I went to visit Bangladesh from early April to mid-May after more than five years. For five years I have written about Bangladesh from secondary sources and secondary experiences. At long last I can write about my fist-hand experience.
I stayed most of the time in the capital city Dhaka. In recent years South Asian megalopolises like Dhaka, Delhi, Karachi, Mumbai have earned reputations as the cities with worst air pollutions in the world. Living in Dhaka’s unbearable pre-Monsoon heat, humidity, dust and particles thick air, I can well understand what do those pollution measures mean for the people. For the bulk of masses who are not fortunate to live in air-conditioned houses, work in air-conditioned offices and commute in air-conditioned cars, buses, Dhaka is truly an urban hell-scape. There is a popular saying among Dhaka’s suffering commuters stuck for hours in oven hot roads; citizens of Dhaka will be forgiven the dreaded ‘Adhab-al qabr’ or punishment of the grave that is supposed to be fate of all persons from death till Qyiamat, the day of judgement. Dhakaites suffer so much that the Adhab pales in comparison.
Although air pollution has become much worse, city roads and walkways have become cleaner and more well maintained. Parts of the massive revenue collection by both city corporation and government are really being used to maintain the infrastructure. Trash collection has become more organized . Piles of rotting garbage and constant stench are no longer ubiquitous.
Mercifully powercuts in electricity, so common in Bangladesh until 8-10 years ago, seem to be very rare now. Diesel generators reverberating throughout the city, a very common sight and sound of yesteryears, are rarely seen and heard now. In fact, a recent news report said that Bangladesh installed so much power generation capacity in the recent years that capacity has outstripped demand substantially. Experts are recommending that no new power plants be initiated in the next few years. Uninterrupted power supply has made the industries, particularly Garments industries, very happy.
However, the top 10% Dhakaites are living very differently than the rest. Fantastic high-rise apartments and office buildings have sprouted all over the cities. Glass and steel clad apartments and offices remind people more of the spotless splendor of Singapore than traditional dirt of South Asia. New BMWs, Lexus, Toyota cars and SUVs clog the city streets. However, apart from home, office, cars and eateries, there is very little things to do socially in Dhaka for the upper class. That’s why they escape to foreign spots like Bangkok, Bali, Malayasia, Singapore, Dubai, Sri Lanka, India etc several times a year. Bangladesh is the supplier of highest number of tourists in India. Bangladeshi shoppers are significant boosters of Kolkata economy. Several Bangladeshi tourists were among the dead and wounded in the recent Sri Lanka terrorist attack.
The top businesspeople, professionals and government employees are doing great in Bangladesh. Their income has soared in the last decade. Signs of their affluence is everywhere in the cities. People working in banks and finance, telecommunication sectors are doing OK. The middle class is not doing so great. Shockingly, I found that private sector salaries have barely changed in the last ten years but house rent, essential prices have increased at least 100% in the last ten years. Economists say that a living wage in Dhaka, minimum wage for a two person family to keep their body and soul together under a roof, is 17000 Taka or about 200 dollars per month. Starting salaries for college, university graduates not working in choice sectors like banks or telecom are still below the living wage. Garments workers earn 80 to 150 dollars, from starting to experienced. It’s hard to imagine the life of the lower-middle and working class in Dhaka.
In the second part, I will discuss my very startling experience of change and prosperity in the rural areas. In the third part, I will talk about my impression of the state of economy and politics.