Bangladeshi villages and hamlets are often very picturesque. The are very lush and green and often have bamboo groves, banyan trees, mahogany, palms, mangoes and bananas. Rice paddies stretch off in the distance. A bari is a traditional cluster of relatives homes around a courtyard. A number of bari grouped together is a hamlet (“para” or “adam”). A number of hamlets comprise a village (“gram”), also known as a revenue village (“mouza”)

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Bangladesh is still primarily a rural culture, and the gram or village is an important spatial and cultural concept even for residents of the major cities. Most people identify with a natal or ancestral village in the countryside. The village household is a patrilineal extended compound linked to a pond used for daily household needs, a nearby river that provides fish, trees that provide fruit (mango and jackfruit especially), and rice fields. The village and the household not only embody important natural motifs but serve as the locus of ancestral family identity. Urban dwellers try to make at least one trip per year to "their village." [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The official recognized unit of rural settlement in Bengal is known as a mauza or “revenue village,” whose boundaries were surveyed and determined in the British era for purpose of administration and taxation. There are more that 68,000 of these villages in Bangladesh and 40,000 in West Bengal. A typical rural community in the low-lying delta region has 100 to 1,000 people and is comprised of one or more hamlets of peasant homesteads built on land intentionally raised to avoid monsoon flooding. Houses are set up in a linear fashion along canals and other waterways.

Family and Kin Groups in Bangladesh

Family and kinship have been the core of social life in Bangladesh for a long time. The most common unit is the patrilineally-related extended family living in a household called a bari. A bari is composed of a husband and wife, their unmarried children, and their adult sons with their wives and children. Grandparents also may be present, as well as patrilineally-related brothers, cousins, nieces, and nephews. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

A family group residing in a bari would function as the basic unit of economic endeavor, landholding, and social identity. In the eyes of rural people, the chula defined the effective household — an extended family exploiting jointly held property and being fed from a jointly operated kitchen. A bari might consist of one or more such functional households, depending on the circumstances of family relationship. Married sons generally lived in their parents' household during the father's lifetime. Although sons usually built separate houses for their nuclear families, they remained under their fathers' authority, and wives under their mothers-in-law's authority. The death of the father usually precipitated the separation of adult brothers into their own households. Such a split generally caused little change in the physical layout of the bari, however. Families at different stages of the cycle would display different configurations of household membership. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Patrilineal ties dominated the ideology of family life, but in practice matrilineal ties were almost as important. Married women provided especially important links between their husbands' brothers' families. Brothers and sisters often visited their brothers' households, which were in fact the households of their deceased fathers. By Islamic law, women inherited a share of their fathers' property and thus retained a claim on the often scanty fields worked by their brothers. By not exercising this claim, however, they did their brothers the important service of keeping the family lands in the patrilineal line and thus ensured themselves a warm welcome and permanent place in their brothers' homes *

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: The patrilineal descent principle is important, and the lineage is very often localized within a geographic neighborhood in which it constitutes a majority. Lineage members can be called on in times of financial crisis, particularly when support is needed to settle local disputes. Lineages do not meet regularly or control group resources. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Settlement Growth Patterns of Bangladesh

In the late 1980s, about 82 percent of the population of Bangladesh (a total of 15.1 million households) resided in rural areas. With the exception of parts of Sylhet and Rangamati regions, where settlements occurred in nucleated or clustered patterns, the villages were scattered collections of homesteads surrounded by trees. Continuous strings of settlements along the roadside were also common in the southeastern part of the country. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Until the 1980s, Bangladesh was the most rural nation in South Asia. In 1931 only 27 out of every 1,000 persons were urban dwellers in what is now Bangladesh. In 1931 Bangladesh had fifty towns; by 1951 the country had eighty-nine towns, cities, and municipalities. During the 1980s, industrial development began to have a small effect on urbanization. The 1974 census had put the urban population of Bangladesh at 8.8 percent of the total; by 1988 that proportion had reached 18 percent and was projected to rise to 30 percent by the year 2000. *

