Trend of urbanisation in Bangladesh

M. Abdul Latif Mondal

The definition of what constitutes a city changes from time to time and place to place, but it is most usual to explain the term as a matter of demographics. The United Nations has recommended that countries regard all places with more than 20,000 inhabitants living close together as urban; but in fact, nations compile their statistics on the basis of many different standards. The United States, for instance, “uses urban place to mean any locality where more than 2,500 people live.” Whatever the numerical definition, it is clear that the course of human history has been marked by a process of accelerated urbanisation.

A look into the pre-historic period of the Indian sub-continent suggests that it was not until the Neolithic period roughly 10,000 years ago, that humans were able to form permanent settlements. Archaeological excavations suggest Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa as the oldest cities in the sub-continent dating back to five thousand years ago. A study of civilisation in the days of Magadhan ascendancy (6th century BC) shows that “kings resided in fortified towns (purs) or cities (nagars) provided with lofty walls, strong ramparts, watch-towers and gates. These cities contained pleasure parks, streets lighted with torches and watered, assembly halls, dancing halls, gambling houses, courts of justice, booths for traders and work-places of artisans.” Archaeological excavations suggest Mahasthangarh as the oldest fortified city in the territory that now constitutes Bangladesh. The city dates back to 3rd -- 2nd century BC and coincides with the rule of the Mauryas (324- 187 BC) whose great king Asoka (273232 BC) is believed to have brought Pundravardhana (North Bengal) and Samatata (East Bengal) under his empire.

The process of urbanisation that started in the form of fortified cities in pre-Christian age, took a new direction during the Mughal period. The Mughals were essentially an urban people. In addition to the fortified cities, there sprang up towns and cities inhabited, among others, by the common people. Prosperity and plenty prevailed in the chief cities of the Indian sub-continent in the age of the great Mughals. Although Dhaka was a place of some importance in the pre-Mughal period, it came to the limelight of history under the Mughals. Islam Khan Chisty transferred the capital of Subah Bangalah from Rajmahal to Dhaka in the year 1610 and named it Jahangirnagar after the name of the emperor. As in other cities in Eastern India, there was much opulence in the cities of Dhaka and Chittagong. The Mughals also made remarkable contribution towards development of local government in the urban areas.

During the period of Lord Cornwallis (1786-1793), the British East India Company's territories were divided into districts for administrative purposes. He established thanas (police stations) for every 20 square miles. As in other parts of the Company's territories, the districts in the territory of the present Bangladesh became the hub of local administration that also helped the process of urbanisation.

After the middle of 19th century it was thought that the jurisdiction of a district was too big to cope with the situation especially in the field of maintenance of law and order. As per recommendation of the Report on the Administration of Bengal, 1872,each district in British Bengal was divided into several sub-districts called sub-divisions. A sub-division with the various civil departments, criminal courts and other civic amenities contributed to the urbanisation process.

Urbanisation in Bangladesh received an impetus when the sub-continent became independent of the British rule 1947. Available data suggest that during 1951-1961, there was a 45.11 percent increase in urban population while that of the previous decade was 18. 38 percent. The total urban population rose from 1.8 million to 2.6 million during the period. The most phenomenal growth of urban population took place during 1961-1974, being as high as 137. 6 percent. In 1974, the share of urban population increased to 8. 9 percent from 5. 2 percent in 1961. This population rose to 15. 5 percent in 1981. In 1991, the urban population rose to 22. 5 million representing 20 percent of the total national population. According to preliminary report of population census (PRPC), 2001 conducted by the BBS, urban population stood at 30. 5 percent of the total population on January 22, 2001.

Studies undertaken by different quarters have tried to identify the factors responsible for the acceleration in the process of urbanisation and for high growth in urban population. The important factors are as follows:

First, a large number of the Indian Muslims who immigrated to Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan) after the partition in 1947 settled in towns and cities of Bangladesh. This led to rapid growth in urban population in the decade following the partition in 1947.

Second, one of the main driving forces for the high rate of urbanisation is massive rural to urban migration. Various rural development programmes undertaken by successive governments have not only failed to arrest the income disparity between the urban and rural people, but also widened the income inequality gap. The Poverty Monitoring Survey Report, 2004 of the BBS presents a detailed picture on the situation. The rural-urban disparity in Income causes both “pull” and “push” factors to operate more vigorously.

Third, unemployment is a colossal problem in Bangladesh. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics' (BBS) report on labour force survey (LFS), 1999- 2000 revealed that unemployment rate of population (15+) in the country stood at 4. 3 percent in 1999-2000 compared to 3. 5 percent in 1995-96. In the rural areas, unemployment rate was 3. 9 percent in 1999-2000 compared to 3. 1 percent in 1995-96. Report of the LFS, 2002-2003 shows that unemployment rate of population (15+) remains unchanged (4.3%). However, a distinguishing feature of the LFS, 2002-2003 is that unemployment rates were recorded high ( 9. 5 percent with degree and above and 9.6 percent others) among educated people. Further, rate of unemployment among the educated people was higher (12 percent with degree and above and 10 percent others) in rural areas compared to the rate of unemployment among the educated people (7.7 percent with degree and above and 8.7 percent others) in urban areas. Since the lion's share of employment in public and private offices and establishments are concentrated in urban areas, the rural unemployed educated labour force moves to towns and cities for gainful employment. Again, within the urban sector, the big cities offer most of the employment opportunities. As a result, the average annual growth rates of population in the largest cities like Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna and Rajshahi etc. have been among the highest.

