Back to Bangladesh after five years- Part 1

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.

45 thoughts on “Back to Bangladesh after five years- Part 1”

  1. I like your writing Shafiq – simple, clear eyed descriptions of ground reality are an underrated style. Naipaul’s early (and frequent) complaint against Indians and Indian civilization was that we don’t really observe our physical environment and surroundings, preferring abstruse metaphysical speculation.

    Taking off of that, what do you think explains the ubiquitous dirt and filth in South Asian cities? I think I can rule out density as a sole factor because I have been in very dense South East Asian cities that are relatively quite clean. It can’t be poverty alone either, a typical Indian city would shock a sub saharan African with its filth. Religious structures are not immune to it, I dreaded walking through the Kashi Viswanath temple after taking my shoes off. I must admit that non Hindu places of worship ( like Gurdwaras and mosques) were typically much cleaner in my experience.

    1. @Curious, I think traditional culture is a big part of of why societies and individuals vary a lot in personal and public cleanliness. The Japanese have been famous for their painstaking cleanliness. They regarded the Chinese with much disdain about this aspect. I have read and heard that Iranians (Persians) have traditionally been more scrupulous in cleanliness than their neighbors. I do not know why cultures differ in cleanliness but I suspect geography, demography and climate played large roles in forming cultural traditions.

      For example, people have hypothesized about difference in frugality and saving behavior between North-eastern Asians and South-Eastern Asians. They have argued that cold climate and a barren winter season necessiated food hoarding and frugallty. In tropical climates, saving food for the next day, let alone for the next month, is a hopeless endeavor. Winters were also fruitfull in the tropics. So saving behavior did not develop to the same extent among Southerners. A similar hypotehsis about cleanliness may also be there in literature. I think Razib would know if there are respectable theories and studies about societal differences in cleanliness.

      1. At the risk of triggering caste sensitivities (again), I should mention a passage I recalled from Naipaul’s “Million Mutinies”, where he says that on his first trip to Madras, he noticed a significant difference in cleanliness between vegetarian restaurants (usually run by Brahmins) and “non-veg” ones (don’t recall who they were run by.)

        Naipaul’s inference/guess was that this reflected an attitude of rejection of traditional purity norms (upheld, of course, by Brahmins) by meat-eating people of lower castes once they had gained consciousness of their lower status in society.

      2. Something people have often commented on is that Indians tend to (or try to) keep their indoors scrupulously clean while completely neglecting the outdoors. Perhaps this reflects the degree of cohesion in Indian society. Family/household ties are very thick whereas societal ties are threadbare.

        1. i noticed this is bangladesh.

          one thing to note is that before antibiotics interior cleanliness was a bigger thing in the west.

      3. @Shafiq R

        I sense in this comment that your conception of cleanliness of a society is somehow a time persistent quality one can ascribe to the values of a culture?

        In reality, many societies that we regard today as `clean’ were proper shit holes not so long ago. Read some of Henry Mayhew’s accounts of the lives of the poor in Victorian London if you want to find out why `Dickensian’ is an apt description of the squalid conditions slum dwellers in South Asia find themselves in. The origin of platform shoes of various types have their origin in protecting the European gentry from having to step in excrement as they went about their business. One of the scenes in East is East depicts people emptying the contents of their bedpans onto the streets below in Manchester tenements as late as the 70’s, etc etc.

        There are many factors that go into the overall cleanliness and hygiene standards in a place, but geography, climate, economic factors, population density and institutional intervention through campaigns that try to instill shame (the greatest force for social change) for certain behaviors all factor. Are South Asians intrinsically unhygienic? I think dehumanizing poverty and over population accounts for most of it.

        Nice post, BTW — I’m keen to read the next installments. I’m particularly curious about how the rural urban divide (not just in wealth, but culture) is playing out in BD.

