The felling of bungalows, the building of Dhaka

Delwar Hussain
4 June 2010

House 17A on Road 6 in the Banani district of Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, is easy to locate. Though the nameplate on the wall is concealed behind the protective tendrils of a bright fuchsia-coloured bougainvillea plant, even the most uncertain postal worker will be able to find the address. This is because House 17A is in fact the only house on Road 6 in Banani. It's true that there are other buildings on this residential road; but this one is the last remaining of its kind - a squat, two-floored, hedged-in structure of a kind built in the 1960s and 1970s for middle-class families, now left isolated among and enclosed on all sides by soaring high-rise apartments.

Delwar Hussain is a writer on south Asian society, currently completing a doctorate at Kings College, Cambridge

Also by Delwar Hussain in openDemocracy:

"Bangladeshis in east London: from secular politics to Islam" (7 July 2006)

"Islamism and expediency in Bangladesh" (11 January 2007)

"Life and death in the Bangladesh-India margins" (13 January 2009)

Digital Bangladesh: virtual dreams, real lives" (30 April 2009)The house is occupied by the sprawling Jennings family: Diane and James, their five children, a daughter-in-law, a grandchild, a troupe of maids, a driver, a dog and a cat. Over the years the family have watched as the neighbourhood encased itself in concrete towers at a relentless pace.

When the Jennings family first moved to Banani, houses such as theirs - bungalows - were nothing special. The name has stuck, even though many of them have gained a floor or two over the years. They are characterised by the high wall running all the way around, deep verandas, elaborate staircases and rooms with high ceilings. The large windows, designed to get the most out of the light and air, are covered in filigree white metal. On the lawn outside, elderly trees offer shade. If ever there were an archetypal urban Bengali house, this would be it.

As Diane recalls, Dhaka was when they moved in a city of bungalows and bicycle-rickshaws. Now the red-bricked houses have become such a rarity that only the rich, the influential and the stubborn are privileged enough to live in them. Many have been converted into private nurseries, dental practices and offices. "When the bariwala (landlord) died a few years ago, we were worried that her son, who lives in the United States, would want to sell the house or at the very least, raise the rent", Diane says.

We are sitting at her dining-room table. The walls are adorned with photographs of family members captured during their rites of passage: birthdays, weddings and graduations. The various rooms of the house are the stage-set of these celebratory scenes. Above us, an archaic metal bird cools the room by spinning its noisy wings.

"It was such a nice surprise", Diane laughs, "to find that he had no intention of getting rid of us." But when the tower-block on the right was about to be built she pleaded with the developer to make sure that a gap would be left between their garden wall and the wall of the high-rise, in the hope that a little bit of light might still be able to squeeze itself into the garden. This proved vain. "Then the giant on the left decided to move in and again they did not listen." The trees and plants in the garden did not last long after that, and a once flourishing garden  - now overshadowed by structures that are at least five stories taller - is covered in darkness and patches of empty ground in only the dog is at home.

The family and the house nonetheless survived the first-wave building boom. Now, however, time has been called on House 17A; the Jennings have been given notice to vacate the building. The bariwala, experiencing financial troubles as a result of the global economic recession, has decided finally to sell it to developers who will turn the plot into - what else? - luxury condominiums.

Diane is British-Jamaican and her husband American. They have lived in the country for over thirty years, but as foreign nationals are not allowed to own property in Bangladesh. Their relationship with the house is deep, however. "It isn't just a building where we live. This is our home. This is where my eldest son got engaged, where my grandson is now growing up. We have so many happy memories attached to it." Diane and her eldest daughter Hannah have been scouring Dhaka for suitable accommodation to relocate the family, but with little luck. Most apartments are too small to accommodate the entire household; or in the case of moving into another house, too expensive. "It feels really sad", Hannah says. "Not only because we are leaving our home, but also because we are laying off staff that have been with us since I was a child." The dog is being sent to the countryside to retire.

The active forgetting

Dhaka is frenetic, traffic-choked, deafening, full of inequities and polluted. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that there is no coherent overall plan to deal with them. The accumulated result is that the uncontrolled, unplanned urban sprawl, the inadequate infrastructure surrounded by a myriad of accompanying social and environmental concerns, has in truth become the city itself.

It is not too difficult then to understand why buildings such as the Jennings' are being demolished at an alarming rate. They are hardly a typical Bangladeshi family, but their predicament is becoming increasingly common. In keeping with most contemporary cityscapes in the global south, there is apparently a near-total lack of respect for the past in its built form. For private speculators and public officials alike, old buildings are considered an anathema or even an obstacle to neo-liberal ideals of "development" and "progress". This is most acutely felt in Dhaka's old area, where havelis from the Mughal period are simply crumbling (there is no financial merit in saving them); and in Sunargaon, the former capital, where centuries-old zamindari estates are left to plunderers. In the latter case, this also represents a top-down attempt to eradicate or "actively forget" the fact that Hindus, who these estates had belonged to, were ever a part of the history of Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

All of this takes places in the shadow of the ever-increasing craze of constructing super-sized shopping-malls, temples of consumerism. The profit-margin is considered more important than protecting old things. But there is an equally fundamental factor driving the insatiable need for high-rises and as a consequence, the amorphous development of the city itself. Dhaka is the tenth most densely populated place in the world. 14 million of Bangladesh's 140 million people jostle, squawk and flap their clipped wings through life on this tiny plot of land. The comparison with 1966, when Dhaka had just 500,000 residents, is stark. Since then, the expansion and overcrowding of the urban landscape and the consequent pressures on space have made land a rare and ever more contested commodity here.

High rise, low water

Dhaka, confined by the busy Buriganga River to the south and the Turag River in the west, has been growing outwards too by greedily laying claim to fertile agricultural land in the north and east. The farming families displaced by this concrete march simply join millions of others in a steady flow from the countryside into the city to look for work. More than half of the city's population today are such migrants; and more than half of these migrants are women.

The contemporary morphology of Dhaka is very new. The city had been an unassuming district town until 1947, when it found itself upgraded to become the provincial capital of united Pakistan. It emerged from being bathed in blood in the liberation war of 1971 as the political, commercial and industrial epicentre of the new Bangladesh.

The city planners have arguably still not woken up to the reality of change in the city's fortunes. Laws and regulations that may exist to shape the new transformations are ineffective and hardly ever enforced. What is worse is that there has never been a comprehensive housing policy that hasn't seen the rich grab yet more land.

The recent "Detailed Area Plan", part of the government's Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan, has been criticised by its own review board as being "silent on the housing needs for this large number of poor." In Dhaka, buildings are erected at a developer's whim, indifferent to what its neighbours may think, whom it may displace or the traffic chaos it will cause. Today industrial areas such as Tejgaon, once on the border of the city limits, are now firmly inside of them. Polluting factories, sweatshops and warehouses are found next to residential areas, adjacent to schools and restaurants. Even the phenomenal growth of the satellite suburbs of Uttara and Boshondora, characterised by gravity-defying glass-and-steel edifices, have not produced any more space.

Some wealthy friends tell me with pride and glee that average apartments here and in adjacent Gulshan, Dhanmondi and Banani can cost relatively the same amount as ones in smart parts of London or New York. High-end property developers such as Asset Development, Sheltech and Domi-nno are as recognisable as Pepsi and Nike. The gentlemen's agreement between them means that even when raw-material costs drop, property prices in Dhaka will remain high.

But this, against the conventional wisdom, is not just a case of the already rich getting richer. The new agents of affluence are beneficiaries of "garments money", local slang for a new breed of nouveau riche that has become unimaginably wealthy in the international garments industry. Their excessive consumption habits are driving much of the new development.

By contrast, the majority of Dhakaias live precariously, hand-to-mouth, in foul-smelling, degrading bustess (slums) made of tarpaulin, bamboo and foraged materials. These are located along railway-lines, under flyovers, on pavements and behind mosques. They don't discriminate. The closest most will ever come to the high-consuming aristocracy of privilege is when they work as their maids or babuchis (cooks) or in one of their factories.

If anything, the new housing and other modern buildings have exacerbated existing sores. They are built mostly on reclaimed land, wetlands and flood-plains; so rainwater with nowhere to go during the monsoon season (Dhaka experiences eighty inches of rainfall per year) stagnates on the concrete pavements, ensuring a steady stream of water-born illnesses for the city's poor. Even a government review board has accused many of these developments to be illegal and a major contributor to the city's regular floods and other environmental hazards.

The view from paradise

This dystopia is a far cry from the creation-myth Bangladeshi schoolchildren learn of their capital. The name apparently comes from the Dhak trees that once grew in abundance in the area. The Hindu king Ballal Sen was said to have built a temple dedicated to the goddess Durga in these jungles. He named it Dhakeshwari (hidden goddess), as dhakai also means "to conceal" in Bangla. Today the closest most Dhakaias will come to a tree is in one of the dwindling number of public parks, or near museums - open spaces that are increasingly threatened by property-developers.

Tower-blocks, decorated to resemble stacked wedding-cakes, flourish in the new Dhaka. Their names - Morning Glory, Black Forest, Beverly Hills View, Japan Gardens - are ludicrous enough, given that the view from most of their prison-cell-like windows is of another identical-looking concrete slab; what makes them indecent is that so many trees were felled in the first place to build them.

Those Dhakaias who can afford to live in these high-rise paradises are obliged to adapt and find new ways of living. The buildings are, for example, so tightly packed that basic necessities such as natural light and ventilation have been done away with. The result is that in most apartments, lightbulbs are kept on throughout the day - that is, when the electricity-supply allows. The lights are needed, for the absence of an organised traffic system creates longer and more uncertain commuter journeys, thus encouraging more and more middle and upper-middle class people to consolidate their living and working areas into one space. 

The architect's eye

The greatest area of transformation wrought by the onward rush of urban development in Dhaka must be in the realm of the family. Most Bengali homes are based on the extended family system where two or three generations live together under one roof. These are generally chaotic affairs, with alliances, feuds and disputes being a staple reality. The rich and the poor do share this much in common.

This kind of living is far from conducive to two-, three-, or even four-bedroom flats. This means that many extended families are forced to choose whether to break up or continue living as they are. Many are opting for the nuclear home, which offers privacy and security, and the chance to escape warring family members. Life in a flat may also be more manageable, and allow membership of a neighbourly community that also offers the possibility of withdrawal.

At the same time, wealthier families have a little more choice, and some move into apartment-blocks with the entire family in tow. So, two brothers and their wives will live in one apartment while the grandparents and the unmarried sister live in another (grandchildren are sent to the grandparents for meals). Individualised cubes have been altered to accommodate the importance of family proximity but also to offer the distance and retreat that so many in this city of millions desire.

MK Aaref is an architect who has been designing hotels, apartments and even (though increasingly rarely) houses in Dhaka for the last twenty years. He is part of the current generation of designers that is transforming the way the city looks, though also an outspoken critic of what he sees happening around him. The red-bricked bungalows may not be very old, he says, but they have much more architectural merit and character than the concrete blocks replacing them.

He believes if there was a national and government-backed conservation trust of the kind that in other countries is vital in preserving historic buildings, then bariwalas would be able to continue living in their houses and earn money from the revenue created from allowing visitors into them. This would act as an incentive to save them from the clutches of eager developers all too willing to knock them down. Otherwise, this "cultural genocide" as he calls it, will continue.

Aaref's home/office in Gulshan is at the end of a narrow leafy driveway, behind metal gates. The elevated four-floor building stands on large pillars, a style attributed to the Chakma tribe who live in Aaref's home district of Chittagong (his are however made out of concrete as opposed to bamboo). The space the uplift has created houses his car, hefty architectural salvage-pieces and more greenery.

There is a power-cut so we take the stairs to the top floor where he and his staff of sixteen work. Paintings by Bengali masters that have been in the family for generations hang next to contemporary prints of Italian buildings from the renaissance period. But the room is dominated by the vistas it offers from floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides. Every one attests to Dhaka's concrete-and-metal expansion.

The view of Gulshan Lake shows grey and busy construction-sites, its skeletons reflected in its sewage-strewn waters. Male and female labourers wield blow-torches; most are hunched over, lifting, cutting and shouting. Some sit smoking, or drinking tea. Through another of Aaref's windows, the premises of a private school are visible; in the playground, the Bangladesh flag hangs limp on its pole. In the distance there is another doomed red-bricked house.

Behind another window is a lush roof-terrace - one for each floor. Aaref designed the building himself. "I had to start afresh when I came back to Dhaka after studying architecture in the US. Most of what I had studied had to be unlearned to adapt to the realities of this city." Because land is at such a premium here he has none of the freedoms of geometry that he might have elsewhere. "I begin each new project by visualising a box, as this is ultimately what the end product will be", he says. What he dislikes most about the high-rises going up in Dhaka is the lack of uniformity in the design. "It is all a hotchpotch. People are doing whatever they want, with design features being all over the place."

This is primarily because it is market-driven. Buildings are built in such a way as to minimise costs whilst maximising profit and space. It is this ethos that is the overwhelming influence in the creation of contemporary buildings in Dhaka. "Today anybody can build a building. While some are better than others, they may have a little more makeup on, generally they are not." Aaref says his garments-money clients live in allotment-sized apartments - but want the Ritz Carlton inside. "Some want the White House copied onto a tiny plot of land", he smiles. "While others demand everything in faux Egyptian style, gold fittings and ‘his and hers' commodes. He tells of one client who wanted a designer kitchen on every floor of his multi-storied apartment "even though the wife and daughters-in-law no longer cooked." 

It didn't have to be this way. After the independence of the country and before the start of the building-boom, Dhaka could have modelled itself on cities such as Amsterdam or Venice. After all, it also has large water-bodies, lakes, canals and streams dotted throughout. Even today and despite the choking up and reclaiming of many of these waterways, boats of all sizes and verities ply their courses. In fact in 1973, the then Bangladeshi government asked the renowned architect Louis Kahn, who designed the country's parliament building to do just this, to create a city on water. However he died before it could be realised.

"We could have had duplex-style town houses that accommodate the numbers of people wanting to live here, as well as the architecture and the aesthetics to go along with it", Aaref argues. "The old buildings don't need to be torn down. Original structures can be modernised, to adapt to contemporary conditions." Today he is concerned that his own neighbours may want to sell up to a developer. There is much pressure on them to do so. He accepts there is nothing he can do about it. "Dhaka is a city you grow with, you have to adapt with it." 

Two women

The urban landscape is indeed changing. Cranes, bulldozers and diggers are as ubiquitous as beggars and rickshaws. Sand, stone and bricks are piled up on street corners everywhere, waiting to be put to use. The squatting work-gangs on whose taut ridges of muscle the expanding wealth and development of the city depends are omnipresent.

Amina Begum and Rohima Khanom are two such women who have literally been building Dhaka. I meet them in Osmani Park, in the south of the city. The park is opposite the art deco-esque megalith of the Dhaka City Corporation building, the offices of the chief city-planners. The women had just finished bathing in the krishnachura tree-lined pond and were waiting for their saris and petticoats, lying flat on the grass, to dry.

Both Amina and Rohima have worked on construction sites in Dhaka for many years, manually breaking bricks with a hammer. The pieces extracted from their labour are mixed with cement and used to construct the floors, pillars and roofs of Dhaka's buildings. They get paid on the basis of the number of feet of bricks they break - currently it is 8/9 taka per foot 8/9 pence in English money). After a ten-hour shift that begins at 8am, they go home with 20/25 taka each. Women such as Amina and Rohima generally work on construction sites as labourers; they carry earth, bricks, cement, load and unload.

Both talk about the pain and sores they have. "It is not easy to sit still for hours under the scorching sun breaking bricks", Amina says matter-of-factly. Men get paid better than women "but there's not much we can do about this", she adds. Increasing pauperisation, rising unemployment, landlessness (where land is concentrated in the hands of a few), river erosion, as well as dreams of a better life mean that Dhaka's numbers continuously swell with new rural migrants. For many of them, the building industry is the easiest way to earn a living as it offers regular work and does not require an education or skills.

Amina is originally from Foridpur, southern Bangladesh. She is unsure when she came to Dhaka nor how old she may be. I think she is in her late 40s - a life of privation has taken its toll and it shows on her aged face. She remembers that her husband had separated from her by the time she left Foridpur. She had no land of her own or any way of supporting herself and her two sons. The two boys are now both "crazy", a euphemism for being addicted to heroin.

Rohima is from Jamalpur, five hours from Dhaka. There was no food in her village due to river erosion so her husband and three children moved to the city. The last construction site both women had worked on was situated where their bustee had previously been. They were forced to give up their place and move on. They simply relocated to another nearby bustee.

Neither Amina nor Rohima's one-room homes have running water, a toilet, or electricity. They get drinking water from the local mosque and when they need the toilet they go to a woman who allows them to use hers. They bathe and wash their clothes in the park pond. The construction-site they worked on, a hostel for police officers, now overlooks the high walls of Osmani Park. In their new place, the women live equally as precariously as before, waiting the day when they will be forced to move again.

During the eight years that it took to finish the project - government projects are notorious for taking a long time to complete - Rohima gave birth to another child. 7-year-old Laboni, wearing a bright yellow dress and with shiny oiled hair, stands next to us. She has never known anything but this life. From the moment she was born, she lay on Rohima's lap while her mother broke bricks. Later, when she was old enough to toddle, Laboni would help Rohima by fetching bricks for her. She would not get paid as she was considered to be her mother's "helper".

Laboni does not go to school. I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. She didn't have to think about it. She knew. She wanted to help her mother on the construction-sites. If she could do this, it would make her really happy. I persevered. But if you could do anything you wanted, absolutely anything, what would that be? Laboni says in that case she wants to work in a house as a maid, folding clothes. She and her family are in the business of surviving. This, after all, is Dhaka. There is no time to dream.

Also on Bangladesh in openDemocracy:

Farida Khan, "Getting real about globalisation in Bangladesh" (15 April 2004)

Naila Kabeer, "The cost of good intentions: 'solidarity' in Bangladesh" (24 June 2004)

Liz Philipson, "Bangladesh's fraying democracy" (26 June 2006)

Farida Khan, "Muhammad Yunus: an economics for peace" (25 October 2006)

Timothy Sowula, "Bangladesh's political meltdown" (24 November 2006)

Firdous Azim, "Women and religion in Bangladesh: new paths" (19 December 2007)

Jalal Alamgir, "Bangladesh: a verdict and a lesson" (13 February 2009)

Liz Philipson, "Bangladesh: revolt and fallout" (30 March 2009)

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData