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Book Review: Megacities of the Global South in the 2020’s

Book Review: Megacities of the Global South in the 2020’s
Title of the book

The book has been edited by Tasleem Shakur and Shayer Ghafur, and published by ‘Knowledgists without Borders’

By Tanvir Ahmed Khan PhD

People’s perception stems from their experience while they are growing up in a location, may it be a village, thana, sun-divisional town or a city. One who grew up in Dhaka observed a paltry 200,000 inhabitants in an area spanning from Sadarghat to the Hardeo Glass Factory at Hatkhola. This was the fifties. Boats called ‘goina nouka’ (boats carrying cargo) used to ply through the Dholai Khal from the Buriganga River to transport raw materials from the adjoining villages to the Rai Shaheb er Bazaar. On their return trip they used to carry finished goods back to the villages.

Families of various income levels used to reside in Dhaka. There were ‘elite’ areas in Wari and Gandaria. Other locations inside Dhaka housed the middle income and low income families.

The Dhaka Improvement Trust (DIT) provided incentives with two bigha plots in Dhanmondi where the two-storied building would be constructed in one-third the area leaving the rest of the area for open space and planting trees. This was in the early fifties. People didn’t realize that one day these plots would become gold-mines. In the sixties with Dhaka becoming the second capital, areas like Banani and Gulshan were opened up to the public. Not that people were interested at that time for buying land since they were quite happy with their status quo.

As time passed, Dhaka became a megacity from a small town to a city to a metropolis. Density rose and different parts of Dhaka showed various persons per sq. km.

When people talk about densities in different cities in the developed countries, one is awed when one compares the density with Dhaka. There is no parallel since the density is nearly 20 times more

In the eighties, the garment industry was observed to be introduced into the economy. Slowly and steadily they became successful and drew in scores of people to work. They came from far and wide and were housed in innumerable slums all over Dhaka. This shaped the livability in urban informal settlements. The slums had an unauthorized status but the inhabitants had to have access to housing and services. These were crucial factors influencing their daily lives.

When people talk about densities in different cities in the developed countries, one is awed when one compares the density with Dhaka. There is no parallel since the density is nearly 20 times more. The life and living of the people in Dhaka is too different since the resilience they exhibit cannot be understood by the people of the west.

The high-density settlements in Dhaka conducive in providing the best possible quality of life were showing cultural acceptability by the actors. It was especially the women who were contributors to the overall livability. It shaped the quality of the place.

Unprecedented resources flowed into the investor’s pocket and there was an intolerable inequality in income compared to the inhabitants in the slums. It had created marginalized societies not able to cope with rising consumer prices.

Also read: Infographics: Urbanization and Urban Development in Bangladesh

We had for a long time looked up to the west for direction on how to live and design our cities. This is high time that the west has now to look at the east to how problems are solved. One instance during COVID-19 days will exemplify that people were not affected in the slums with 7 to 8 persons living in a 100 sft of space. Immunity was the ingredient that debarred the pandemic to enter the slums. This the west will not understand. Disaster preparedness is an area where Bangladesh has become an iconic country which many countries have now come to emulate.

These days the metro was introduced. People from Uttara North seem to travel to Motijheel in 35 minutes which earlier took nearly 3 hours. Private cars are not being used these days. They prefer the metro. This is a blessing in disguise! Less private cars on the road, the better! Also, the buses are not receiving appropriate number of passengers to ply on the road because of the introduction of the metro. There is only one MRT at present. Eventually there will be five more routes. Imagine the scenario!

There is the Elevated Expressway (EE) which was also introduced simultaneously but could not make a thunderous success as the Metro. We will have to wait and see that when the EE is extended all the way to the Chittagong highway, it might have a very positive impact.

New perspectives are drawn from the cities cited may it be Beijing, Shanghai, Mumbai, Turkey, Istanbul, Cairo, Karachi or Delhi, not to speak of Dhaka. Each has its own improvisation but the ‘Raga’ is the same.

New town is developing within Dhaka. One such is Purbachal. This is going to be a self-contained conurbation and will be a Central Business District as the many others in Dhaka megacity (Motijheel, Gulistan, Kawran Bazaar, Dhanmondi, Tejgaon, Banani, Gulshan, Uttara, etc.).

The above few paragraphs present a prelude which was necessary according to the reviewer to introduce the seven articles in this Book and review the pros and cons with megacity city Dhaka as the anchor.

New perspectives are drawn from the cities cited may it be Beijing, Shanghai, Mumbai, Turkey, Istanbul, Cairo, Karachi or Delhi, not to speak of Dhaka. Each has its own improvisation but the ‘Raga’ is the same.

The review of the book would commence with the article of Syeda Jafrina Nancy captioned ‘Uncovering the hidden dynamics of densification: A case study of Dhaka’. What is revealing is the investigation of intervention of density followed by the residents’ perspectives. The conclusion is even more interesting. Could we think of this perspective where empirical observation revealed that the residential areas of Dhaka perceived as high-density settlements are within the threshold of cultural acceptability of the residents! And following this finding, prior to formulating density zoning of urban areas, ‘culturally acceptable higher densities conducive in providing the best possible quality of life should be identified and taken into consideration for any given demography’.

