Bangladesh is considered one of the top emerging economies of the world, and by 2030 it will be among the top three fastest growing economies. Due to fast and sustained economic progress, Bangladesh has been undergoing massive urbanisation. Growth in urban populations has increased at an unprecedented rate over the last two decades. The country's census states that in 2001, 22.58 percent of the population lived in urban areas, whereas in 2011 it rose to 28 percent. Now, within only six years, the rate of urban population growth has surpassed that of the last decade. At present 35 percent of Bangladesh's entire population lives in urban areas. According to a 2015 survey by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), 50 percent of the population will live in urban areas within the next four decades due to continuous migration.
The impact of this mass migration is visible in all the towns and cities. The once quiet towns of the far-north are now crammed, over-populated urban areas dotted with slums. “Ten years ago, Nilphamari, a small district located in the northern tip of Bangladesh, was a peaceful, charming town surrounded by villages. The inhabitants, plagued by frequent droughts, lived a modest life. There were only two asphalt streets in the entire town. Now Nilphamari has turned into a new urban area,” says Dewan Kamal Ahmed, Mayor of Nilphamari municipality. However, this radical urbanisation has come at a price. Infrastructural development is rampant and unplanned. Every day, newer and newer residential and commercial buildings are being constructed which have already strained the town's sewerage system, water supply and electricity supply systems. The ponds and water-bodies are being silted up to make way for the new construction sites. Shopping malls and kitchen markets have been established all along the congested streets, which are crammed with all kinds of vehicles, from heavy trucks to tiny three-wheelers. Nilphamari is now a town struggling to provide its inhabitants with essential services.
However, shortage of services did not prevent rural people from migrating to the town. This town, only 24 sq km in area, houses 10 slums and 1,100 families. More than 80 percent of these people have recently migrated to the town in search of a better life. Nilphamari is not at all an exception. Populations of most of the district towns of Bangladesh have almost doubled in the last 10 years. Another town called Chapai Nawabganj, which is almost equal in size to Nilphamari, has to accommodate 3,667 families in 20 slums and the numbers are increasing every day.
Bangladesh's towns and cities are infested with problems resulted from uncontrolled population growth and unplanned infrastructural developments. Most of the government's efforts have been concentrated in the two major divisional cities—Dhaka and Chittagong. More recently, Comilla, Gazipur and Narayanganj have been equipped with city corporations to ensure better management of the city infrastructure and civic services.
However, district level towns, governed by municipalities are largely overlooked in the government's urban development plans. There are 328 municipalities in Bangladesh which in total comprise more than 60 percent of the country's total urban area. Over 50 million people of the country are currently living in these areas. And due to continuous rural-urban push and increasing economic activities, these towns are expanding in every way—area, population density and per capita income. Despite their expansions, the government has no proper intervention plan to ensure sustainable and planned development of these developing urban areas. Shortage of budget, skilled manpower and dilapidated city infrastructures have crippled this important part of the local government. According to Alhajj Md Abdul Baten, President, Municipal Association of Bangladesh and Mayor of Bera Municipality, “At present the government allocates only BDT 100 million for the non-development budget funds of all 328 municipalities. So, each municipality receives around BDT 12,000 from the government to pay the salaries of all our staffs and all other utility bills. It has become impossible for us to manage our huge expenses.
“Many of our staffs don't get salaries in time and we have to deprive many more of their pensions and gratuity due to the fund crisis. If it goes on like this, one day we might have to flee from our offices,” adds Baten. Md Nazrul Islam, Mayor of Chapai Nawabganj municipality reveals further, “When I became Mayor, I found that Chapai Nawabganj municipality could not pay BDT 120 million in electricity bills due to a shortage of funds. By collecting taxes, I managed to pay BDT 60 million but the bill is skyrocketing exponentially due to the increasing population. We also have to pay around BDT 12 million for the water supply bill every month, which is very difficult to earn only by collecting taxes,” says Nazrul. For more than a decade, the municipal mayors have been demanding more allocation in the non-development budget.
However, amidst this crisis, there are several examples of positive practices of governance. For instance, despite the rising population density, Nilphamari municipal authority has managed to keep the town clean and free of litter. Every street corner in the city has been fitted with dustbins and the municipal authority has trained its citizens to use these properly. Dewan Kamal Ahmed says, “At first we set unused drums in the street corners and encouraged our citizens to use those as dustbins. We launched a wide range of awareness raising campaigns to train our citizens about how to keep their city clean. They soon realised the usefulness of these and are now using them regularly.
To promote planned urbanisation and this type of good practices in municipal areas, The World Bank in partnership with Municipality Association of Bangladesh, Institute of Architects Bangladesh, Bangladesh Institute of Planners and Institution of Engineers, Bangladesh organised a two-day-long conference titled “Cities Forum: Building Knowledge Networks and Partnerships for Sustainable Urban Development in Bangladesh” on October 28 and 29, 2017 where municipal mayors discussed their problems and demands with government officials and international experts. At the end of the conference, the organisers also awarded four municipal mayors for best practices in four categories. Nilphamari, Chapai Nawabganj, Gopalganj and Fulpur municipalities were awarded with “Champion Pourashava 2017 Awards” for best practices in citizen engagement, good governance, capital investment planning and public finance management categories respectively.
It is heartening that despite the looming threat of massive resource crises and over-population, several municipalities of Bangladesh are practicing exemplary practices. And, for the first time in Bangladesh, these municipal authorities were recognised for their good works. The government must solve the existing crises in the municipalities and build their capacities so that they may be economically self-sufficient and undergo sustainable urban development.
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