In 1981 only two cities, Dhaka and Chittagong, had more than 1 million residents. Seven other cities — Narayanganj, Khulna, Barisal, Saidpur, Rajshahi, Mymensingh, and Comilla — each had more than 100,000 people. Of all the expanding cities, Dhaka, the national capital and the principal seat of culture, had made the most gains in population, growing from 335,928 in 1951 to 3.4 million in 1981. In the same period, Chittagong had grown from 289,981 to 1.4 million. A majority of the other urban areas each had between 20,000 and 50,000 people. These relatively small towns had grown up in most cases as administrative centers and geographically suitable localities for inland transportation and commercial facilities. There was no particular concentration of towns in any part of the country. In fact, the only large cities close to each other were Dhaka and Narayanganj.*

Housing in Bangladesh

According to “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “Housing has long been a vital concern in Bangladesh. The government maintains an urban housing program but does not have any housing development program for villages. The House Building Finance Corp. lends money for private as well as public housing. Dhaka and Chittagong urban development is conducted under the guidance of town planning authorities, which develops land and allocates it for private dwelling and commercial purposes. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“As of the 2001 census, there were about 25.36 million house-holds with the average household contained 4.8 persons, down from 5.5 people in 1991. Over 76 percent of the population live in rural areas. Bamboo is still an important building material, used often for interior dividing walls, pillars, or crossbars on roofs. In rural areas, cane, jute, wood, mud bricks, and corrugated iron sheets are primary building materials for homes. Some rural villages still feature thatched huts. Traditional dwellings are typically separate homes, with some styles featuring an inner courtyard and/or rooms on elevated platforms. Row houses have been built in urban areas.

“Since 1996, the government has launched a number of programs focusing on poverty and homelessness. The Asrayon ("shelter") program provided group housing and agricultural plots on government land for about 50,000 families according to a 2002 estimate. The Gahrey Phera ("return home") program helped displaced rural families return to their villages. The Grihayan Tahabil (Housing Fund) was established through the Bangladesh Bank as a way to provide loans to nongovernment organization that endeavor to build shelters for the urban poor.

Houses in Bangladesh

Many people in Bangladesh live in huts with thatch roofs and bamboo walls and floors. In places where flooding is a possibility houses are built on stilts or mounds or have large ditches built around them to absorb excess water. Cooking is often done in an outdoor open kitchen. In some places you can find painted tin houses.

The walls and beams of a typical Bangladeshi house are constructed of two- to three-inch thick bamboo poles. The bamboo sometimes originates in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and is floated downstream in long trains and then carried by men or bullock carts to where the houses are built. It costs about $500 to build a bamboo-hut-style home in Bangladesh.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Houses in villages are commonly rectangular, and are dried mud, bamboo, or red brick structures with thatch roofs. Many are built on top of earthen or wooden platforms to keep them above the flood line. Houses have little interior decoration, and wall space is reserved for storage. Houses have verandas in the front, and much of daily life takes place under their eaves rather than indoors. A separate smaller mud or bamboo structure serves as a kitchen (rana ghor ), but during the dry season many women construct hearths and cook in the household courtyard. Rural houses are simple and functional, but are not generally considered aesthetic showcases. [Source:“Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Bengali Homes

Peasant homesteads are typically comprised of extended families broken down into households consisting of nuclear families and men and their dependents, which form landholding and cultivating units. Scattered among the hamlets are “standard marketing areas,” which serve both as sites for regular markets and political centers for rural communities in a given area.

Dwellings in the delta area typically made from dense mud using techniques that are sophisticated enough to make buildings two or three stories in height. Homesteads typically have animal shelters, fruit-bearing trees and pond often constructed when mud was excavated to make house. The pond provides water for bathing, laundry and fish. The poor generally have houses with thatch roofs. Those who are better off can afford corrugated metal t roofs. The poorest of the poor often live houses made completely of bamboo.

