Vol. 5 Num 977 Wed. February 28, 2007  

Is Dhaka the victim of the first city bias?

Development economics argues that in many developing countries the first, or the largest, city receives a disproportionately large share of public investment compared to the other small towns of the country.

As a result, the first city receives a disproportionately large share of population and economic activities. At the end of the day, life in this apparently attractive city becomes acrimonious for a large segment of residents.

Because of relatively more job opportunities and better living conditions, people from other parts of the country migrate to the first city. Unfortunately, not all of these migrants get jobs in the formal sector of the economy.

Those who fail to manage a decent job start living in the slums, and get involved in legal and illegal informal activities. As a result, the first city bias ultimately results in the deterioration of the overall environment of the first city. Is the rampant growth of the population in Dhaka city, and the consequent growth in the slums and slum-dwellers, the outcome of the "first city bias?"

According to a forecast by UN Habitat, the population of Dhaka will increase to 21.1 million in 2015, from 12.3 million in 2000. A large number of European and Latin American countries will have a smaller population than Dhaka.

The world's population is growing at annual rate of 1 percent, but the rate of urbanization is 1.8 percent. The rate of urbanization is even higher in developing countries, ranging from 2 to 3 percent.

Although, currently, most of the ten biggest cities of the world are situated in developed countries, by year 2015 most of them will belong to the developing countries. Dhaka will become the 4th largest city in the world in terms of total population. Needless to mention that, at the same time, Dhaka will possibly have the highest number of slum dwellers in the world.

By analyzing the data from 85 countries, Alberto Ades and Edward Glaeser (1995) argue that unstable dictatorships and democracies (fearing the overthrow) provide "bread and circuses" for the first city to prevent unrest.

This extreme bias towards the first city, in turn, attracts more migrants to the favoured city, necessitating a larger supply of bread and circuses. Todaor and Smith compare the focus on national government spending on the capital city with the "rent-sharing" policies in ancient Rome in its period of expansion.

We all know that Bangladesh, since its emergence, has been experiencing either unstable military dictatorships or very weak democracies. These governments did everything to "buy off" the population of the capital city.

Better jobs, wages, infrastructure, and other government services concentrated in Dhaka attract an ever-growing migrant population, which in turn intensifies the deterioration of the living conditions of the city.

Recently, the World Bank published a report on the investment climate in South Asia. The report makes a comparison among four cities/towns in Bangladesh in terms of "ease of doing business." They are Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, and Bogra.

They use different criteria, like how easy it is to start a business, deal with licensing, employ workers, register property, get credit, protect investors, pay taxes etc. Dhaka is on top in that ranking, and Bogra is at the bottom. It means that, within Bangladesh, Dhaka is the best place to do business. This is another reflection of our first city bias.

The slum population in Dhaka has doubled in a decade, to reach 3.4 million in 2006 from only 1.5 million in 1996, following heavy rural-urban migration, according to a recent study. Of the 3.4 million people, 2.5 million live within the Dhaka City Corporation area.

According to the study "Slums of Urban Bangladesh, Mapping and Census 2005," which was jointly conducted by the Centre for Urban Studies (CUS), National Institute of Population Research and Training (Niport) and the Measure Evaluation of Carolina Population Centre of the University of North Carolina, the density of the slum population is 891 per acre, which is eight to ten times higher than the average city population.

Most of the slum dwellers are the hard-core poor. Defining the hard-core poverty line as an income level of Tk 3,000 per month, and moderate as Tk 5,000, the study also found that over 90 percent of the slum people live below the poverty line, while nearly 40 percent are below hard-core poverty line.

Cities have existed for over 5000 years, but by 1800 only 2 percent of the world's population was urban. Growing urbanization has never been a big problem in developed countries.

But, in the near future, it will be one of the biggest problems faced by developing countries, including Bangladesh. The only way to solve this problem is to give up our first city bias, and to create regional growth centers in other parts of the country.

The author, a Research Fellow, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), is currently teaching at Willamette University, US.