatra League and start to take part in these systematic torture processes,”

-Mirza Taslima Sultana, a professor at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka, in an interview with University World News.

The students at Dhaka University are the crème de la crème of the nation, having fought among fierce competition in the entrance exams to make it into the nation’s top university. These are the students that will go on to lead one of the world’s most densely populated nation. I admire their fervor and passion towards ideological pursuits larger than themselves, but I wonder:

if future leaders cannot learn to resolve factional differences within campus grounds through non-violence, then how can peaceful common ground be found in the future on the larger political arena?

Gender and Politics

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on colorful political posters in Dhaka
The face of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on colorful political posters

Step onto any street in Dhaka, and the first face you may be greeted by is that of the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. She smiles, she waves, she is everywhere, with her political campaign posters plastered in every corner of the city. You might look up, confused, and think perhaps it’s election season, but really, the election ended a year ago. What a tell-tale sign of the efficiency of city administration.

political posters and traffic in Dhaka
Man walks past political posters in Dhaka
Political posters give the city the look of a colorful mess

In a conservative Muslim-majority country like Bangladesh, it is surprising (and applaudable) that two of its contemporary heads of states have been female- Khaleda Zia (1991–1996) (2001–2006) and Sheikh Hasina (1996–2001) (2008-present). Currently serving her fourth term in office, Hasina is the longest serving Prime Minister in Bangladesh. Under years of female leadership, I was curious about how gender equality have advanced in Bangladesh.

Like many other female political leaders of South and Southeast Asia, Zia and Hasina’s powerful political backgrounds have helped them gain major leverage in the political arena. Zia is the wife of the former Bangladeshi President and Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) founder, Ziaur Rahman, and Hasina is the daughter of Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Both former presidents were assassinated due to political frictions within the country and were heroized, passing on their political popularity to their kin. Merit is no doubt a part of the formula for these two powerful women’s political ascent, but I believe lineage played a much larger role.

From my observations, traditional roles were still very much in place for the ordinary women in Bangladesh. When I visited the home of my host, a Dhaka University professor, I was greeted with the usual courtesies of hospitality. He and his wife, who is also a university professor, prepared a wonderful meal for us. I was surprised to find my host sitting down, while his wife remained standing as the children played around the table. She served us first, stuffing numerous scoops of delicious home-cooked food onto our plates. Then, she served her husband who simultaneously ate with us. After about 15 minutes, her children crowded around the table eagerly eyeing the food, so she pulled up a chair and served them too. She remained standing throughout the meal, continuously adding food to our plates all the while playfully scolding us for not eating enough. Even though we repeatedly invited her to sit and join us in eating, she declined. An hour passed and I have not seen her sit down nor put a single piece of food in her mouth. Needless-to-say, I ate with a sense of guilty discomfort. When my host kindly invited us back to their home for another meal the next day, I politely declined. I did not want to have his wife to have to go through the whole ordeal again.

Curiously, I later searched up dining etiquette for Bangladesh and found this:

The honored guest is served first, then the oldest man, then the rest of the men, then children, and finally women.”

– Etiquette Scholars

I understand that in conservative societies, traditions such as these are commonplace. Yet it seemed odd to me to have witnessed its occurrence inside the home of a couple, both of whom are modern intellectuals living within a mega-city. What bothered me was not the fact that one of my hosts did not eat, but that there was a clear imbalance in gender roles within the home even though my hosts shared the same societal roles.

Men walking at night Cox's Bazar
It’s a man’s world after dusk at Cox’s Bazar

In the more conservative Chittagong region in the South, women are not often seen in public spaces alone, and after dusk, men are usually the only ones roaming the streets.

When asked about the lack of women in public spaces, a local simply told me,

“it is expected for women to stay home and tend to homemaking tasks.”

Under Hasina, Bangladesh has made huge strides in the form of education for women, legal protections, and workforce representation. 

It’s unbalanced however, for a society to champion for women’s empowerment in the public spheres, while still holding on to rigid gender roles that bind women in the private spheres.