In an article on Bangladeshi village life, Kamran Nahar wrote: “In most villages, thatched huts have either two or four slanting roofs. Construction materials are different, depending on what are locally available and on one’s economic condition, but usually bamboo, wood, tin, jute sticks or mud for wall and straw, tile, tin or leaves for roofs. [Source: “Bangladesh Culture: A Study of the South Para of Village ‘Silimpur’” by Kamrun Nahar, September 2, 2006]

“Most houses in Silimpur were of two or four slanting roofs of tin before. But walls were constructed with loamy soil, which were locally available. Many rooms belonged to each house, which proved that joint family system was prevalent in those days. There were two big yards inside and outside, as far as we know, for the convenience of paddy processing and an enclosure, made of mud. Also, every house had a cattle-shed outside and an adherent garden, full of fruit trees, such as mango, jack-fruit, black berry, litchi, guava, date, palm, Boroi, Sofeda (a kind of melon), the rose-apple, kamranga (a sour fruit), olive etc. The present picture is different though. Many brick-built houses, which are the same style as between a hut and a flat, are standing now, because still the roofs are of tin. Yards have become smaller inside and no yard outside. Those flourishing gardens have already gone, though a few are still alive with under-nourishment and thought to be occupied by new buildings in the future. [Source: “Bangladesh Culture: A Study of the South Para of Village ‘Silimpur’” by Kamrun Nahar, September 2, 2006]

Brick 'Recycling' Threatens Bangladesh Ancient City

According to AFP: When Abdus Sattar built his house in Mahasthangarh village in northern Bangladesh, he used materials that once laid the foundations of one of the world's oldest and greatest cities. The stripping away of sections of the ruins by residential encroachment and the casual looting of artifacts has threatened to erase the remains of a city that stood for millennia. “I just shovelled into the ground, got these bricks and used them in my new house," Sattar, 38, said. "All three rooms of the house were made of the old bricks we found here within the village boundary." [Source: AFP, August 22, 2012]

“Mahasthangarh sits on what was once the ancient city of Pundranagar, built 2,500 years ago and, at its height, a renowned seat of learning whose monasteries attracted monks from China and Tibet and trained them to spread Buddhist teachings across south and east Asia. The oldest archaeological site in what is now Bangladesh, the ruins of the fortified city are a major tourist attraction, but experts fear there will soon be little left for visitors to see.

“The Global Heritage Fund, which promotes the preservation of historic architectural treasures around the world, listed Mahasthangarh among Asia's top 10 most endangered sites facing "irreparable loss and destruction". After a Bangladesh court handed down an order against illegal squatters early this year, houses like Sattar's began to be demolished, but archaeologists say much of the damage already done is now irreversible. “The villagers destroyed some of the ruins so badly that it's now impossible to say what exactly was on this site," said Shafiqul Alam, former head of the government's archaeology bureau. “Many of the mounds described in cartographic sources have since disappeared," said Alam. Despite the court order, "the destruction continues... and villagers steal antiquities and bricks from the ruins to sell them in the market," he added.

“Antiquities found at the site suggest it was founded sometime in the 4th century BC and came to prominence during the great Mauryan dynasty that held sway over much of the Indian subcontinent until 185 BC. Its golden period stretched from the 4th to the 7th century when, as part of the Gupta and Pala kingdoms, it was one of the largest cities in the world and a major center of Buddhist teaching and studies. The fortified area was still in use as late as the 18th century, but its influence had waned and it was eventually abandoned and consumed by the surrounding vegetation.

“The site was rediscovered in 1879 by British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham. The current chief government archaeologist at the site, M. Sadequzzaman, said encroachment began around 50 years ago and acknowledged that the early warning signs of serious degradation were ignored.

“While some 500 houses were built inside the ancient city walls themselves — mostly using excavated materials — numerous villages sprang up in adjoining areas of equally important archaeological interest. “The houses were built before the authorities could take a serious stand on conservation," Sadequzzaman said. "We were late to wake up. Had we tried to stop this before, we could have saved many valuable artifacts."

“Mahasthangarh's modern-day residents, like Sattar, believe they have been unfairly treated and deny that they took over the land illegally. “My three children were born here," Sattar said, pointing to the bulldozed remains of his home. “If we were illegal encroachers, why did they allow us to build the house in the first place?"

“Sattar said his father purchased the plot from a farmer and argued that scavenging on the site had always been an accepted way of making a living. “Hundreds of houses were built from these old bricks. We didn't steal them, they are everywhere here. Everyone does it. Nobody barred us from doing it," he said. “Families have always picked things like beads, stones, coins that come to the surface after heavy rains. They are like endless resources, they never end," he added.

