On the banks of the Buriganga, Old Dhaka’s boatmen only ever rest a moment before making their return journey, endlessly ferrying passengers back and forth across the river.
They pick them up at the Sadarghat docks, the historical trading hub that helped build the city, and row them towards the sprawling suburbs that have crept across what used to be open farmland two decades ago.
Old Dhaka is no longer the economic and political heart of the city, but Sadarghat is still the defining image of its perpetual movement and growth, of commuters living and working across the Buriganga, and new migrants forever stepping off crowded ferries, arriving from the countryside.
Dhaka reflects the trajectory of Bangladesh in the 50 years since independence, on 26 March 1971. At that time it was a small city of a million souls in a poor and underdeveloped nation, after decades of Pakistani neglect.
Now Dhaka is a megacity, an economic hub that has grown chaotically – outwards and upwards – to absorb the 20 million people who live there, with 400,000 arriving each year. Many have migrated with dreams of economic opportunities they cannot find elsewhere.
Asaduzzaman Asad preceded most in his migration to the capital, arriving from the western district of Jhenaidah in 1966, when Dhaka was still the capital of East Pakistan, with the idea of starting a business.
“This town was very small. The number of three-storey buildings were few and you mostly just saw tin-roofed homes. There were ponds and canals and very few people. It was peaceful,” says Asad.
After independence in March 1971, Asad settled in Mohammadpur, an area still taking shape in the newly-settled north of the city. Dhaka was expanding quickly. In some areas the government allocated land for new arrivals to settle on, encouraging more migrants to head to the city. In other places, swathes of wetland and farmland were swallowed up by new neighbourhoods.
New roads made travel and trade easier and Asad reaped personal rewards, with more customers for his grocery shop.
Bangladesh was infamously described as a “basket case” economy in 1971 by Henry Kissinger, who had opposed its creation. Half a century later, the country’s leaders often take pride in pointing out that they have proved him wrong.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted in October the country’s economic growth would still hit 4.4% in 2021 despite the coronavirus pandemic halving the previous year’s growth.
Most of that has been driven by Dhaka-based industries that have spawned a rapidly-growing class of super-rich, who live in leafy neighbourhoods, dine out on international cuisine and shop in gleaming malls or abroad. These industries feed on a constant flow of migrants fleeing deprivation or climate disasters, who move to places like the Kallyanpur and Korail slums, or the suburbs between Dhaka and satellite towns built for garment factories.
“There are problems here. There is also work here. As the crisis in our village increased, I came to Dhaka to find a living,” says Parveen Begum, 45, whose home in the coastal Bhola district was engulfed when the river flooded.
She settled in Kallyanpur, on a patch of government land known as a bosti, and found work in a garment factory. In the decade since, she has seen the area’s bamboo huts replaced first by tin homes and then more solid but haphazard structures along a network of paved alleyways.
Parveen and her husband pay 2,000 taka (£16) a month to rent a single room, in which they must keep the light on permanently because there is no natural light. Outside, the drains regularly clog with sewage.
“It’s not that I’m good here but there are more job opportunities than in the village,” she says. “We don’t want to live in this dirty slum, we’re always wishing we could go back.”
The 300 taka monthly salary Parveen earned when she arrived in Dhaka has increased to 3,600 taka. She believes that unless there is investment in rural Bangladesh the higher wages will compel many more people to leave their villages for the city.
Dhaka could become the world’s fourth most populous megacity by 2030, according to the UN, and few believe the city is well prepared for this growth.
Residential buildings keep getting higher with no regard for planning laws. There is little space between buildings, electricity cables are slung low in a tangled mess and the sewage system, which is still cleaned manually, is routinely overloaded by heavy rains.
Dhaka’s air quality routinely ranks among the worst in the world and the roads are so congested that traffic has slowed to almost walking speeds of 4 mph, down from 13 mph a decade ago.
“Sometimes I think the whole of Dhaka is a bosti, you cannot simply have a decent city life, even if you have a nice apartment,” says Dr Shahadat Hossain, an urban planning expert at the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany.
“You cannot see any park developments, children go to school and come home and stay inside … social infrastructure is absolutely missing,” he says. “Your relation with the city is with your apartment, your workplace and the school your child goes to, but you have no relationship with anything in between because the roads, the community you live in, is foreign to you.”