Book Review-Similar conclusion is drawn in the article of Yasmin Ara’s ‘The pursuit of livability: A Dhaka-Delhi analysis of multiscalar private entrepreneur’s role in shaping livability in urban informal settlements’. It emphasizes on the well-being of informal settlement residents. It states that “recent thinking on urban poverty often neglects the private sector’s potential to contribute to the provision of low income housing”. The case study in Delhi shows that the ‘unauthorized’ status of the settlement, declared by the state has significantly influenced the overall built environment of the area. “Much like in Dhaka, inhabitants of Delhi also prioritize access to housing and services as crucial factors influencing livability”.

Women have been given due emphasis. The patriarchal society traditionally assigned household duties but women immensely shaped the experiences and everyday life of their households. Everyday life was adjudged as trivial and inconsequential and this underestimation was proven wrong as everyday life actually holds profound influence in the discourse of urbanity. It inevitably leads to a conspicuous gendered perspective. “The indispensable and gallant role that women play in translating infrastructure into sustenance depicts them as essential components of infrastructure and as contributors to the overall livability that shapes the quality of a place”.

The issue of dichotomy of ‘First World models’ and ‘Third World problems’ was highlighted! The learning of inherent potentials from Third World cities’ was observed. The policy approaches of urban informality and their economic potential can lead to socio economic entities. The article of Quazi Mahtab Zaman titled “The perils of premature globalization and birth of megacities: Social exclusion and spatial injustice in Dhaka” introduced these issues. The area of policy concern is the effect of globalization on income distribution and social differentiation. It has created unprecedented wealth and resources in the investor’s pockets of the Dhaka’s few urbanites. The intolerable level of deprivation of income of poor wages has been observed and thus lack of sustainable livability. Recommended was Decentralization, an opportunity missed as part of the planning instrument. As a result, it has created marginalized societies not able to cope with rising consumer prices and the paraphernalia of unaffordable houses and difficulty in accessing the services of hospitals, schools, colleges and universities. Premature globalization has taken place in Dhaka culminating in a gap between the various stakeholders. This has shown the incapability of policy planners in facing the challenges that Dhaka city experiences.

In contrast to the other cities, Beijing and Shanghai fall in a different league. The high rate of urban expansion has been observed challenging whether sustainable growth can be achieved within a megacity context. The moot question is whether these two megacities can harness effectively the skills of the workers, capacity for their hard work in order to promote a more socially equitable and environment friendly future. This is reflected in the article presented by Ian G. Cook titled “Two Chinese Megacities compared: Beijing and Shanghai”.

The housing crisis is closely connected to the urbanization process and the slums have emerged as a significant settlement form catering to the housing demand of the urban poor. In Mumbai, the focus was on Dharavi. This is one of the largest slums in Asia. A slum such as Dharavi is presently the residence of a huge number of Mumbai’s population. The settlement in Dharavi began in 1884 during the British colonial period. The second period was in 1947. The third period was from 1991 to present where the government adopted a ‘neoliberal market’ policy. This led to increased commercialization in the area. In recent years, real estate, developers, entrepreneurs, and financiers are attracted by the profits. “Dharavi from Mega-slum to Urban Paradigm’ is based on anthropological research. For decades, the slum has attracted leatherworkers and has had a booming leather industry. This refers to the article by Jamie P. Halsall & Kalim Siddiqui titled “The transformation of Mumbai as Megacity: A case study of slums and environmental degradation”.

The Dharavi slum is located in the heart of Mumbai. The majority is Hindus and most of them are from Dalit castes (untouchable Hindus). The others are Muslims and Christians. With this population as its strength, online search would reveal that it is a hub of a million informal enterprises and even Prince Charles eulogizing it as a model to be emulated for sustainable living. For the poor no such support as housing loans is available. For poor households it has been regarded as a non-productive investment and the poor have been left to fend for themselves. The housing crisis for the poor households in Mumbai still persists and the neoliberal policy adopted in 1991 accelerated it further.

Important recommendation is the plan for the future to ensure Dharavi is a better place to live and work. Few actions need to be taken: a new focus in planning urban development; city authorities to legitimize legal development as a part of urban planning and development; promote low-income households to invest. This can make the resident’s accommodation safer, improve living standards, and improve transportation connectivity.

Reform, revivalism and transformation are the three pillars of urban environment has been elaborated by Ersan Koc in his article titled “Reform, Revivalism and Transformation; Third Millennium Trialectics of urban Turkey and Istanbul”. Ideas on capital accumulation and urban struggle have been highlighted to show the relations between forces of local/urban politics, modes of objection and protest and intentions and/or destinations of renewal and redevelopment models and patterns of Turkish cities.

