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OP-ED: Why do cities remain divided?

  • Published at 07:13 pm November 13th, 2020
Dhaka plane city

Urban areas keep growing, but not everybody benefits

Cities around the world have grown big and spectacular, with rapid growth of GDP. Nonetheless, beneath this surface of glamorous cityscapes lie the working class who materially build and maintain cities, but do not have rights to city spaces.

Every morning, people hit the city roads first and start working before many even wake up. Without the transportation workers, cleaners, housemaids, salespersons, hawkers, delivery personnel, a day would not be as smooth as city-dwellers normally experience and expect. However, these people stay out of sight when glamorous cities are publicized in the media.

In cities, we have massive income inequality, a continuous influx of people from the rural areas, exclusive gated communities, and the existence of “urban villages.” These features in turn perpetuate the inequality of resource access that contributes to channelling capital investments towards cities.

Expulsion of the poor 

While the rich can organize their lives around gated communities, there remain millions of people who live hand to mouth and in danger of being pushed below the poverty line. Millions of people struggle to survive in the city even though their labour and toil are fundamental to its existence.

Today’s cities are usually about financial capital, such as London, New York, Hong Kong, and the global production hubs such as Dhaka, Bengaluru, Shenzhen, and so on. These cities also house a high concentration of insecurely employed people. On the one hand, there is abundance, and on the other, people are hardly making a living. Thus, cities represent vigorous aspects of how capital works, ie, polarization of profit and extreme exploitation.

The working class are facing expulsion as the city becomes a centre of capitalism. The pervasiveness of capitalism facilitates concentration of capital in the hands of the few and leads to high property prices and, consequently, poorer segments are forced out from eminent and spatial city domains. They are forced to live on the periphery. such as the slums, where city amenities are scarce.

Emergence of urban villages

Urban villages are the rural areas/communities incorporated within a city. As a city grows, private or public companies purchase cultivable lands and convert those into city spaces -- primarily as housing projects and industries. 

The periphery of a city lacks effective public services such as education, housing, health care, waste management, roads and transportation, utility services, etc. Even slums in the heart of a city represent a kind of “urban village.”

These urban villages become “home” for migrants from rural areas. The migrants wishing to climb up the social ladder find it hard to make ends meet. 

However, earning opportunities here are usually better than in rural areas, continuously attracting people to the city. Thereby, cities keep expanding and new urban villages are developed. 

Circles of inequality 

Cities generally hold extreme poverty rates. For instance, Dhaka is a city of more than 20 million people of which around 18% live in poverty. It was found that more than 35% of urban residents in Bangladesh live in slums. The rapid growth of the city has brought new dimensions of inequality for the poor. For instance, the national health infrastructure is inaccessible to a large extent. This is true as much for the US and China as it is for Bangladesh. 

A 2015 report by icddr,b revealed a lack of formal health care provisions in the slums of Dhaka, where 80% of medical needs are met by pharmacies and non-formal/traditional doctors. The reason for this trend can be attributed to a lack of facilities and, more importantly, to the fact that medical facilities are expensive. 

The lack of medical care in turn severely affects health and well-being as well as the ability to work and earn. The situation is further burdened by insufficient sanitation and waste management facilities.

Similarly, children living in poor urban areas in Dhaka are deprived of quality education -- or any education for that matter. Even though primary education in public institutions is free, secondary schools require money, which is too much to bear for low-income groups. Therefore, slum-dwellers find it hard to afford education for their children. 

In the low-income segment, school dropout rate is remarkably high. Devoid of sufficient earning, children of the urban poor often have to drop out and engage in child labour to financially support their families or help with domestic chores. 

Moreover, investment in educational infrastructure is skewed because of socio-political and economic reasons, and following privatization, education as a commodity becomes available nearer areas where children from wealthy families can have easy access. 

Income disparity does not allow many children to access private tuition and a class divide appears in educational attainment. This disparity in education has lifelong consequences, ultimately affecting career opportunities. 

Stark inequalities exist in urban areas, yet migration continues due to agglomeration of economic activities in cities, running the machines of capitalism -- keeping the wages low and ensuring uninterrupted flow of production across sectors and time.

Globally, cities are unequal in nature and the poor are being excluded as they do not have the means to withstand the forces of city expansion. 

The ubiquitousness of capitalism reproduces the diverging classes and hence, inequality persists, and cities remain divided. 

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. This piece is written for the series: Contemporary City Dynamics.

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