Hossain says that while industry has thrived, there is been a lack of comprehensive strategy to support the city’s residents. Corruption has made things worse, leaving the powerful able to exploit laws or, in the case of the Keraniganj suburbs, buy up land for affordable housing projects then sell them at prices beyond the reach of ordinary workers.
Asaduzzaman Asad sees benefits in the changes to the small city he came to in 1966. Today his business is thriving and there are opportunities that exist nowhere else in the country. But he is worried the city is becoming an intolerable place to live.
“We need decentralisation, we need good medical treatment in villages, good education and alternative livelihoods,” he says. “We can easily predict the future of Dhaka. If this unplanned development continues, this city will become uninhabitable.”
The UN may have put hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees at risk of persecution or involuntary repatriation back to Myanmar after improperly collecting and sharing refugees’ personal information with Bangladesh, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is urging an investigation.
But the refugees were largely uninformed that their personal data, which included photographs, fingerprints and biographical information, would be passed by the Bangladeshi government on to authorities in Myanmar with a view to possible repatriation, said Lama Fakih, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch.
“The UN refugee agency’s data collection practices with Rohingya in Bangladesh were contrary to the agency’s own policies and exposed refugees to further risk,” said Fakih.
“[A] refugee has the right to control their data, who has access to it, and for what purposes, and UNHCR and other agencies should be accountable to those whose data they hold.”
The UN denied any wrongdoing or policy violations, stating that it had explained all purposes of the data-gathering exercise and obtained consent, according to UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic.
Each Rohingya refugee family was “asked to consent to their data being shared with partners on the ground for the purpose of receiving assistance … [and] separately and expressly asked whether they gave their consent to have their data shared with the government of Myanmar by the government of Bangladesh” to establish right of return, said Mahecic.
But 24 Rohingya refugees interviewed by HRW between September 2020 and March 2021 about their experience registering with UNHCR tell a different story. Of the 24 refugees, 23 said they were never informed the data would be used for anything beyond establishing aid access.
They were given a receipt, in English, with a box ticked stating they had agreed to the data being shared with Myanmar, but only three of the 24 refugees could read English.
One of the three interviewees who could read English said he only realised what had happened after his interview.
“After they took my data, they printed out a receipt. I walked back to my tent, and then I looked at the paper, and noticed that on the top there was a tick box that the person at the centre had marked as ‘yes’ without ever asking me, that my data would be shared with Myanmar,” he said.
“I was so angry when I saw that, but I had already given my data, and I needed services, so I didn’t know what I could do about it.”
Although the sample size of HRW’s research is small, it is likely that their findings are echoed throughout the Rohingya refugee population, said senior HRW researcher Belkis Wille.
“Bangladesh shared the names and details of 830,000 Rohingya with Myanmar, which broadly speaking is the entire Rohingya refugee population that came to Bangladesh. So that would suggest that nobody had any objection to having their data shared with Myanmar, at least in terms of the checkbox on the form,” said Wille.
“It is hard to imagine that not a single person had a concern and said no [to giving consent]. And that is one of the key reasons why we think what we saw in our individual interviews may be what you would see across the broader Rohingya population, which is that they weren’t being asked this question or, if they were, it wasn’t in a way that they understood or in a way that they felt comfortable saying no to.”
Of the 830,000 Rohingya whose data Bangladesh submitted to Myanmar, about 42,000 have been given right to return to their home country. They include 21 of the refugees interviewed by HRW, who said they only knew their data had been shared when they were informed they could return to Myanmar. All 21 have since gone into hiding out of fear of forced repatriation, HRW said.
UNHCR said that “any return to Myanmar must be based on the individual and voluntary choice of refugees” and that the UN would assist returns when conditions are conducive to safe and sustainable return, “which is not currently the case”.
China has joined Russia as an explicit danger to Western allies after a Nato summit in Brussels on Monday (14 June).
“China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security,” the 30 Nato leaders said in a joint communiqué.
“China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal with more warheads and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems,” the statement added.
“It is also cooperating militarily with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area,” it said.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg highlighted the novelty of the text in his post-summit press conference.
“The first time [ever] we mentioned China in a communiqué and a document in a decision from Nato leaders was 18 months ago,” he noted, when Nato spoke of China-linked “opportunities and challenges” back in 2019.
“China’s not an adversary,” Stoltenberg noted.
But he also expanded on the list of its threatening activities.