Traffic Congestion

Traffic on tuk tuks and motorbikes in Dhaka
Stuck at the center of whirlwind traffic

Dhaka is infamous for its hectic traffic congestion and has been nicknamed the “traffic capital of the world.” The roads are an ecosystem of cars, buses, motorcycles, tuk tuks, rickshaws, people, and even the occasional horse carriage, all meshed into a two-lane road of fumes and dust. With little regard for traffic rules, cars turn and swirl without signals, buses charge forward aggressively, and people cross the road wherever they please. 

Every day out in the Dhaka road traffic can feel like a quest of life or death.

More than just infuriating its inhabitants, the never-ending traffic also costs Dhaka a massive 3.8 million work hours daily according to a 2017 World Bank report.

One of the reasons behind the jams is simply the lack of proper roads in the capital, with most of the city connected by only a few major roads. Efforts are made to change this however, with the constructions of new highways and the nation’s first metro system expected to operate in 2021. Although these projects will benefit Dhaka in the long-term, for the short-term, they are simply causing more traffic by taking up valuable lane space.

busy intersection in Old Town Dhaka
An intersection in Old town

Corruption is another underlying cause. From speaking with a Bangladeshi friend, I learned that driver’s licenses were hard to come by without paying a bribe to local authorities. Unwilling to pay the bribe, he simply drives around his motorcycle without a license, justifying his case by stating:

“I’d rather get caught and be fined, because the fine will be cheaper to pay off than the initial bribe anyways.”

Under such a problematic regulatory system, it’s no wonder that there is so many reckless drivers on the road.

With rickshaws, the challenge is even more aggravated. An Reuters article pointed out that:

“While nearly half of all motorized cars lack proper licenses and road permits, the number of rickshaws without licenses soars to 80 percent or more.”

A back shot of an aging rickshaw driver in Dhaka
A back shot of my aging rickshaw driver

To address the capital’s traffic headaches, Dhaka imposed a rickshaw ban in July 2019 on three of the city’s main roads, causing mass protests among rickshaw drivers who depend on their work to make a meager living.

Meanwhile, the mayor of the northern part of the city had announced that all of Dhaka will be “rickshaw-free” within two years. With limited opportunities outside of agriculture for unskilled workers, this poses a major challenge of livelihood for the urban poor. In order to guarantee a smooth implementation of new urban policy, Dhaka faces the challenge of creating alternative employment opportunities for the soon-to-be displaced rikshaw drivers, millions of which come into the capital from rural areas every year in search of work.

To accelerate overall economic development, Dhaka must resolve its traffic congestion problems, and in doing so, some hanging on at the lower bars of the economic ladder will be pushed off entirely. This, in my view, is a perfect example of how public policy always creates short-term winners and losers before it can begin to (if it does so at all) create long-term benefits for all.

Poverty and Inequality

A rickshaw driver passing through Old Town Dhaka
A rickshaw driver passing through Old Town

Economic inequality is something I think about a lot when I travel. It’s one thing to learn about inequality through reading stats and numbers; it’s a whole other experience to witness it first-hand.

On my first night in Dhaka, I was invited to dine at the home of acquaintances who lived in one of the posh apartments within the Gulshan district, the most affluent area in the city. After crossing through half the city in a symphony of honks and beeps, I was suddenly greeted by the tranquility of the living quarters in the embassy neighborhood. It felt more like an American suburb than the crowded capital of a South Asian nation. Most residents here were foreign nationals and embassy staff.

Gated embassy neighborhood in Gulshan, photo from the Architectural Review

High wired fences surrounded the apartment complexes, and metal detectors decorated the entrances of Western cafes and restaurants housed in the district. The beefed-up security measures around Western gatherings were in part attributed to the infamous 2016 terrorist attack that occurred at the Holey Artisan Bakery located in Gulshan, in which several Islamic militants stormed in the shop and killed over 20 victims (mostly foreigners) in a religiously aggravated attack.