Possessions and Furniture in Bangladesh

People sleep in village homes generally on thin bamboo mats or wooden platforms. Furniture is minimal, often consisting only of low stools. The weather is so constantly hot in Bangladesh that almost every building has a ceiling fan, which in turn means that one of the most important items in this bureaucratic country is a paperweight.

In an article on Bangladeshi village life, Kamran Nahar wrote: “ In 1950, people used earthen and aluminium vessels as well as bell-metallic dishes and pots. Earthen pitchers were used in almost every house to keep water cool. When guests came, they served with porcelains. Now utensils of mainly aluminium, glass and melamine is favorite to all. [Source: “Bangladesh Culture: A Study of the South Para of Village ‘Silimpur’” by Kamrun Nahar, September 2, 2006]

Television sets per 1,000 people in the mid 2000s: 59 in Bangladesh; 84 in Low-income countries; 735 in high-income countries; and 938 in the United States. [Source: World Bank, CIA. World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C.]

Urban Life in Bangladesh

Urban population: 38.2 percent of total population in 2020 (compared to 83 percent in Great Britain and 21 percent in Ethiopia).
rate of urbanization: 3.17 percent annual rate of change (2015-20 estimated)
Major urban areas: Dhaka (capital): 21.006 million; Chittagong: , 5.020 million; Khulna: , 954,000; Rajshahi: 908,000; Sylhet: 852,000 (2020) [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

In 1998 over 80 percent of Bangladeshis lived in rural areas, During the last two decades the growth of the population in the urban areas has increased twice as fast as in rural areas (due to both the migration of the rural population and the high birth rate). The rapid growth of the urban population is especially noticeable in the urban centers of Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, and Rajshahi. The UN estimated that 23 percent of the population lived in urban areas in 2005, and that urban areas were growing at an annual rate of 3.45 percent.

Dhaka has grown enormously in the late 20th century and early 21st century to become a "megacity" of over 20 million; some 20 percent of all Bangladeshis now live in Dhaka. By some reckonings it could be the largest city in the world. No one is sure how many people live there.

Life in the cities is more similar to life in the West. There is fast food, clubs, theaters. More and more people moving to the cities in search of work. Urban sprawl eats up land needed for agriculture. According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: “Urbanization is proceeding rapidly, and it is estimated that only 30 percent of the population entering the labor force in the future will be absorbed into agriculture, although many will likely find other kinds of work in rural areas. The areas around Dhaka and Comilla are the most densely settled. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

In 1988 about 18 percent of the population lived in urban areas, most of which were villages or trade centers in rural areas. Urban centers grew in number and population during the 1980s as a result of an administrative decentralization program that featured the creation of subdistricts. In appearance these small urban areas were generally shabby. Most of the urban population merely congregated in ramshackle structures with poor sanitation and an almost total lack of modern amenities. Towns were populated mostly by government functionaries, merchants, and other business personnel. Most dwellings contained nuclear families and some extended family lodgers. A few households or a neighborhood would constitute a para, which might develop some cohesiveness but would have no formal leadership structure. With the exception of a small number of transients, most town populations consisted of permanent inhabitants who maintained connections with their ancestral villages through property or family ties. Most towns had social and sporting clubs and libraries. Unlike in the rural areas, kinship ties among the town population were limited and fragile. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Dhaka: the Megacity

Dhaka grew from 400,000 in 1950 to 6 million in 1990 to 16 million in 2005. It reached 20 million between 2015 and 2020. With annual growth of 6 percent it is one the fastest growing — if not THE fastest growing — cities in the world. In 2025, the population is expected to be 25 million. A quarter to a third of Dhaka’s population lives in slums. More than 600,000 human-powered bicycle rickshaws, more than anywhere else on the world, ply the streets.