        1. @SP, notice that I have not mentioned anything about cleanliness in North European culture. Personal and public hygene of North Europeans until about 100-150 years ago, have been very unfavorably compared with all Eastern civilizations numerous times in all kinds of literature and documents. It was the Easterners who have traditionally sneered at the malodorous, hairy, white people from North Europe

      4. Shafiq R, Numinous,

        I think a lot of issues of cleanliness is a result of caste sit (pun intended) and cleaning up is a menial job to be done by other.

        It starts at home (in South Asia), with males young and old not having to wash up plates and utensils. That spread out of home, where its menial to clean up.
        Simple example, In a restaurant do see a South Asian mopping up the tea/coffee he/she spilled.

        Thank goodness we were brought up to clean up after ourselves, clean the bathrooms etc. Even the few years we had someone to help out (mother was sick), we had to clean up and help the help too.

  2. I am a bit surprised by lack of cleanliness in Bangladesh. Almost all the social indicators like IMR which have to do with cleanliness and all are better for Bangladesh, than its’ for India.

    There was a study done that showed that religion has major part to play. For the same poorer section of hindus and muslims in India, muslims have lower IMR than poorer hindus. The study linked it with the importance that even poorer muslims (comparatively to Hindus) attach to cleanliness. So i felt perhaps Bangladesh might be cleaner than India.

    P.S There is a stereotype in India that muslims are “dirty” (totally going against this study). But then in Pakistan president Ayub;s book he describes hindus as “dirty” . So both communities have the very same stereotype about each other .LOL

    1. I actually meant to write here that Dhaka seemed have become much cleaner than it was 10-15 years ago. Probably both resource and management capability have grown during these years so that authorities now can tackle waste management of a mega city whose population has grown explosively.

      I think a megacity’s state of cleanliness depend more on resources and management skills than culture or tradition. People say that China is rapidly cleaning up now that it has firmly moved into middle-upper middle income territory. South Asia will soon be transformed cleanlinesswise, I think.

      1. // I think a megacity’s state of cleanliness depend more on resources and management skills than culture or tradition //

        Most of this traditional culture (good or bad) was never really designed for the urban spaces and modern metropolises hosting millions of residents. However, it can affect civic attitudes.

    2. literally every muslim i know complains about hindu dirtiness. i assume(d) this was just prejudice? i have a half-israel arab friend who said his family in nazareth said guest workers from the balkans were dirty. the exception being the bosnian muslims.

      (this includes middle eastern arabs who contrast bangladeshis with indian hindus)

      1. LOL, I know right, we desis dont even have original stereotypes about each other

      2. Its not prejudice, Muslims put a heavier emphasis on cleanliness and sanitation than non-Muslims.

        There was a study in India that showed Muslim children have better mortality rates than their Hindu counterparts due in large part to better cleanliness.

        In the West Muslims wash their hands after using the restroom more often than non-Muslims. Not to mention they wash with water after taking a dump, while most non-Muslims just smear the residue around with toilet paper.

        There’s also circumcision, which in developing countries makes Muslims significantly less likely to develop genital infections and hygiene issues than their circumcised non-Muslim neighbors.

        Ritually washing multiple times a day for prayer also helps a lot.

        You can tell I have a strong opinion on this. I used to think the whole “kaffirs are unclean” was a religious bigotry thing, but having been detached from Islam and Muslims generally for years now, I’ve come to see that’s one trope that turned out to be dead accurate.

        1. one reason i don’t dismiss out of hand is i know there is evidence that hui in china live longer than the han in the same regions. so perhaps something in the habits explains this?

          perhaps we can be open-minded and admit that all things equal islam fosters cleanliness and openness to political violence?

          1. “perhaps we can be open-minded and admit that all things equal islam fosters cleanliness and openness to political violence?”

            LOL. I saw what you did there 😛

        2. INDTHINGS,

          In Sri Lanka it seems the opposite. Muslim towns seem to be the dirtiest.

          Puttalam, the nearest large town is majority Muslim in the town proper.
          When I first arrived here (2012) it seemed it was the dirtiest town in SL.
          There has been some beautification and seems better now, or maybe I have got used to it.

          Of late the dirtiest Town now should go to Trincomalee. Its population equally divided between, Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese.
          Its pretty bad, because its the gateway town to the best diving and snorkeling in Sri Lanka, Nilaveli and Pigeon Island.

          1. Sbarkkum,

            Big difference between being personally clean, and having the civic engagement needed to keep your neighborhoods clean. Muslims excel in the former, not so much in the latter.

        3. It’s interesting because upper caste Hindus view Muslims as unclean people, who only wash on ‘Jumma’ (Friday).

          I think Muslims score better than Hindus of same class in that survey because most Muslims in India are poor. And lower caste Indians do not have the same ritual requirement of washing and cleanliness.

          In my experience, if there’s any division in India, I’d say it’s between the west and the rest.
          Might be due to mercantile or Jain influence. These people live frugally and emphasize on cleanliness.

          1. Prats,

            The paper observed Muslims having significantly better hygiene than their Hindu counterparts regardless of income status.

  3. On cleanliness (or lack thereof): my hypothesis is that deep social stratification and large agricultural productivity of the Indo-Gangetic plains is responsible for it.

    Indians are numerous and always have been compared to all their immediate neighbours. Indians are also culturally very diverse, with large levels of social/ economic stratification incentivising super extractive elite. That means innovation in things like waste management or development of a culture of civic cleanliness was never really a priority, given a large (and cheap) supply of people doing menial labour.

    This also gels with the idea of clean (ritually pure, even) living spaces within a house, even when the street outside the door is a dump.

    PS: Generally India’s cleanest cities are the ones that are least socially stratified. Take Sikkim for example – Gangtok is super clean.

    1. They cleaned Surat up good after the plague (I lived through it there).

      Maybe we need some sort of a national sanitation catastrophe to sort this shit up.

  4. I hear Srilanka is very clean in public places compared to India . I have not been there for more than a day to form an opinion. SL residents – including sbarrkum , the resident Sinhalese , hahaha , can opine on that.

    1. South India in general is cleaner than the North, though. Not saying it’s some clean haven, but if you look at city cleanliness rankings in India, the South is quite disproportionately represented. Is Sri Lanka just an extension of that phenomenon or is it distinct?

    2. VijayVan,

      Not been to India, so cant compare.
      Vijay, Siddarth seem to have visited a few times.

      Much cleaner than when I left SL in 1988.
      You could not go to a public toilet without gagging.

      I travel by bus, and age etc means need to pee often.
      Most public toilets seem clean enough, at least they dont stink to high heaven.
      They charge LKR 20 (about US 12 cents).
      Not dry like a western toilet, water all over but not mud/sand.
      I think they hose the place down every couple of hours.

      resident culturally sinhalese might me more to the point.

  5. Nice looking forward to hearing more:

    I noticed last year that large parts (the wealthier ones) of Mumbai are becoming reasonably clean and the Mumbai international airport looked aesthetically better than any of the ones I have been to in North America. Some driving videos from youtube:

    There were virtually no parts of Mumbai that looked like this 15 years ago.

    The slums, dirt etc are still around as well. I think the air pollution has gotten even worse, and there is a nasty smell that hits you after landing at the Mumbai airport.

    1. The list is kind of a joke. Any random city in Kerala is cleaner than these places, despite the standard falling recently.

    2. The last time I went to Mysore (2011), I thought it was a bit cleaner than any other moderate-size Indian city I had visited.

      Mumbai: not sure which parts they are surveying. I have seen some pretty filthy areas, and smelled the same smell you refer to above.

      Vishakhapatnam: if this city is clean, they must have done a major revamp. It lies on the train line from Eastern India to Madras, a journey I made a few times in the ’80s and the ’90s. You could smell the city from way outside the station. And since the stop involved an engine change, that smell tended to linger with you (we didn’t have the means to travel AC back then.)

  6. Quoting from Satanic Verses…

    …became obsessed by law. […] Gibreel appeared to the Prophet and found himself spouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation […] rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one’s behind. It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free. The revelation […] told the faithful how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep, and which sexual positions had received divine sanction.

    Since the complete-way-of-life religion regulates every single moment of its subjects life, it is natural that personal hygiene will be enforced with divine authority as well.

    But by and large, high premium on hygiene is well known feature of Islam.

    However brahminical Hinduism is no different. High caste Hindus, especially Brahmins can be obsessive-compulsive hygiene freaks too.

    And circumcision is a good practice. Hindus should adopt it too.

    Interesting tidbit- Muhammd did not like public hair on his women. hence the obligation on muslim women to clean their pubes. not sure what are the guidelines for men on this matter. need to check my hadith references. getting a bit rusty on my islamic sciences topics.

    1. And circumcision is a good practice. Hindus should adopt it too.

      Why don’t we all keep our heads permanently shaven too? Scalps will be cleaner.

      Does the practice of FGM owe anything to Muhammad’s neuroses?

  7. Neither Satanic Verses nor its author Rushdie are scholarly sources on Islam. I think the vague thrust is correct here though (religions with more rules are bound to have some good ones).

    In Islam its required for both men and women to shave their armpit and pubic hair. I didn’t think of it before, but this is another precept that improves hygiene.

    1. in the USA a focus on hygiene really developed in the late 19th century. part of it was the broad mania about public health due to fear of disease being brought from immigrants.

      curiously, depeliation and bathing are two classical mediterranean practices that muslims have continued without break (christians notoriously became quite suspicious of bathing for a period, and interactions btwn franks and muslims in palestine indicate the former were not familiar with depeliation).

  8. I think hard to compare cleanliness of Sri Lanka’s cities with othe South Asian cities. Colombo is probably a small town in India. Trivandrum in Kerala seems close, though very less dense than Colombo. PopulationDensity wise, Colombo is comparable to Mumbai

    Population Density
    Colombo proper 700K 49K /sq mile (19K per sq km).
    Trivandrum 957K 11K/sq mile (4K/ sq km)
    Mumbai 12,691K 54K/sq mile ( 21K per sq km).

    The Mumbai numbers dont make sense. The population is about half of Sri Lanka (21 million). Is Mumbai half as big as Sri Lanka

    Just for comparison, country population density

    Rank per sq mile per sq km
    8 Maldives 3,835 1,480
    10 Bangladesh 3,310 1,278
    23 Rep Korea 1,362 526
    25 Netherlands 1,312 506
    26 India 1,179 455
    35 Sri Lanka 865 334
    Connecticut 738 285
    53 Pakistan 674 260

    1. I don’t think this has anything to do with the size of the cities and towns. Small towns in India can often be much filthier and uglier (aesthetically) than big cities. The latter have the advantage of higher profiles, more funds, more experienced municipalities, some organized waste management facilities, etc. Plus they often have garden areas carved out where people can get some peace. Small towns in north and central India have to be some of the most dismal urban spaces on the planet.

      (My home town, Jamshedpur, is a partial exception to this as it was built from scratch by a company that consciously aimed to be more than just a profit-making venture and wanted to set an example. Parts of the city are run by the local government municipalities; the two are cheek-by-jowl and the differences are starkly apparent.

  9. I think hard to compare cleanliness of Sri Lanka’s cities with othe South Asian cities. Colombo is probably a small town in India. Trivandrum in Kerala seems close, though very less dense than Colombo. PopulationDensity wise, Colombo is comparable to Mumbai

    Population Density
    Colombo proper    700K     49K /sq mile (19K per sq km).
    Trivandrum    957K      11K/sq mile (4K/ sq km)
    Mumbai    12,691K     54K/sq mile ( 21K per sq km).

    The Mumbai numbers dont make sense. The population is about half of Sri Lanka (21 million). Is Mumbai half as big as Sri Lanka

    Just for comparison, country population density

    Rank per sq mile per sq km
    8 Maldives          3,835    1,480
    10 Bangladesh 3,310    1,278
    23 Rep Korea  &nbsp 1,362    526
    25 Netherlands 1,312    506
    26 India              1,179       455
    35 Sri Lanka       865    334
    Connecticut       738    285
    53 Pakistan     674 260

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