Some countries have trodden this path before and so others take heart that they, too, can tread the beaten track as a matter of course. Attaining the status of a Middle-Income-Country (MIC) by 2021 has been a goal cherished by the policy makers in Bangladesh for quite sometime. The objective is not only to provide the people with a better standard of living but also to score a record whose political dividends would be high. But there is, as always, a slip between the cup and the lip. Some slips are obvious, some are concocted by others claiming prescience.
The World Bank in its publication titled Bangladesh: The Path to Middle-Income Status from Urban Perspective has poured cold water on the aspiration to achieve the coveted goal. According to the authors of the book, Bangladesh will not be able to reach the much publicised goal by 2021. Less than the required rate of urbanisation has been cited as the main reason for this failure in future. The book, in the course of setting up a high income status through urbanisation, gives emphasis on the comprehensive development of Dhaka city because of its perceived role as the 'engine of growth' of the economy as a whole. In the book it has been observed that after 50 years of the independence of Bangladesh in 2021 if the country is to attain the status of a MIC, an annual rate of growth of gross domestic product (GDP) around 8.0 per cent is essential. The present rate being 6.0 per cent the goal will remain beyond the reach, the authors have concluded. According to them only through rapid urbanisation can Bangladesh accelerate the rate of growth and attain the goal of MIC status. To substantiate the view the authors have observed that no country has been able to reach this status without rapid urbanisation.
It has been pointed out in the World Bank publication that not only urbanisation has been slow but whatever in this regard has taken place is without adequate economic, social and environmental management. As a result, the cities, particularly Dhaka, have become the haven for crime, traffic congestion and unplanned growth in the form of burgeoning slums. Referring to the 2010 report of the Economic Intelligence Unit (of the Economist) the World Bank publication has pointed out that out of 40 cities in the world, Dhaka is one of the 10 most polluted. With poor infrastructures and ramshackle services Dhaka city has been unable to provide the setting for accelerated growth of the economy, it has been observed. The World Bank publication is unequivocal in its view that to attain the goal of MIC, Bangladesh will have to undertake expanded economic activities centring in and around metropolitan cities which have been described as 'economic mountains'. What Bangladesh needs for economic growth, according to the authors of the book, is more 'taller mountains'. In this context Dhaka and Chittagong have been designated as 'economic tall mountains' and the smaller district towns as 'economic mountains'. The book has, in other words, recommended a network of 'tall' and small 'economic mountains' to carry economic growth on their back towards the goal of MIC.
Simplistic and flawed: The findings and recommendations by the authors of the World Bank publication are not only simplistic but flawed as well. Firstly, they completely ignore the rural areas where the majority of the people live. Secondly, it suffers from the fallacy of automatic repetition of successful precedents. The book uses the shop-soiled notion of economic development based on a model that draws its sustenance from urbanisation alone. Apart from the patent fact that urbanisation is the result of economic growth and not its cause, the emphasis on urbanisation ignores the possibility of using other options and strategy of development. If it is argued that at the first stage urbanisation is the result of growth but during the second stage it fuels growth 'as the engine', then the present stage of urbanisation in Bangladesh can be cited as a counter argument.
In the book it has been admitted that in South Asia the growth of urbanisation is the highest in Bangladesh. But this has not led to rapid economic growth. The authors have, of course, argued that this has been due to lack of facilities and presence of negative factors like crime, traffic congestion etc. The solution, according to the authors, lies in making cities conducive to healthy living and efficient working. There is nothing wrong with the rate of urbanisation that has taken in Bangladesh and yet this has not been accompanied by rapid growth because of lack of facilities.
The authors, disappointed with the dystopian situation in Bangladesh metropolitan cities, are obsessed with an ideal scenario of development taking place exclusively within an urban setting. But this is a case of putting wrong emphasis. Nowhere in the world, far less in developing countries, has urbanisation moved along an ideal path. Demand for urban amenities and civic services has always outstripped their availability. So, imperfect urbanisation is a reality that people everywhere has to live with. This does not mean that attempts to improve the dreary situation should not be made. But this in itself is not sufficient. While urban improvement takes place it should be realised that the process will attract more people from outside, particularly from the rural areas, making the gap between the demand and supply of civic amenities almost a continuing one.
Alternative development model: In a highly populated country like Bangladesh urbanisation will be always accompanied by rural-urban migration causing overcrowding. Like Alice in Wonderland, the cities will have to run faster and faster to be in the same place. This is not to argue against urbanisation (or improvement in the existing urban centres) but to point out its inability to create the ideal urban setting, the well performing 'tall mountains' and 'smaller mountains', to be more precise. What is being stressed is the appropriate development of rural areas in tandem with urban growth.
With the economic burden of a growing population Bangladesh has to think of an alternative development model. It does not exactly have precedent in this respect. One is tempted to mention China but it is unique in many ways. It has a large population half of which is rural. But it has also a large territory and many natural resources. With this advantage and propelled by the robust export sector it can embrace the urban-centred development model. Bangladesh, without the natural and economic advantage, cannot follow suit. It has to think of and work for an alternative development model.
About 70 per cent of Bangladesh population live in the rural areas. They contribute 40 per cent of GDP mainly through agriculture. If the rural economy is diversified it can contribute more to economic growth through increase in productivity. A welcome windfall from this will be the possibility of improving the urban situation without overcrowding. Rather, the urban centres will benefit from an increasingly productive rural sector. If the rural areas are connected to cities and towns and are provided with better health, education facilities and steady supply of electricity there is no reason why selected industries and some business will not be set up in rural areas instead of concentrating in congested urban centers. The country being small, transportation cost (for export, supply of intermediate goods to urban-based industries, for consumer goods supply to urban consumers) linking the villages with the urban centers, coupled with physical and social infrastructures, can make the villages productive enough to play a complementary role to urban centres. In some respects they can also compete on the basis of comparative advantage to attract industries to rural areas. Garment, agro-processed industries come to mind immediately in this connection. There will be others to follow in the foot steps of the pioneers.
The model ideal for a country that is overly populated and pre-dominantly rural like Bangladesh is one where there are 'tall' and 'small mountains' (cities and towns) linked by plateaus (villages).
The advantage of this model is the potential of slowing down the present uncontrollable rural-urban migration that make the urban centres burst at the seams. Not only this, some among urban dwellers may turn to villages to settle down there attracted by fresh air, pollution-free water, abundant supply of fish and vegetables without the taint of chemicals. This will increase the number of skilled people in the rural areas to the advantage of the national economy.
The rural-urban model of development visualised here is not a utopia but very much within the realm of possibility. What is needed to realise this is thinking outside the box. While talking about the 'mountains', tall and small, the plateau should not be forgotten. Without the plateau the mountains will be vulnerable.