Fourth, one study shows that the number of large cities with a population of more than 1 million increased from 5 in 1971 to 23 in 1991. Since these cities provide employment opportunities and other facilities, the rate of migration to these cities is higher than that in small towns.

Fifth, the upgradation of the thanas into upazilas (UPZs) in the first half of the eighties was a big step forward towards decentralisation of the highly centralised administrative system. The UPZs with the facilities of civil administration and civil and criminal courts became the focal point of administration in the rural Bangladesh. Redefinition of urban centres i.e. the inclusion of upazila centres in the urban areas has significantly contributed to the urbanisation. According to another study, the earliest municipalities in Bangladesh were: Nasirabad (1856), Sherpore (1861), Dhaka (1864), Chittagong (1864) and Brahamanbaria (1868). Under the Municipal Administration Ordinance of 1960, 28 out of the 56 municipalities with a population of 15,000 or below were declared as towns. According to PRPC, 2001 the total number of municipalities (excluding city corporations) in the country stood at 254 in August 2001.

Sixth, the facilities for better education and health and employment opportunities have encouraged the rural rich to own houses and properties in towns and cities to facilitate migration of their younger generation.

Last but not the least, politics is no longer a service to the society and the nation. It has become a very lucrative profession. Most of the politicians aspiring to contest parliamentary elections from their rural constituencies have to maintain close liaison with the high-ups of their political parties and take part in political movements and mobilisation. As a result, they have to have two establishments, one in their villages and the other in towns and cities, preferably in the capital city Dhaka.

The high rate of urbanisation has put serious strains on the space, infrastructure, utility services, environment, etc. of the towns and cities, particularly large cities. This is briefly discussed below:

The rapid growth of population in large cities has resulted in the shortage of land for human habitation. The capital city Dhaka is a case in point. The water bodies in and around Dhaka city are facing extinction as these are being filled up to construct multi-storied buildings for human habitation. One recent study on Megacity Governance in South Asia has concluded that 'very soon, there will not be any empty non-urbanised space in Dhaka, Narayanganj, Savar and Tongi.'

Despite the rapid pace of urbanisation, the level of investment in urban infrastructure has not been sufficient to meet the increasing demand of the people living in urban areas, particularly in big cities. The deficiencies in urban infrastructure and services including water supply, sanitation, drainage and transport are serious. Data available from another study reveal that only about 42 percent of the urban population have access to reasonably safe water supply and the remaining 58 percent depend on contaminated traditional sources. Regarding sanitation, Dhaka and Chittagong are the only urban centres with water borne sewerage system, but this serves only 15 percent of the population, while another 30 percent are served with septic tanks. A Dhaka daily carried a report which shows how the capital city Dhaka grows with faulty transport structure. The report cites a survey conducted by the US-based Louis Berger Group for the transport planning which shows the lack of coordination among the agencies in the matter of land use planning and the transport planning. Faulty traffic system results in unbearable traffic jam in the city.

Bangladesh State of the Environment Report, 2001 says that serious problems of environmental degradation are resulting from unplanned urbanisation in Bangladesh. The present pattern of urbanisation is leading to various problems like land use alterations; inadequate shelter, water, sanitation, and other facilities in slums and other urban poor areas; degradation of community ambient environment; little control of industrial waste emissions; and environmental pollution due to inadequate management of human and domestic wastes. According to an estimate, 700800 tons of household and commercial solid wastes are produced in the dry season, and 9001100 during the monsoon season in Dhaka city only. The wastes are dumped untreated in nearby low-lying areas and water bodies, where they pollute surface water and generate a foul odor. The hazardous medical wastes from a large number of clinics and hospitals go through the same type of untreated disposal. Air pollution is a serious threat to human heath in Dhaka.

The report on Bangladesh urban service delivery (2002) based on survey of 2,400 households in Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna and Rajshahi reveals some interesting facts. The survey jointly conducted by the World Bank, Survey and Research Systems and Proshika covered 11 services namely education, health, power, gas, water, sewerage and sanitation, garbage, transport, police, judiciary, and land administration. The survey reveals that less than 20 percent of the households in each of the four cities are satisfied with eight of the eleven surveyed services. The percentage of households satisfied with the other three services is slightly higher. Police, land, registration, transport, electricity, judiciary, health care, garbage disposal and sewerage and sanitation perform poorly.

Despite the above mentioned problems, the trend of rapid urbanisation in Bangladesh is irreversible. The level of urbanisation in Bangladesh is one of the lowest in the world, even by the Third World standard. Urbanisation is an inherent part of the process of economic development. Cities are greatly contributing to the overall socio-economic growth of the country by “absorbing increased population, affording a base for diffused productive activities across the country, and providing infrastructure and services required for marketing, export and import of goods and services. The cities provide a larger share to the gross domestic product (GDP) relative to their population and labour force.” Cities and towns provide markets for agricultural products such as food grains, forestry items, fish, poultry and dairy products of the rural areas. With the continuous increase in urban centres, the demand for the above products will increase and thereby bring better price to the producers.

To conclude, keeping in view the fact that increasing trend of urbanisation in Bangladesh is unavoidable, suitable urban planning, implementation thereof and satisfactory delivery of services should receive due attention of the policy makers, planners and administrators. Since the urban-rural interactions are versatile, availability of urban facilities in the rural areas to the maximum extent possible and adoption of economic measures to reduce the income disparity between the urban and rural people will help remove gradually the urban-rural bias.

The author is a former secretary to the government.

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