In the half century since Bangladesh gained its independence, the capital, Dhaka, has grown from a small city of a million to a megacity of 20 million people who now live there, with 400,000 arriving each year. Dhaka could become the world’s fourth most populous megacity by 2030, according to the UN.
Residential buildings keep getting higher with no regard for planning laws. There is little space between buildings, electricity cables are slung low in a tangled mess and the sewage system, which is still cleaned manually, is routinely overloaded by heavy rains.
Dhaka’s air quality routinely ranks among the worst in the world and the roads are so congested that traffic has slowed to almost walking speeds of 4 mph, down from 13 mph a decade ago
Once described as a “basket case” economy in 1971 by Henry Kissinger, who had opposed its creation. Half a century later, the country’s leaders often take pride in pointing out that they have proved him wrong. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted in October the country’s economic growth would still hit 4.4% in 2021 despite the coronavirus pandemic halving the previous year’s growth.
Dhaka-based industries that have spawned a rapidly-growing class of super-rich, who live in leafy neighbourhoods, dine out on international cuisine and shop in gleaming malls or abroad. While industry has thrived, there is been a lack of comprehensive strategy to support the city’s residents. Corruption has made things worse, leaving the powerful able to exploit laws or, in the case of the Keraniganj suburbs, buy up land for affordable housing projects then sell them at prices beyond the reach of ordinary workers.
These industries feed on a constant flow of migrants fleeing deprivation or climate disasters, who move to places like the Kallyanpur and Korail slums, or the suburbs between Dhaka and satellite towns built for garment factories.
Parveen Begum, 45, whose home in the coastal Bhola district was engulfed when the river flooded.
“There are problems here. There is also work here. As the crisis in our village increased, I came to Dhaka to find a living.” Parveen and her husband pay 2,000 taka (£16) a month to rent a single room, in which they must keep the light on permanently because there is no natural light. Outside, the drains regularly clog with sewage. “It’s not that I’m good here but there are more job opportunities than in the village,” she says. “We don’t want to live in this dirty slum, we’re always wishing we could go back.” She believes that unless there is investment in rural Bangladesh the higher wages will compel many more people to leave their villages for the city.
"...you cannot simply have a decent city life, even if you have a nice apartment,” says Dr Shahadat Hossain, an urban planning expert at the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany. “You cannot see any park developments, children go to school and come home and stay inside … social infrastructure is absolutely missing,” he says. “Your relation with the city is with your apartment, your workplace and the school your child goes to, but you have no relationship with anything in between because the roads, the community you live in, is foreign to you.”
Asaduzzaman Asad preceded most in his migration to the capital, arriving from the western district of Jhenaidah in 1966, when Dhaka was still the capital of East Pakistan, .
“This town was very small. The number of three-storey buildings were few and you mostly just saw tin-roofed homes. There were ponds and canals and very few people. It was peaceful,” says Asad. But he is now worried the city is becoming an intolerable place to live. “We need decentralisation, we need good medical treatment in villages, good education and alternative livelihoods,” he says. “We can easily predict the future of Dhaka. If this unplanned development continues, this city will become uninhabitable.”