Background and Context

Over the recent past years, the pace of urbanisation in Bangladesh has been growing at a very fast pace. This is manifested in the increasing number of urban settlements, both large and small, and the growing number of people residing in urban areas. At present, besides 12 city corporations and 327 municipalities, there are 570 urban centres in Bangladesh. This unprecedented growth tends to be driven by four broad factors: (i) high natural growth of population in urban areas; (ii) territorial expansion of urban settlements; (iii) rural-to-urban migration; and (iv) newly emerging urban settlements. Regrettably, this growth in urbanisation has not been matched by provisioning of basic urban services.

As would be expected, growing urbanisation has given rise to new challenges, including in areas of delivery of public services in urban areas. Dhaka exemplifies the attendant challenges in a most visible manner. According to the World Bank data, the city covers only 1% of Bangladesh’s total area but is home to 13% of the country’s total population and accounts for almost 21% of its GDP. However, Dhaka also features regularly among the least liveable cities in the world according to the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index –indeed, it was ranked as the 7th least liveable city in EIU’s 2023 report. This ranking is reflected in the sorry state of affairs with respect to provisioning of public services such as urban transport, housing, social services including health and education, and as per an array of other basic urban services (water, electricity and gas supply, sanitation, sewerage, drainage, garbage disposal, and solid waste management). Environment in urban areas (air, sound and water pollution) has also emerged as a significant concern in recent times. Within this general context, a large gap exists in the availability of services between the advantaged and the disadvantaged groups of citizens in urban areas. This scenario is not unique to Dhaka; indeed, this represents the general picture in other urban and peri-urban areas. Evidence suggests that the overall process of urbanisation in Bangladesh has also been afflicted by spatial and demographic factors.

All these have resulted in a growing number of problems facing urban governance in Bangladesh. Consequently, urban centres are being confronted with rising pressure as regards access to utilities and services including, amenities, transport, living environment, public health and education and other areas. As a result, over the recent past years, there has been a secular decline in almost all the Quality of Life (QoL) indicators in the urban areas. Also, with continuing rural transformation, many new secondary cities are coming up, which have their own specific needs and demands.

‘Slumisation’ due to push factors and ‘urbanisation of rural life’ due to economic development are becoming common features of urbanisation in Bangladesh. When policies and practices fail to take these newly emerging realities into consideration, it is the disadvantaged urban groups who suffer the most because they are disproportionately more dependent on delivery of basic public services. Such a scenario hardly corresponds with Bangladesh’s aspiration of transitioning to an upper Middle-Income Country by 2031 and a High-Income Country by 2041. In this backdrop, the demands of public service delivery in the context of urbanisation need to be seen from economic as also social lens, and from the perspective of inclusivity.

Urbanisation in Bangladesh is often characterised as ‘haphazard’, ‘disorganised and ‘unplanned’. It is evident that an unbalanced distribution of population is creating immense pressure on a few major cities, particularly in the capital city, Dhaka. Unplanned and unbalanced urbanisation is adversely affecting the quality of life of the urban population, particularly the quality of life of low-income groups. The left behind groups are trapped in the ‘vicious urban life cycle’ where they have to pay more for public services that are of poor quality, if at all available. For example, in Dhaka city, only about 11-16% of the low-income households are covered by institutionalised water supply (from Dhaka WASA). The majority of the rest of the households with informal access to various services are having to pay 7 to 14 times more than households with formal access. Households in informal settlements suffer from low quality of essential services: about 94% of such households reported suffering from bad odour from water bodies; nearly half of the urban population have no access to improved sanitation facilities. The space for parks, public amenities and children’s playgrounds are shrinking. Often, these are taken over by vested groups with the tacit support of elected representatives and city officials. Solid waste management remains a challenging task in urban areas.  On average, 55 per cent of solid waste remains uncollected. Only 14 per cent of medical waste is properly managed. E-waste is growing at 20 per cent annually. With a three-fold increase over the past 15 years and the recycle rate of only at 31%, managing plastic waste has emerged as a key problem in urban areas. Indeed, plastic pollution has become a major health hazard, polluting cities, clogging drains and causing flooding in urban areas.

Although several initiatives towards planned urbanisation were put in place over recent years, the desired outcomes in terms of delivery of quality services have remained unattained. The political economy of urban governance becomes apparent from the fact that the disadvantaged groups of the urban population, who are in need of urban public services more than others, suffer the most in this situation. Scarcity and inadequacy of public services and utilities and lack of proper service management have now reached a crisis point, with low-income and disadvantaged segments of society being impacted most adversely.

Against this backdrop, the objective of this Policy Brief is to prepare a set of recommendations towards better delivery of urban public services and utilities, keeping in perspective the particular interests and needs of the disadvantaged groups of the urban population. These include slum dwellers, people with disabilities, women and elderly population who tend to remain neglected in the context of provisioning of urban services. The recommendations are geared to ensure inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and effective urban governance in Bangladesh in a way that is aligned with the SDG spirit of Leave No One Behind (LNOB).

Published: May 2024