Bangladesh’s rapid urbanisation has accelerated the country’s social and economic progress, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. But delays in adopting a national urban policy are limiting the rate and scope of these important gains.
Globally, urbanisation has been driving economic growth and contributes significantly to the national economy. Likewise, urban Bangladesh generates more than 65 percent of the national GDP. But its urbanisation process is still uncoordinated, somewhat unplanned, and most importantly, lacks a favourable policy framework. We still have not agreed on what kind of cities we want. While economic progress is helping Bangladesh to graduate out of the Least Developed Country (LDC) category, urban poverty and development requires significant attention.
Our cities’ environment and living conditions are being degraded every day. For example, Dhaka ranks as the 3rd worst city on the Global Liveability Index 2019, a world ranking of 140 cities based on the quality of urban life in terms of stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. The need for a national urban policy, therefore, has never been greater.
The Bangladesh government has consistently prioritised urbanisation in its national development plans, starting with the first Five Year Plan (FYP). Almost all subsequent FYPs, including the seventh FYP (2016-2020), emphasised its importance. The present plan stressed on adopting a proper vision for a sustainable urban future including formulating appropriate policies. The 7th FYP noted that“the country is still lacking a comprehensive national physical plan or land use plan which was highlighted in the 1st FYP, though the Planning Commission had recognised the importance of the urban sector (as evident in the Sixth 5-Year Plan and the Perspective Plan). The Cabinet is yet to approve the Urban Sector Policy; the first draft was completed in 2006 and the final draft forwarded for approval in 2014. Absence of an officially approved policy is a big hindrance to planned urban development.”
The draft National Urban Policy aims for sustainable urbanisation, keeping the multi-dimensional nature of the urbanisation process in mind. It envisions a decentralised and participatory urban development in which the central government, the local government, the private sector, the civil society, and people all have critical roles to play.
Recognising the urban sector’s importance and its challenges, the seventh FYP proposed allocating resources to address them. The government spent resources in line with the Five-Year Plan allocations through the Annual Development Programme (ADP), but the allocations should be aligned with the policy—which is still missing. The policy covers spatial, economic, social, cultural, aesthetic, and environmental aspects of urban life and aims for achieving an urban reality that can ensure freedom from hunger and poverty; the capacity to live a healthy life; access to education, shelter, and basic services; and a secure and liveable environment at home and outside.
Undeniably, we cannot fully realise our urban potential until we adopt the policy. The consequences of not having adequate policy directions are serious, particularly for addressing governance and poverty issues. Bangladesh’s urban centres are beset with problems due to inadequate institutions and poor institutional framework for management and development. Currently, too many agencies are involved in regulating how urban areas function and develop. While Bangladesh has made considerable progress in reducing poverty, rising urban poverty and inequality is becoming a major concern.
Over time, Bangladesh’s population will become more urban. About half of all Bangladeshis are expected to live in urban areas by 2035. Currently, more than 60 percent of the urban population is concentrated mainly in four metropolitan cities: Dhaka, Chattogram, Khulna, and Rajshahi. By 2030, this trend in population migration from rural to urban areas will become even more pronounced. Dhaka’s population is estimated to double and Chattogram is expected to grow into Bangladesh’s next megacity with a population of 5 to 10 million, largely driven by migration.
The existing urban areas will become even more concentrated: towns will become cities, and cities will become megacities. These will also experience population booms. The government is aware of these growing trends and formed a committee to draft the National Urban Sector Policy back in 2005. Eminent urbanist Prof Nazrul Islam led the committee and submitted the first draft in 2006. A wider stakeholder consultation followed in 2011 through a three-day-long Bangladesh Urban Forum (BUF), and the draft was shared by the Local Government Division (LGD) for feedback. The draft was then revised and placed for cabinet approval in 2015.
Guided by an inclusive policy, the quality of urban life and economy largely depends on the provision of infrastructure and basic services. Efficient delivery of essential services such as water, sanitation, health, education, transportation, power and telecommunication is critical for reducing poverty and improving welfare. Investments in improving the delivery of such services can significantly contribute to rising productivity and accelerating the pace of economic growth. The quality of infrastructure and service provision in a city has also become increasingly important in attracting new investments. Without a policy framework, we cannot expect such investments when other cities around the world are providing city services through smart, innovative approaches and techniques.
The way cities progress, stagnate, or become dysfunctional, depends on how well urban development is planned, coordinated, and managed. These factors, in turn, depend on the skills, money, and political will that are available for improving the lives of urban residents, including the urban poor. The alternative is poor transport networks, insufficient water supplies, public health crises, environmental degradation, rising inequality, and slum settlements, among other miseries that result from messy and unplanned urbanisation.
Therefore, creating an urban vision as well as policy directions for sustainable urban development is essential. It has become crucial as Bangladesh has entered a new development and economic trajectory. As we pursue compact, networked, resilient, competitive, inclusive, and smart urban development, the vision needs to be aligned with policy recommendations for short, medium, and long terms. Bangladesh has established a new development paradigm through its approach to development through policy dimensions, innovations, and leadership, demonstrated through socio-economic progress; it acts as an example to many other countries. In the SDG era, when the global community has adopted the New Urban Agenda (NUA) as the urban roadmap for the next 20 years, implementing NUA will broadly focus on national urban policies.
However, an urban policy alone will not solve all problems that we are currently facing in our cities and towns. But the draft urban policy and strategy recommendations in various plans fully comply with and endorse SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and the NUA. Moreover, the Perspective Plan and long-term Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 also consider the basic recommendations of the Urban Policy regarding urban environmental sustainability. Such a long-awaited policy document, which is directly related to the future of Bangladesh, should not be left overlooked. We cannot wait any longer wait. It’s time to act.
Ashekur Rahman is Head of Poverty and Urbanization in UNDP Bangladesh. Views expressed in this article are the authors own and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of UNDP.
Photo: A new urban form for Dhaka that works with canals and wetlands. ILLUSTRATION: AFREEN AHMED ROCHANA/BENGAL INSTITUTE