|Volume 5 Issue 11| November 2011|
Villages have a special place in our collective psyche. Not only are our folklores about the village, but our 'modern' culture also regularly harkens to the countryside -- how many Tagore songs have the word gram in it? Our politics reflects the rural votery -- a former military ruler used to say 'Bangladesh survives if 68,000 villages survive'. Subconsciously for us, Gram Bangla is synonymous with Bangladesh -- as an iconic dialogue from the 1971 classic Jeeban thekey neya goes: 'If one loves the country then one should visit the village time-to-time'. Cities, on the other hand, are dreadful places where the soul is, to quote a popular song, 'trapped in a rib-cage of brick and iron'.
And it's understandable why the cultural symbols are the way they are. Seven out of 10 Bangladeshis live in villages. But that's not the whole story. While we remain an overwhelmingly rural country, we have been urbanising rapidly (Chart 1). Half a century ago, only 2% of the country's population lived in large cities, and another 3% lived in small towns. In 2010, 28% of people lived in urban areas, roughly evenly split between large cities and small towns.
That's about 40 million people living in cities and towns, whose trials and tribulations of daily lives are very different from their rural compatriots. More importantly, that's 40 million people whose public policy needs and development challenges are very different from those aimed at the rural citizenry. While we can wait another generation for a genuine nagar baul, a national urban policy is something that simply cannot wait.
That's why the draft National Urban Policy is an important and commendable step whose time has come. Sadly, the Policy as it is currently drafted is a missed opportunity.
Why is the draft Policy a missed opportunity? Not because of the outcome it envisages. The policy vision, reproduced below, is hardly anything one can quibble with.
The National Urban Policy envisions strengthening the beneficial aspects of urbanization and at the same time effectively dealing with its negative consequences so as to achieve sustainable urbanization, keeping in view the multi-dimensional nature of the urbanization process. The policy also envisions a decentralized and participatory process of urban development in which the central government, the local government, the private sector, the civil society and the people all have their roles to play. The policy, therefore, should cover spatial, economic, social, cultural, aesthetic and environmental aspects of urban life directed towards achieving an urban reality that can ensure freedom from hunger and poverty; capacity to live a healthy life; access to education, shelter, and basic services, and a secure and liveable environment at home and at the workplace. The policy will be gender sensitive and friendly to children, the aged and the disadvantaged.
Neither is the draft Policy a missed opportunity because it fails to take into account the multifaceted nature of the urbanisation process. In fact, with 21 dimensions covered, the Policy cannot be accused of lacking in scope.
And yet, for all the breadth of coverage, the draft Policy lacks clarity with respect to arguably the most important dimension -- the desired pace of urbanisation. Further, while there are lots of good things wished for, a policy should not be a mere wish list. Rather, it should be a 'how to' statement about achieving the wishes. And that -- a 'how to' statement -- is precisely what this draft Policy is not.
Let's explore these points in turn.
The rapid urbanisation Bangladesh is witnessing is an essential part of the economic development process. Over the past generation, per capita income in Bangladesh has doubled, and there has been commensurate increase in other measures of the living standard. Typically, such improvements in living standards are accompanied by rapid urbanisation. But as Chart 2 shows, urbanisation does not follow a uniform pattern as the economy develops. For example, despite having a much higher per capita income, Thailand is a lot less urban than Indonesia.
This raises the fundamental question about whether there is a desirable pace of urbanisation that the Policy should seek to achieve. The government aims to achieve economic growth of 8% for most of the next decade, which would double per capita income to around $3,500 (in purchasing power parity terms). At that level of income, we could have an urbanisation rate of Thailand (around 30%) or Indonesia (around 45%). If one is preferred over the other, then that would obviously affect the National Urban Policy. For example, if the Thai rate is preferred, then that would mean a virtual stopping of urbanisation in very near future.
Further, the government aims to raise the industry's share of GDP to about 40% over the next decade. How does this industrialisation relate to urbanisation? The industry's share of GDP is currently slightly less than 30%. As Chart 3 shows, that level of industrialisation, China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines were less urbanised than Bangladesh is currently. On the other hand, Pakistan is considerably more urban, despite being less industrialised than Bangladesh. What is the desired path for Bangladesh as it further industrialises?
Moreover, even if it is agreed that further urbanisation should accompany industrialisation, there is a question about whether this should happen in Dhaka or elsewhere. Over the past half century, the share of the country's urban population residing in Dhaka has been rising, contrary to the trend elsewhere in the region (Chart 4).
The stated Policy objective is to reduce the load on Dhaka and achieve balanced urbanisation. That's the wish. But it's not clear that the recommendations will actually achieve the desired outcomes -- recall that this isn't a 'how to' statement.
For example, let's consider the location of garments factories. Readymade garments are manufactured primarily for exports. And the bulk of them are exported through Chittagong port. Then why isn't the major garments belt near Chittagong port? Are the garments owners irrational?
Of course not. There are good reasons for an individual garments owner to be near other garments factories -- the availability of skilled workers, for example. And there are good reasons why most garments owners would want to set up factories near Dhaka -- it's where the banks and government offices are at. And finally, there is a good reason to locate the factories in the northern outskirts of the city -- it's closer to the airport and the suburbs frequented by the expatriates (who include the marketing agents for the importers of these goods).
In and of itself, none of the recommendations in the Policy will change the relationships that have created the Tongi-Ashulia garments belt. And by extension, it means that the Policy will be a failure because the employment generation will happen in Dhaka (or nearby areas), and urbanisation will continue to be imbalanced.
That is, the idea that 'local economic development' can be assisted by 'maximum support to small business' or 'special zones' or 'grants/subsidies' is not sufficient. If the Policy is serious about urbanisation outside Dhaka, then it will need to tackle economic decentralisation in a much more concerted manner. Particularly, steps will need to be taken to set up communications and financial hubs outside Dhaka.
And economic decentralisation cannot happen without political devolution. In this regards, it's not clear that recommendation 5.20 Urban Governance is sufficiently unequivocal. The tension between the local MP and upazilla chairman has been well documented over the past couple of years. The point also holds for the local MP and the local mayor. And the Policy skirts the whole issue by simply noting 'local authorities should be properly empowered'.
That is not satisfactory.
That's what a serious Urban Policy would include. Why does the current draft Policy fall short so significantly?
One can only speculate.
But cynicism aside, the development community outside the government -- academics, think tanks, the media, broader citizenry -- also share some responsibility. It is there, our, collective failure to articulate the need for an Urban Policy.
One hopes that the current draft Policy, with all its flaws notwithstanding, will begin the process towards a better Urban Policy.
Jyoti Rahman is an applied economist and a member of Drishtipat Writers' Collective. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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