More than just a security measure, the barred gates act as a social divide, separating those with the means to indulge in Western priced dining versus the masses of the urban poor, who’d probably never have the luxury to step foot into such establishments.

Fruit sellers tending to customers along the trash filled roads near the Buriganga River
Fruit sellers tending to customers along the trash filled roads near the Buriganga River

Out on the other side of the divide, I journeyed through the cramped quarters of old Dhaka, explored the bustling corridors of the Kamalapur Railway Station, and zigzagged passed overwhelming road traffic on the back seat of a beat-up rickshaw. I looked into the hollow eyes of a skeleton thin women begging at the train station, noted the curved back of an old men who had to walk on all fours on the littered sidewalks, and saw the sweat stained backs of rickshaw drivers as they peddled ahead under the scorching sun. 

For many, to survive in this harsh urban environment is an accomplishment in it of itself.

A Fighting Spirit and Hope for a Better Future

A young face of protest at the National Liberation Museum Dhaka
A young face of protest seen at the National Liberation Museum

On a more positive side, I sensed a flow of immense ambition from the youths of this vibrant city. Posters advertising English or MBA courses were just as commonplace as political posters; a street lined with stores carrying academic texts was vibrant with human activity throughout the evening; the art studios of Dhaka University remained packed with hardworking students even during break; finally, fervent displays of student activism demonstrates just how much the youths care about their nation’s future.

One of my favorite establishments in Dhaka will have to be its National Liberation Museum, which has given me a fruitful dose of the country’s young history. According to museum narrations, the region of Bengal was one of the richest regions in the world before it was conquered by the British in the mid 1700’s, leading to massive resource plundering, famine, and de-industrialization. Under the British, Bengal became dependent on exporting low-valued raw material like cotton, and workers were forced to accept extremely low wages.

Currently, textile production remains the driving force of the Bangladesh’s economic growth, yet the cheap clothing that consumers buy in Western retail stores comes at the heavy cost of poor working conditions and crushingly low minimum wages for Bangladeshi workers. 

Colonial legacies can be hard to reverse.

Other exhibitions painted the picture of the 1971 Liberation War that led to the split of what was then East Pakistan, to the bloody birth of present-day Bangladesh. During this period, in which an upper estimate of as many as 3 million people were brutally killed by the Pakistani army, the world’s “forgotten genocide” has played a critical role in weaving together Bangladesh’s national narrative and the formation of its national identity.

As with all state museums, I am aware of its propaganda undertones; that did not stop me from marveling at the fighting spirit of the Bangladeshi people, during the nation’s critical points of history, which remains ever present in modern day life.

Picture of refugees at sea from the exhibition “Photos of Rohingya Exodus”
From the exhibition “Photos of Rohingya Exodus”
Picture of refugees from the exhibition “Photos of Rohingya Exodus”
A look into the tough journey Rohingya refugees must make from Myanmar to Bangladesh
Refugee artwork from the exhibition "Art Against Genocide" at Dhaka National Liberation Museum
From the exhibition “Art Against Genocide”
Refugee artwork from the exhibition "Art Against Genocide" at Dhaka National Liberation Museum
“I love Myanmar but Myanmar doesn’t love me.”

My favorite display is from the temporary exhibitions at the topmost floor of the museum titled “Art against Genocide,” by members of the Cox’s Bazar Art Group, and “Photos of Rohingya Exodus,” from the collections of Dhaka Courier. Amid the sea of sorrowful photos and touching arts depicting the experiences of the Rohingya people, a picture of a young boy at the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps stands out, as he looks away with wishful eyes at the horizon under the colorful curve of a rainbow.

To me the photo represents hope, the most valuable treasure of all in times of hardship; for with hope hardship becomes not something that halts, but something to be overcome.

Picture of a young boy under a rainbow at Cox’s Bazar refugee camps
A young boy’s face of hope inside Cox’s Bazar refugee camps

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *