Only a few days back
Dogged attitude to expand at any cost is one of the extreme examples of the city. It can expand as it likes. So it expands. It expands horizontally and vertically. It expands by filling up water bodies and drying up aquifers and draining heavy metals into its surrounding canals and rivers and wiping out paddy fields surrounding the city. It takes the shape and size of a gradually inflating demon that gradually increases its life-destroying power but that is weak inside waiting to kill itself, writes Farooque Chowdhury
THE sky over the city carried clouds, and the clouds brimmed with water droplets, and the droplets turned impatient. The water droplets came down, and the city was drenched with rain, and the rain brought relief to the city full of thirst. The thirst was for water. It was in Dhaka, one of the most populous cities in the world. It was only a few days back, the last days of Chaitra, the last month of Basanta, the Bangla spring, the last season of the Bangla year.
The Chaitra days before the irregular rain shadowing the city were tough and difficult, harsh and cruel, dead dry and dusty, scorching and suffering. The tales of the city and of the people and of the city water authorities were almost the same: full of thirst for water, full of total effort, full of not-optimum result, and resulting in hopelessness or near-hopelessness. Media carried stories of scarcity of safe water, water for drinking, water for washing, water for household work. There was a lot of information: number of operating and non-operating water pumps, electric generators and vehicles supplying water, electricity outage, declining depth of groundwater level, city areas without water, efforts to collect water. The scarcity, it seemed, was cutting through class line: the rich and the poor, areas overwhelmed with poor and low-income people and areas dominated by the nouveau aristocrats. Almost all the information seemed regular. But one was probably new, and obviously annoying.
Ittefaq, the famous Bangla daily, in its April 5 issue carried the information: A few citizens of the city left behind the city, went back to some other places as they were failing to withstand the scarcity of water. The number of Dhaka-leaving citizens the daily mentioned was smaller than insignificant compared to the total city population. It was not like people leaving a cursed place. It was neither an exodus nor the beginning of an exodus.
Annoying was not the number. But the number may construct some questions: Does the act, the act of leaving behind the city due to scarcity of safe water, signify a trend or a would-be-trend? Is it a beginning of a bigger push or a stray incident? Does it reflect the city’s incapacity to provide a liveable environment?
Citizens living in the city don’t like to leave the city they like if the place provides space and opportunity for easy and fair living and mobility, if the place is not full of factors that make nice living a difficult reality, if thirst for water is quenched. Availability of adequate, affordable, safe water is a factor determining a city’s liveability, a fact known to everyone. All – muscled buddies, powerful personalities, money heavyweights, stronger souls with fighting spirit, pals earning paltry wages, weaker guys, ever hungry figures living like shadows, entities like non-entities, insignificant millions in the informal sector, unorganized common people – know the easy fact. But the fact remains untamed, unattended, unanswered.
Along with the water-fact, the city dwells with other facts that signify nothing but a catastrophe in future. A catalogue of catastrophes is hidden in a pocket or pockets somewhere in the air that covers the city or in the water that denies to be present in adequate quantity in the city or in the waste dumping sites sitting on the city margin or in the sewage lines filled with gas with a power to explode or in the narrow mindless alleys flanked by multi-storied buildings that try to deprive the alleys of sunlight or in the hundreds of thousands of homes that deny entry of light and fresh air in their rooms. But these are not extreme examples. These are only manifestations of extreme examples.
It’s working people’s life that carries the mark of extreme example. That life full of thirst for a bare living faces bold defiance by arrangements of essentials. That life, a life of millions and millions, takes a ghostly appearance under the pressure of a whole cohort of problems that seems determined to dominate the millions. Only an instant memory loss can make them happy within such a circumstance. That life is in a city controlled only by money power.
It’s a stubborn city. Powerful purses are stubborn. They tenaciously dominate the city life and its pattern of growth and its spending pattern and its consumption habits and its mobility through the streets and within the city society. Its unyielding mindset allows it to play with its own fate with a hazy horizon.
Dogged attitude to expand at any cost is one of the extreme examples of the city. It can expand as it likes. So it expands. It expands horizontally and vertically. It expands by filling up water bodies and drying up aquifers and draining heavy metals into its surrounding canals and rivers and wiping out paddy fields surrounding the city. It takes the shape and size of a gradually inflating demon that gradually increases its life-destroying power but that is weak inside waiting to kill itself. It prefers to hide facts of devouring traces of peaceful life — an old banyan tree and a few palm trees and a few villages dwelt by scores of super-weak silent villagers. It’s so powerful that the facts are not uttered or murmured by those who know the facts and traces of the facts are wiped out overnight and labyrinth of arrangements, arguments, accommodations, elucidations burry burning facts of an encroached peaceful farm life. All the facts are covered with metres deep sands spread over water bodies and farmlands and villages.
Foolishness is the city’s extreme example. The city doesn’t know its ultimate good. It behaves in an apparent shrewd style, which nourishes foolishness at the core. It considers immediate moneymaking acts as its nirvana. But it’s not an ignorant soul as a lot of its wise and highly educated friends, philosophers and guides are serving it faithfully. These intelligent minds also are aware of the fact of looming catastrophe. But their knowledge turns helpless in the face of money interests. So the city ultimately moves down a spiral staircase that goes down into a dark chamber of self-immolation.
Extreme example is the city’s indifference to its looming crises. Extreme example is the city’s incapacity to conserve its lifesaving resources. Extreme example is the city’s weakness to resist profit interests that love expansion at any cost, that love profit only for a few at the cost of environment of the many. Extreme example is the city’s dominating politics that prefers not to question ecology destroying economy.
Scarcity of water or greenery or open space or play ground for kids or other ecological problems in the city are only manifestations of the extremes: an economy with a single motive — profit for a few — and a politics, a management, a cooption tact based on the economy. Its insatiable hunger demands an ever-increasing supply of surplus value, and its insatiate love for a few denies living condition for the broader society producing surplus value. Ecology is an integral part of living condition. Thus the economy’s act turns a foolish act, an act of destroying an ecology that supports surplus value producing life. The city loves surplus value but nourishes conditions that destroy surplus value producing labour power. A blissful ignorance of the powerful city!
So, the economy carries on its vertical and horizontal construction and expansion, wipes out agricultural land, dries up water bodies and aquifers and prepares a context for a larger exodus, not a few families and citizens only.
So, the city constructs context to curse it.
It will move the other way — redesign the city, take steps to lessen pressure on the city, etc — if it finds profit there. Otherwise, along with bringing in suffering to millions and millions it will persist with its present pattern, which is nothing but a doomed destiny.
Dhaka-based freelancer Farooque Chowdhury contributes on socioeconomic issues.
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