“They [the Chinese] already have the … second biggest defence budget, and already the biggest navy, and they are investing heavily in new modern capabilities, including by investing in new disruptive technologies such as autonomous systems, facial recognition and artificial intelligence, and putting them into different weapon systems,” he said.
“They are really in the process of changing the nature of warfare,” Stoltenberg said.
He rejected the idea that Nato, whose core task was to defend the North-Atlantic region, was overstepping its treaty boundaries.
“To respond to the challenges we see that China poses to our security, is not about moving Nato to Asia … because we see that China is coming closer to us,” he said.
“We see China coming closer to us in cyber, controlling infrastructure in Africa and the Arctic, training together with Russia in North Atlantic waters,” he added.
The Nato pivot to China did not mean it had abandoned concern on Russia, whose malign activities, from waging war in Ukraine to blowing up warehouses in the Czech Republic, still dominated the communiqué, however.
“Until Russia demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities, there can be no return to ‘business as usual’,” the statement said.
China was named 10 times and Russia 62 times.
Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel also voiced a more China-friendly tone.
“Nato is a military organisation, the issue of our relationship with China isn’t just a military issue. It is economic. It is strategic. It is about values. It is technological,” Macron told press after the summit.
China was a “major power with which we are working on global issues to move forward together” as well as a “competitor”, he noted.
“It’s very important that we don’t … bias our relationship with China,” he said.
“China is not in the North Atlantic,” Macron added, going against Stoltenberg’s line.
“Russia, above all, is a major challenge,” Merkel also said, while noting the Nato communiqué reflected the fact the US was a Pacific-Ocean as well as an Atlantic power.
“If you look at the cyber threats, the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, then you cannot simply negate China … [but] I do not think that we should overestimate the importance of this [Chinese threat],” she added.
For its part, China had not yet responded as of Tuesday morning.
The Nato summit came ahead of US president Joe Biden’s meeting with top EU officials in Brussels on Tuesday and with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday.
It signalled a return to normal after four years in which former US president Donald Trump had questioned the value of Nato and insulted Macron, Merkel, and others, while cozying up to Putin.
Back to normal
Nato’s mutual defence pact was “rock solid” and a “sacred obligation” for the US, Biden said.
“I want all Europe to know that … Nato is critically important to us,” he added.
“With Joe Biden … there is a clear understanding of the necessity of Nato,” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said.
“I was able to work with Trump. Of course, it was a bit more awkward … but with Joe Biden, it’s more natural again,” he added.
Meanwhile, Biden gave away little on what he might say to Putin.
But he sounded more dovish than hawkish by excluding the idea of a Nato membership action plan for Ukraine, on grounds “they [Ukraine] still have to clean up corruption”.
He also said Putin was a “bright” and “tough” adversary.
“I will make clear to president Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses,” Biden said.
The West needed a “robust dialogue” with Russia to “build a security framework for the European continent”, Macron also said.
The Tigray region in Ethiopia faces the grim prospect of a man-made famine. What can be done to end this slide into tribal conflict?
Alexander Mercouris, editor-in-chief at The Duran, and writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law, and Dr. Kenneth Surin, Professor Emeritus of literature and professor of religion and critical theory at Duke University, join us in a conversation about the main takeaways from the G7 summit over the weekend, the proposal of a global minimum global tax rate of 15%, what impact this could have on multinational corporations, and whether we should be hopeful or skeptical about this considering how low the bar has been set for these corporations. We also talk about how many of the conversations were framed within the context of a confrontation with China, by proposing a plan to counter the Belt and Road initiative, and focusing on the issues in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Teodrose Fikremariam, cofounder of Ghion Journal, tells us about the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region in Ethiopia, including the involvement of Eritrean troops in the conflict and why they are there, claims that there is a risk of a man-made famine in Tigray and how there have been episodes of collective punishment. We also talk about how this conflict has brought a new tribalism into the forefront, how the portrayal of the Tigray authorities as victims in Western media is not completely accurate, taking into consideration that they began hostilities, and how international multilateral and regional organizations do not have the capacity or understanding of the situation to work as honest brokers in the conflict.
John Feffer, Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, joins us to talk about the NATO summit taking place in Brussels this week, how the organization is yet again trying to redefine its mission and find its purpose, and whether they will be able maintain their membership as the justification for its existence seems to change every year. We also talk about the continued withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the establishment of permanent airbases in the region.