Like many Indian cities, Dhaka is dirty and polluted. Some people wear surgical masks as precautions against air pollution. The water in the Buriganga River is foul; strange substance trickle down the gutters. The streets are filled with pedestrians, cars, and rickshaws: all fighting for space and ignoring traffic laws, result in rush-hour-like gridlock around the clock. Dhaka can't collect all the trash it produces. So garbage just collects and rots. Since Bangladesh is short of funds for improvements, it is unlikely the situation will improve any time soon.

As of the early 2000s, according to the World Bank, about one third of Dhaka’s 12 million residents lacked sanitation facilities. Often a disgusting neighborhood outhouse is the only “facility” available. Almost one third lacked safe drinking water. You can see men urinating in a gutter, smoking and having a conversation.

Habibul Haque Khondker wrote in Global Dialogue: “The zoning laws of the city are rarely enforced. The urban landscape is a mish mash of smart residential areas woven with commercial districts. Urban problems are most visible on the street with snarled up traffic that makes Dhaka one of most anarchic cities in the world. Bangladesh has made reasonable progress in reducing poverty. The problems of Dhaka lie in the governance of the city. Dhaka is managed in part by the various ministries of the central government as well as the mayor’s office, resulting in complicated problems of coordination. Since the national government is run by the Awami League and the city mayor is from the rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party, it becomes a political problem. The two parties do not see eye to eye on most national issues with sharp ideological differences between them. [Source: Habibul Haque Khondker, Global Dialogue, International Sociological Association]

Dhaka: the World’s Most Crowded City

According to UN Habitat, Dhaka is the world’s most crowded city.Poppy McPherson wrote in The Guardian: “With more than 44,500 people sharing each square kilometre of space, and more migrating in from rural areas every day, the capital is literally bursting at the seams – and the sewers.” The infrastructure “is groaning under the weight of the population. [Source: Poppy McPherson, The Guardian, March 21, 2018]

“Overpopulation is usually defined as the state of having more people in one place that can live there comfortably, or more than the resources available can cater for. By that measure, Dhaka is a textbook example. “There are cities bigger in size than Dhaka in the world,” says Prof Nurun Nabi, project director at the department of population sciences at the University of Dhaka (“They call me Population Man. Like Superman,” he says). “But if you talk in terms of the characteristics and nature of the city, Dhaka is the fastest growing megacity in the world, in terms of population size.”

“Cities can be densely populated without being overpopulated. Singapore, a small island, has a high population density – about 10,200 per square kilometers – but few people would call it overpopulated. The city has grown upwards to accommodate its residents in high-rises, some with rooftop “sky-gardens” and running tracks. Overpopulation happens when a city grows faster than it can be managed. “The government has been trying to manage Dhaka city well, but has not been as successful as expected,” says Sujon, the sewer cleaner, over a creamy cup of cha, Bangladeshi tea, in the modest flat he shares with his family in bustling central Dhaka. Outside, painted rickshaws tinkle through narrow, waterlogged streets.

“To live in Dhaka is to suffer, to varying degrees. The poor are crammed into sprawling shantytowns, where communicable diseases fester and fires sporadically raze homes. Slum-dwellers make up around 40% of the population. The middle and upper classes spend much of their time stuck in interminable traffic jams. The capital regularly tops “least liveable cities” rankings. This year it sat behind Lagos, Nigeria, and the capitals of war-ravaged Libya and Syria.

“It wasn’t always like this. In the 1960s, before Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in 1971, Nabi recalls, it was possible to drive down empty roads in Dhaka. People bathed in Mughal-era canals in the old part of the city, which is still home to centuries-old architecture, although much has been razed in pursuit of development. The canals have been filled in, cutting off a vital source of drainage.

“Like much of the world, Bangladesh has undergone rapid, unplanned urbanisation. The economic opportunities conferred by globalisation, as well as climate-induced disasters in rural and coastal areas, have driven millions to seek better fortune in the capital, putting a strain on resources. “We can see a huge avalanche coming towards the city from the rural areas,” says Nabi. “People are pouring, pouring, pouring in. Do we have the housing infrastructure to accommodate them? Where are the facilities for poor people to live?” Bangladesh’s reluctance to decentralise and invest in cities beyond Dhaka has compounded the problem, he says. “You go to India, just the neighbouring country, you will find Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, so many cities where you can live,” says Nabi. “You can survive. Here, we only have Dhaka still.”

