Privatising won't keep Bangladesh above water

Submitted by DPP on Wednesday, October 21, 2015 - 14:20

Sitting in a traffic jam with four ambulances nearby, all with blue lights flashing but crawling no faster than me, is a reminder that in this privatised city, having money does not get you to the hospital any faster. Dhaka is a city of 17 million with no metro, few functioning traffic lights, and only 263 municipal buses.

Transport is private and stratified by class - cycle rickshaws for the poorest, three-wheel taxis, motorcycles, mini-buses and a few privately run buses. But most traffic is private cars. And each has its piece of road space, with the rich in big cars taking private control of more road space than the poor on a rickshaw. But we all move at the same pace, about half walking speed. But there is no point in walking, because the pavements have been privatised - filled with stalls and venders, piles of building materials, rubbish pickers and parked cars. So people walk on the road, adding to the traffic.

It's not just roads. Dhaka is subject to flooding that will become much worse with rising sea levels due to climate change - and I was in Bangladesh to research a new book on its response to climate change. But the daily newspapers have regular reports of buildings being built illegally on the flood plain that is supposed to protect the city. And the traffic jams are made worse during heavy rains because new building has been blocking the drainage ditches.

Dhaka is a city that seems to believe that the public realm is only important for private profit, and thus is one of the real successes of the neo-liberal international agenda. South Asia became a centre of cold war conflict with China, the then Soviet Union, and the United States all fighting for influence. Soon after independence in 1971, Bangladesh's military government fell under US influence with IMF and World Bank structural adjustment and neo-liberalism. This preached a gospel of small government and that the public realm was only to serve private interests as an engine of growth.

This was enthusiastically adopted by the new elite who became wealthy but it was also adopted by civil servants who increasingly used corruption to take their share of profits from the public sphere. Together it has created a real dynamism. Poor people flood in Dhaka and build huge slum settlements, usually in low-lying flood prone areas. What are commonly called "Influential people" gain control and illegally begin filling in these areas to raise them above flood level, replacing the self-built shacks with two or three story bamboo structures. The goal is to build multi-story blocks of flats and when permission is granted, the poor are evicted or the settlement is destroyed by fire. At independence Dhaka had only 1 million people, reaching 5 million by 1985 and 17 million now. Dhaka has planning rules and building regulations, but money and influence means that they are not applied. Dhaka is the ultimate privatised, neo-liberal city.

The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building just outside Dhaka has become an icon of this privatised public space. In the world of free trade, cheap Bangladeshi textiles and clothing are on sale in shops in the UK and all over the world. The garment sector is Bangladesh's largest exporter and employs 4 million people, mostly women working for low pay in poor conditions. The companies are Bangladeshi owned, working on contract to Primark, C&A and other big brands. The Rana Plaza building had several companies employing more than 3000 textile workers.

But the Rana Plaza building was built illegally on the flood plain, and with the tolerance of local officials an "influential person" was allowed to convert the building from commercial to industrial use and then add three stories using sub-standard building materials. It collapsed on 24 April 2013, killing more than 1000 workers.

But two years later, little has changed. There are still media reports of garment factories being built on Dhaka wetlands. With Japanese aid, construction has started on the first metro, but the government has stressed that future metro lines will need to be private. Local government's stress is on more flyovers and road capacity. To facilitate that, the compulsory purchase laws have been changed - until now owners were paid 150% of the value of their properties. But properties are registered at low values to avoid transfer tax, so the law now sets 300% of value.

Large profits can be made from new buildings catering for a growing middle class and there is a growing wealthy elite. But they also get stuck in traffic - which took us 4 hours to go 8 km - and the ambulances with their families are also stuck traffic, and rich as well as poor die. Mobile phones and Internet mean that executives can work from the back of the chauffeur driven car, but even that has limits. We asked people why the elite puts up with this. And the answer was surprising. The elite want to make their money and leave - they already send their children to university abroad and assume the children will not come back, and their rich parents will retire abroad. So if they can make their money from privatised public space, building on the wetlands, they don't care if Dhaka floods because they will be gone.

Bangladesh has some of the world's best climate scientists and provides key negotiators for the least developed countries at the upcoming talks in Paris in December. Locally developed improved rice varieties, new ways to raise the level of low lying land, and a highly effective cyclone shelter and warning system show that Bangladesh is confronting climate change. But that is rural. In the city, no one listens to the warnings about sea level rise and increased flooding. Only privatisation and profit count.

Are the industrialised countries and parts of Bangladesh's own elite so interested in a neo-liberal model of short term profit that climate change will continue unchanged and Bangladesh left to drown - with the wealthy fleeing to high ground in some other country.  Or will more Bangladeshis follow the lead of its best scientists and intellectuals, and see the need to recapture public space, especially in Dhaka, to create a mega-city that can withstand climate change?

Joseph Hanlon is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in DPP. He was in Dhaka in September and his next book will be "Keeping our heads above water: Bangladesh confronts climate change." To learn more about Joseph’s work and the issues raised in this blog, sign-up for our postgraduate module T877 Development: context and practice.