Obese cities, thin futures

Are primate cities indicators of bad times to come?

Afsan Chowdhury

One of the inevitable consequences of development is inadequate equity. Nobody gains equally from growth and development but conventional wisdom implies that this as part of the process, a price of sorts for getting things better. The way cities develop and their relationship to the State and its citizens are significant. Also significant if the State generates one or several growth zones. Such situations are noticed more in the developing countries and Dhaka or Bangladesh is no exception. Many of the cities have also become primate city based States where only one city hogs all the resources and the rest- geography and population- are marginalised. In the process they become centres of resource concentration and also social and environmental vulnerability.

The dominance of a super metropolis over others is now becoming a security risk. Dhaka, affected by one of the worst forms of urbanisations is on the verge of becoming a crisis issue. While it's huge with a population to match, the city authorities have neither the resources nor the capacity to manage the city. While politics is part of the city system, an integral element in the sharing of the huge booty generated by a half managed city system, the State is also a sponsor of the same primate city.

Advantages of a poorly maintained primate city
It means there is a value for the inability to deliver services including law and order to some who make money from this. Because this primate city can't afford to provide for itself, the deficit leads to a black market of goods and services including safety or protection. Hence, the vested interest in a poorly maintained city is high. It becomes dangerous when that is a primate city.

Whether the poor services come first or criminalisation can't be figured out but they do support each other. Crime is therefore not a product of anti-social impulses but a product of livelihood crisis for some and livelihood expansion for the primate city beneficiaries. In our case, this is obvious. A primate city becomes the metaphor for the State as well.

“The coexistence of a primate city with a low level of economic development is not an accident, the former being symptomatic of the causes of the latter. Taking historical Rome as the archetype of a city that centralises political power to extract resources from the rest of the country, we develop models of rent-seeking and expropriation which illustrate different mechanisms that relate political competition to economic outcomes.” (Primate Cities. Neill Keiffer.)

Primate cities as producers of inequity
We can look at four major primate cities in the world. They are Paris, Pyong Yong, Bangkok and Dhaka. All the four primate cities are in trouble in form or other. The situation of Paris is dire as its dirty underbelly of economic development was recently exposed by rioting immigrant Parisians and their illegal relatives. The city economy seems to have flourished on imported black labour from the colonies whom Paris and by extension France had chosen to willfully ignore once their work was done. The resentment became a riot after a riot but France's treatment of black migrants is symptomatic of the sentiments that led to birth and growth of primate cities.

The hard-line measures of the French government may bring immediate respite from violence but France's reputation as a source of the tricolor values- liberty, equality, fraternity- has been badly if not permanently tarnished. Yet Paris had once served as justification of primate cities and its wealth. But the point that was forgotten by the leadership is that the riot was raged in Paris by workers who had lost or never got a job. Workers without work can be dangerous. Just below that are workers with poor wages.

Bangkok has a difference configuration but it also drew millions from all over Thailand to the capital city as the only place where a significant level of paying work could be found. However, the issue of inequity was never addressed and while the income of Bangkok residents are much higher than from others of Bangkok, the problem of wealth distribution that contributes to equity and balances socio-economic stability has not been adequately achieved making it vulnerable as well to health as well as other issues.

We know very little about Pyong Yong but Dhaka has emerged as a megapolis which has a huge population, large number of insecure urban workers and an almost collapsed city services system. What does that mean in itself, for now and for the future?

Apart from the ideological question there is a matter of functionality. It does appear that unevenly distributed income, services and access to civic rights have been accepted in the world over as part of the new global morality. However, the disadvantages of inequity often show that there is basically no difference between moral and functional positions when it comes to providing security. As Paris has shown, primate cities have a historical propensity towards exploding when the balance of equity and equal access is disturbed beyond a point. It may take long but it does happen.

Primate cities and the French connection
Primate cities with a large unhappy population are therefore also a security issue. Whether we call them “terrorists' or “militants”, they are a security problem. The advantage in avoiding a value added description is to avoid unnecessary polemics and establish functionality as a basis for governance. Primate cities are dysfunctional in today's context.

The French failure in the post-ideological era is all the more important to observe because Paris had officially run a campaign against religious identity seeking and yet had left an undealt identity problem within the capital city. In hindsight, the French intent seems ideological than functional proving a certain lack of competence that has reduced its prestige. Now France has to retrieve its reputation as a secular and non-racist society after exhibitions of organised neglect to the entire world.

Dhaka is far from Paris but it has its own characteristics It has much greater inequity, its protection system of the privileged are much more developed with a law enforcement regime that is free from accountability. Encounter deaths are an indicator of the length the State is willing to go to protect the privileged. The benefits of primacy are shared by a small elite who have made rent-seeking a model under control. While the wealthy ghettos- Gulshan, Banani, Baridhara etc- have risen, so have a much higher number of lower to middle class slums.

More people live with disappointed aspirations than those with fulfilled wishes. This has swelled the ranks of the marginalised, generally the participants in riots and violence. One can't say how high this resentment is is in Dhaka but two things are unfamiliarly disturbing in Bangladesh at large. Violence from all levels has been integrated in the system including attacks by the extremist groups most of whose members come from the marginalised classes.

The state and the city are one
This makes the situation more vulnerable for both the primate city and the State as well. The City has become a representative of the State. The State and the city are one now.

This partly results from the philosophical crisis of governance where governors are more ideological than functional and are outdated by the pace of history. Inequity is not a product of cultural policies of the elite but failure of the elite to recognise that inequity may result in unsustainable violence that destroys their cultural sources...

Dhaka has partly been saved by the tradition of neglect of the poor which has been endorsed by society and legitimised by the State. Its part of our cultural history but with fundamental changes occurring in contemporary world on the equity and participation discourse, one needs to adjust policies for our own sake. A large number of poor live within our midst and within striking distance of the rich and that is not a safe policy. The fact that many of the workers from the RMG sector are female has been a major factor in absence or minimised violence but recent incidents show that the relationship between the owning and the working class is uneasy and requires a review.

Whether the recent incidents of violence were instigated by outsiders as BGMEA claimed is irrelevant because violence can be generated by arousing dormant but real sentiments of resentment by anyone including outsiders and insiders both. Primate cities can least afford it because there is no fall back space for shifting. Everything is in one pot but the resentments in Dhaka lie in many quarters. It's a bomb that might explode but it can be diffused with some functionality in policy making.

Towards management of primary violence
A functional approach to reduce the violent impact of our primate city may lie in the simplest of solutions. It includes higher employment and wages for the marginalised, access to social services and urban utilities, more rigorous application of wealth tax collection, better city planning, better law and order, sexual safety and social cost payment for display of symbols of conspicuous consumption etc. There is nothing new in this but there is nothing to show that the dangers of producing primate cities have been noted. The most famous primate city has been ravaged in the wealthy West recently and we should try to reduce the risk of any similar event affecting the poor East.

Problems of primate cities have been read more as matters of town planning but they need now to be looked from sociological and security angles. They are not affordable luxuries or result of bad planning or quirks of a divided society. They are security problems because threats to primate cities are a threat to the State as well. A threat we seem to be producing ourselves.

Afsan Chowdhury is a columnist and researcher.

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