Ashraf Kamal and Walaa Abdel Mohsen in their article titled “Maintaining a Sustainable Unique Place within Cairo Mega City: Lessons for current development and future prospects on Post Modernity and Hybridization”. The major objective of the research is to observe the transformation of Cairo as a mega city. Emphasis was given to the historical background of Cairo downtown highlighting the potentials and impacts of Al-Ataba place, and providing projections to new places.

Suneela Ahmed in her article titled “An alternative understanding of space: Maqamiat as a tool for Karachi’s urban space design” explores space from a local vantage point, looking inwards for aspiration rather than towards the West or Far East. Sense of social affiliations is highlighted which are very strong amongst the neighbors belonging to ethnically homogenous clusters which gives a sense of security and belonging. This ‘particularity’ is recognized as an intangible aspect of Maqamiat (which roughly translates as localness). Authors Nancy, Yasmin and Suneela are bonded together since their finding reveals a new perspective of ‘localness’, even though where the dwellers live is densely populated. It is amazing that they feel comfortable in this dense environment.

Also read: Megacities in the Global South should strengthen urban governance

This book deserves kudos as it has brought in a new perspective of Maqamiat where the dwellers feel comfortable and secured in the slums although the density is ludicrously high compared to the cities of the west.

Tasleem Shakur founded the first international open access refereed journal and celebrated 20 years of its international existence with an International workshop on ‘Megacities of the Global South in the 2020s’. This was a phenomenal setting where the Global South Megacities debate was brought first to Dhaka. This vital background needs to be acknowledged.

The Journal and Workshops’ objectives had an intention to compile a Volume through a proper anonymous review process. Few authors have acknowledged at the end of their articles.

The Editors have done an excellent job in identifying these seven articles. It gives a flavor of in-depth quality of academia. It brings a breath of fresh air since it ushers in a perspective that the audience was not ready for. But once introduced to this new finding and analysis, the audience of the east have some comfort in stating that the west have something to learn and understand from these deliberations.

Also read: Urbanization destroying agriculture in Hyderabad district

The Workshop report is a piece of workmanship since it summarizes the proceedings in such a professional way that much of the details have been woven with writing dexterity. It is written in an extremely lucid fashion that the readers will find a comfort in immersing themselves immediately with the substance of the workshop. Some of the articles are difficult to comprehend at first reading and the readers would have felt comfortable if it was as lucid as the Workshop report.

 The squatter resettlement at Bhashantek back in the early eighties, which was a topic for a dissertation of MURP, is a stark example of planning a project for the poor gone berserk which ultimately in the nineties transformed itself into a middle class housing area.

This looks like a proper text book. As Prof. Magda Sibley has stated this book would be of a great value and should provide guidance to the academics, planners, architects, engineers, environmentalists, activists and students from Global North and South of the contemporary world to combat the upcoming challenges of ever-increasing mega-urbanization.

Indexing might not be required since it contains full referencing like a standard style journal publication.

The substance of the article in the Book sets a trend of urban population and shows it is skewed towards the global South since it is the most rapidly urbanizing part of the world. ‘Megacities of the South’ are increasingly becoming a political power-group as they are rapidly transforming from consumer to producing societies.

In 1977, the third batch of UN Fellows of the University of Sheffield was taken to the new town Peterborough where the overspill population of London was supposed to be relocated. The retired and the new generation looking for jobs would be the pioneers in this new town.  This planning of the west with a tiny population compared to Dhaka (where I come from) cannot be thought of.  Although decentralization is a popular word, it is restricted to rhetoric. A little bit of hope currently has seen the light of the day since 100 economic zones are being planned in Bangladesh of which ten are already underway? A sizable population has been employed at a southern economic zone at Mirershorai which essentially stopped the exodus of the population to Dhaka and other larger cities.

Also read: The Uncontrolled Urbanization

The squatter resettlement at Bhashantek back in the early eighties, which was a topic for a dissertation of MURP, is a stark example of planning a project for the poor gone berserk which ultimately in the nineties transformed itself into a middle class housing area.

Having visited a few cities of the west, it is obvious for one to observe that the focal point of the city is the river. Both the river Thames in London and river Seine in Paris is observed to have its urban dwellings, market place, malls and other important sites overlooking the river. Not in Dhaka! We have encroached the river by illegally constructing factory buildings, etc. Pollution of the river is continuing with industrial waste, etc. Currently, the government is trying to demarcate all the rivers in Bangladesh. Walkways are being constructed along the rivers. Dredging is taking place in few rivers to make it navigable.  The launch ghat (Station) at Sadarghat has a new look and few urban buildings are being constructed on the river bank.

A few critical comments have to be mentioned. To pursue consistency, if all the articles had an abstract, key words, introduction, methodology, findings, analysis and conclusion section with footnotes and references, then the audience would have less difficulty in perusing the articles.


Dr. Tanvir A. Khan is an Economist and an Urban & Regional Planner; former Vice-Chancellor of Hamdard University Bangladesh; Currently he is the Chairman of Sunnydale School.


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