Making the wrong lists

Ahmed Shatil Alam explores various reasons that has led to Dhaka be in the top ten of a number of recent surveys on cities of the world

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Asiful Azam, a private banker, lives with his parents, younger sister and newly married wife in a part of Dhaka which was once known as the ‘middle class’ area of the capital. Being the main earner of the family after his father’s retirement last year, he has been supporting his entire family with his monthly salary of Tk 45,000.

Azam shares with New Age Xtra that every month, he has to spend fifty per cent of his income as rent for his 1,000 square feet rented house in Kalyanpur area under Mirpur Police Station. Another Tk 10,000 is spent for food and other utility services like electricity, gas, water etc. From the rest of his income, he uses Tk 3000-4000 for his own pocket expenses while the rest is spent for his sister’s academic expenses and other miscellaneous expenditure.

Azam says that he is fortunate as his wife recently initiated a home-made food service for the locales, which is bringing in some money for the family and thus allowing Azam some breathing space.

But, during his three years of professional life, Azam has only managed to save around Tk 20,000, a detail that frustrates him when he wonders what to do if there is a medical emergency. ‘I am somehow matching up with the expensive lifestyles of Dhaka. But I do not know how I will cope up with a medical emergency in the family,’ he says.

Azam’s story cannot be considered exclusive as similar pangs are felt by thousands of other income earners of middle-income households in Dhaka. Unlike Azam, there are many city-dwellers who do not have any savings and often fall into financial problems when there are medical emergencies or social events like weddings, birthdays etc to be arranged.

 

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These stories gained credibility after a research from Economist Intelligence Unit- a sister body of UK based reputed Economist magazine- noted that Dhaka is now the most expensive South Asian city to live in, falling behind cosmopolitan cities like Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore, Colombo, Karachi etc. The research also declared Dhaka as the 71st  most expensive city in the world among 133 cities.

On the rank, Dhaka falls behind North American cities like Toronto,  Atlanta, Cleveland to European cities as Istanbul, Lisbon, Prague, Moscow, meanwhile some East Asian, Middle Eastern cities, Latin American and African cities as Kualampur, Manila, Jeddah, Doha, Kuwait City, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and  Nairobi, which has been known as big and expensive cities in world.

The Economist made the list after reviewing the prices of 160 types of products or services including food and beverage items, house rent, transport cost, school fees, utility costs and entertainment costs.

While talking to New Age Xtra, Consumer Association of Bangladesh president Golam Rahman says that the price of public transport, accommodation, food price and other facilities- known to be the daily needs of citizens- are very expensive in Dhaka. These have made the city to make it into the list of ‘highly expensive’ cities.

‘Whenever, the daily necessary items and their prices go up, the overall cost of living will increase,’ he notes.

Supporting the Economist’s information, a CAB data shows that the commodity price in Dhaka city has been mounting every year, which makes the dwellers’ life difficult. According to the data, in 2016 the price of essential commodities has risen by 6.47 percent, which was 6.38 percent in 2015.

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In Dhaka, mostly middle-income and lower income city-dwellers live in rented house. These households pay 50 to 60 per cent of their monthly income as house rent. Every year, the landlords increase the rent by Tk 500 to Tk 2,000 or more, depending on the area in the city. According to a recent statistic by CAB, in 2014, there has been an overall 9.76 per cent increase in house rent in Dhaka. The increase was 12.82 per cent in the apartments while the increase was highest in the slum areas, by 16.67 per cent.

Meanwhile, data collected from Bharatia Parishad, a platform of tenants, says that the house rent in Dhaka city has increased by 350 per cent over the last decade. Along with these, the food prices have also gone up.

According to the data provided by the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh, prices of different varieties of rice increased by more than 60 per cent over the last few years while the price of ‘atta’ increased by 45 per cent and red lentil by 18 per cent, during the period. The statistics also shows that the price of beef increased by almost 60 per cent in last six years while fish prices increased by 42 per cent.

Prices of most vegetables except potato doubled during the same period. Besides, government in February this year, increased the monthly tariff for gas to Tk 950 from the existing Tk 650 for a double-burner stove and Tk 900 from the existing Tk 600 for a single-burner stove in two phases.

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On the other hand, standard of living has not improved as much as the cost of living. Dhaka continues to remain a city that is increasingly becoming less livable. Traffic and pollution continues to worsen, modern amenities are not evenly distributed and law and order situation is also falling apart.

The very city, that houses around 1.7 crore people, has already been found to be one of the ‘least livable cities in the world’ by Economist Intelligence Unit during last year’s ‘Global Liveability Ranking’. Dhaka secured the fourth position in the ranking that included 140 cities of the world.

According to the EIU’s latest Global Liveability Ranking, Dhaka has advanced two notches over last year. It ranked the second least livable city in 2015. Dhaka has just overrun Lagos in Nigeria, Tripoli in Libya and Damascus in Syria and ranked 137th among 140 cities globally and falls behind the cities like Karachi in Pakistan and Harare in Zimbabwe, while the war-torn Syrian city of Damascus has been ranked the worst livable city in the world. In the list, Dhaka scored less than forty points in 30 factors based on five areas including stability, health care, education, environment and infrastructure.

While talking to New Age Xtra, Golam Rahman says that although, we have a growing per-capita income, this does not apply for every segment of the population. ‘Consequently, while cost of living is increasing so is the gap of inequality,’ he says.

A World Bank report titled ‘Addressing Inequality in South Asia’ placed Bangladesh in the third position in the inequality index among the eight countries of the region. Among the key contributors behind increasing living costs, the two most important ones cited were increasing prices of essential commodities and house rent. And there is a lack of regulatory effort on the part of the government as well.

Besides, during this year’s ‘State of Global Air Report 2017’, Dhaka has ranked second on a global list of cities with worst air pollution, which claims 122,400 lives in Bangladesh a year. The list, made by Seattle, USA based organization Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Delhi tops the list, while Karachi and Beijing stand third and fourth.

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Terming the current life of Dhaka city dwellers as ‘quality less’ Golam Rahman, blames the overall corruption in both government and private sector and the Dhaka city guardians for the awful situation in Dhaka. ‘For this situation of Dhaka, all the guardians of Dhaka including city corporations, Rajuk and others are significantly responsible,’ he says.

He also blames the unplanned urbanisation of Dhaka city for directly impacting the city’s living conditions.

While being slightly more optimistic, architect Mubasshar Hussain and Iqbal Habib still see some opportunities for Dhaka. Iqbal Habib says to New Age Xtra that Dhaka still has ample potential and if the authorities can tap on these, Dhaka can become a livable city in the future.

Mubasshar Hussain opines, ‘We can still make Dhaka one of the best cities over the next few years.’

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Dhaka North City Corporation, chief executive officer M Mesbahul Islam said that Dhaka is still accommodating a higher number of population in every square kilometre comparing to all other mega cities around the world. ‘Dhaka is still serving a large population every day, how could the city become ‘least liveable’, said a surprised Mesbahul, who questioned EIU’s Global Liveability Ranking.

Besides, he also claimed that, the security system is much better in Dhaka than that of New York. He denied Dhaka’s position at EIU’s list of expensive cities in world, by saying that Dhaka not only accommodates its rich citizens but also thousands of poor and marginalised people are also served by the megacity in every day. ‘If the city was an expensive city, how these poor and marginalised people live here?’ he asked.