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OP-ED: Down the streets of Dhaka

  • Published at 12:28 am August 31st, 2021
Dhaka streets
Each street offers something unique BIGSTOCK

Every street in every city has its own ways of life

Dhaka has been repeatedly labelled as one of the least liveable cities in the world. And policy-makers on different occasions have expressed their wishes for transforming the city. As a result, the city development plans aim to model Dhaka like the “liveable” or Western cities, having certain urban forms -- shopping malls, parks, high rise buildings, entertainment zones, etc. Hence, in our imagination, we see a city with dazzling lights, tall buildings, and so-called modern amenities for the citizens. 

But we tend to forget the streets that lay behind the lime-lights of cities. These streets of the areas that fall outside the city’s centre usually remain obscured by the rhetoric of development but are a melting pot for many aspects of society. The connecting streets have much significance in city dwellers’ lives. 

The affordable areas of Dhaka are connected by relatively narrower streets with the main road that then leads to the city centre. While the main roads are filled with tall buildings, neon lights, and billboards, the narrower connecting streets differ. These streets have many potholes; there are no walkways and, in many cases, no streetlights. If we notice carefully, such streets reflect a lot about our city.

The first thing that we notice is that these streets are hubs for economic activities, such as vending activities. While mobile vendors constantly move around these streets selling their goods, semi-mobile vendors sell at different points at different times. Some semi-permanent vendors sit at the same place every day. Then, of course, many permanent shops and stalls sell various products and services. 

The services from the street vendors are usually inexpensive compared to the super-markets or comparatively bigger shops. Thus, it somehow contributes to the survival of the people with limited income. 

These streets -- public spaces -- are also used by the many printing presses, bakeries, varieties of mini-factories, small offices, construction sites, etc as temporary storage facilities. The use of the streets as storage spaces and for vending somehow restricts the accessibility through these streets.

These public spaces play essential roles for people during their free or leisure time. For example, many young people, specifically males, spend considerable time in the tea stalls gossiping. 

Sometimes during holidays, children play football and cricket n the streets. However, one finds a gender division; while young males gather in the small stalls to chat with friends, young females are not particularly part of these activities.

Besides these everyday activities, there are some extra-everyday activities where the public spaces play different yet vital roles. For example, some people pray in the streets during the Jumma prayers, finding no room in the mosques that are filled with too many people on Fridays. 

During the month of Ramadan, we find carts of different sellers of iftar items in the afternoon. During this time of the year, the snack stalls are veiled with a big piece of clothing to create a barrier in the public space -- where those not fasting can eat while staying out of the public gaze. 

And during Eid-ul Adha, most people slaughter the sacrificial animals on the streets before processing the meat within the households. During the other cultural celebrations, like New Year’s Eve, these streets become a place for socializing, as many young people from the area get together. Thus, these streets are central to national celebrations and events. 

The ways public spaces are used indicate public sentiments attached to the places and culture. Since the public spaces are variously used, there are multiple interests in accessing these, and users actively contribute to forming these. 

To “develop” our cities like a Western city, urban planners propose to renovate or replace the less developed parts. Public and private initiatives are taken to build new roads, shops, gated communities, industrial complexes, hotels, restaurants, and public buildings or commercial spaces for greater economic returns. 

In the capillaries of streets, we find many real estate development activities. These also reconfigure the nature of public spaces and socialization possibilities. 

At the same time, upscale areas in Dhaka have gradually been trying to mark their boundaries -- they have placed barricades or large metal gates on entrances, and vehicles can pass only if they have required permits. 

Guards usually secure the entrances of these new enclosures, and the inside is often patrolled by security personnel to ensure “restricted access” to residents’ homes. Even streets and parks within the enclosures are exclusive for the residents. Thereby, we face new forms of neighbourhood segregation and a “fear of others.”

It is no exaggeration to claim, spaces are social products, and streets are crucial constituents of urban livelihood assets, especially for the poor. Moreover, streets host differentiated power structures. 

Thus, streets, like other public spaces with multiple dimensions, constantly remain in flux and never static -- that must be considered for any planned change or development per se. 

The city streets reflect a critique of the idea of the Western metropolis as a bounded entity having coherent civic life within specific spatial formations. With its possibilities and constraints, modern urban life has produced new subjects, solidarities, and meanings. 

City living is not limited to mass forms of everyday life, taste, and entertainment; instead, every street in every city has its own ways of life.    

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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