Dhaka as an Example of ‘Poor-Country Urbanisation’ and Slumization

Historically, urbanization went hand in hand with industrialization. In the developing world urbanization often occurs without employment-generating-industrialization or even informal work so the result is large concentrations of the poor. Poppy McPherson wrote in The Guardian: “For most of modern history, cities grew out of wealth. Even in more recently developed countries, such as China and Korea, the flight towards cities has largely been in line with income growth. But recent decades have brought a global trend for “poor-country urbanisation”, in the words of Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser, with the proliferation of low-income megacities. According to Glaeser’s , in 1960 most countries with a per capita income of less than $1,000 had urbanisation rates of under 10%. By 2011, the urbanisation rate of less developed countries stood at 47%. [Source: Poppy McPherson, The Guardian, March 21, 2018]

“In other words, urbanisation has outpaced development, resulting in the creation of teeming but dysfunctional megacities such as Dhaka. Dense urban populations, Glaeser writes, bring benefits such as social and creative movements as well as scourges like disease and congestion. “Almost all of these problems can be solved by competent governments with enough money,” he writes. In ancient Rome, Julius Caesar successfully fought traffic by introducing a daytime ban on the driving of carts in the city. Baghdad and Kaifeng, China, meanwhile, were renowned for their waterworks. “These places didn’t have wealth, but they did have a competent public sector,” writes Glaeser.

“In much of the developing world today, both are in short supply. In Dhaka, management of the city falls to a chaotic mix of competing bodies. “The lack of coordination between government agencies that provide services is one of the major obstacles,” says Nabi. But dysfunctional administrations have not always been an obstacle to getting things done in Bangladesh. The country has won praise for its adaptation-focused response to climate change. And some urbanists are rethinking the prevailing negative view of slums, while urbanisation – which tends to bring declining birth rates – can be a partial solution to overpopulation. Glaeser points out that social movements formed in the confines of urban areas can have the power to change and discipline governments. “Many stories will be written by the people of this nation – forget about the political parties,” says Nabi. “Someday they will wake up and be forced to comply with their speech.”

Habibul Haque Khondker wrote in Global Dialogue: “Of Dhaka’s estimated population of 15 million, 28% are poor and live in the slums. It is “slumization” rather than urbanization. Slums in Dhaka signal the growth of the informal sector of the economy. Majority of the slum-dwellers are actively engaged in the urban economy; some are rickshaw drivers, others – mostly women — work as part-time domestics for the middle class households. The recent growth of apparel industries located in Dhaka has also attracted a huge number of rural women who have found employment, thereby further adding to the city population. [Source: Habibul Haque Khondker, Global Dialogue, International Sociological Association]

Space Considerations in Dhaka

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Because of the population density, space is at a premium. People of the same sex interact closely, and touching is common. On public transportation strangers often are pressed together for long periods. In public spaces, women are constrained in their movements and they rarely enter the public sphere unaccompanied. Men are much more free in their movement. The rules regarding the gender differential in the use of public space are less closely adhered to in urban areas than in rural areas. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Fayeka Zabeen Siddiqua wrote in the Daily Star: “ Terming Dhaka as a “square-feet city,” architect Abid Hasan Noor claims that its populace are more concerned in having a large personal space rather than sacrificing one extra square feet for a common space. “Dhaka has become such an expensive city for living that if you want to enjoy a neighbourhood you need to pay for it,” he opines. “For example, if we design a living space with the facilities of having more common spaces like a library, a community hall, a meeting place and a playground, you need to pay extra money to live in such a flat.” “This city is facing such space restraints that we are left with the bare minimum space for residence,” he adds. ““At present if we design a wide stair landing, most of our clients would term that space as wasted space. The architects can provide you with common space for activities and performances, but the real question is, do people feel the necessity for them?” he asks. [Source: Fayeka Zabeen Siddiqua, Daily Star, July 11, 2014]

Dhaka’s Overloaded Sewers

Dhaka is only 25 feet above sea level. It is often flooded in the monsoon season. Its sewers are a mess. Poppy McPherson wrote in The Guardian: “During Bangladesh’s relentless monsoon season, Dhaka is submerged several times a month. The overburdened drains clog and the low-lying city fills with water like a bathtub. Newspapers such as the Dhaka Tribune bemoan the inundation with pictures of flooded buses and quotes from peeved commuters and despondent urban experts: “Dhaka underwater again”; “It’s the same old story.” [Source: Poppy McPherson, The Guardian, March 21, 2018]

“Seven different government departments – including two separate mayors – are working to combat waterlogging, an arrangement that has led to a farcical game of buck-passing. In July, mayor of south Dhaka Sayeed Khokon the Water Supply and Sewage Authority (Wasa) was liable but could not “be seen much at work”. Wasa subsequently blamed Khokon. Elsewhere, north Dhaka’s late mayor Annisul Huq, also visiting waterlogged areas, in exasperation and asked: “Someone tell me what is the solution?”

“Taqsem Khan, Wasa’s managing director, says that, since natural sources of drainage are scarce, the government has to pump water out of the city through several thousand kilometres of pipeline laid across the city. “The reason why there is water congestion in Dhaka city is because it’s a megacity – its population growth is too high,” he says. “Wasa once worked for six million people, but today there are about 15 million people … That is the reason why the natural water bodies and water drainage systems have been destroyed and housing has been built up.” In 2013, the city signed a deal to dredge some of the canals – following the example of Sylhet, another Bangladeshi city suffering from waterlogging – but there has been little sign of progress.

Traffic Woes and Transportation in Dhaka

According to ASIRT: “Many roads are poorly maintained. Main roads are congested. The city’s road crash fatality rate is among the world’s highest. Roads are highly congested. Traffic delays have tripled in the last three years. Little space is available to expand existing infrastructure. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT): PDF, 2007:]

“The road mix consists of cars, buses, trucks, three- wheeled taxi, thousands of bicycle rickshaws and pedestrians. Utility companies must dig ditches along sections of roads to repair or expand services. Dirt, pipes, etc. may be left on road, blocking traffic flow. Work areas are often unmarked and lack warning lights or reflectors.

“Low-lying areas of the city are often flooded during storms. Repair of flood-damaged roads is slow.Public transportation is underdeveloped. Inefficient bus stations and the absence of bus-only lanes and designated bus stops contribute to congestion.Inter-city train tracks intersect roads at same-level crossings even in the largest business districts. Trains run at 15 minute intervals, slowing travel by road or foot. Parking is difficult to find.

“Traffic laws are frequently violated on one-way streets and wide roads such as Dhaka Airport Road, Mohakhali flyover (overpass), Mirpur and Shahbagh roads and Manik Mia Avenue. Speed limit signs are generally lacking. Speed limits are not enforced. Police lack speed monitoring equipment. Bus and truck drivers contribute to high road crash rate and traffic congestion. Drivers often park illegally, blocking main roads. Drivers seldom yield to non-motorized traffic or lower lights.

Truck drivers tend to drive more recklessly after midnight, due to the lack of police. They generally ignore the 7am to 7pm ban on driving trucks in the city. Baby-taxis (three-wheeled autorickshaws) and diesel buses add to air pollution levels. Speed bumps are common near schools and markets.Use caution when walking, especially after dark, due to high road crash risk. Sidewalks, footbridges and pedestrian crossing signals are often lacking. Pedestrians seldom use existing footbridges. Some elderly and handicapped are not able to climb the steps.”

Rural Life in Bangladesh

Rural population: 61.8 percent of total population in 2020 (compared to 17 percent in Great Britain and 79 percent in Ethiopia). Most Bangladeshis live in rural rice-growing communities. The Sundarbans, an area of coastal tropical jungle in the southwest, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts on the southeastern border with Myanmar and India, are the least densely populated parts of Bangladesh. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

There are about 86,000 villages in Bangladesh. About one third of the worlds two million villages are in India-Pakistan-Bangladesh. In the 1990s about 80 percent of the population was rural and 60 percent was landless. Most of these are peasant farmers who raise rice. The countryside is a mosaic of rice paddies.

About 10 percent of the rural household possess about 50 percent of the arable land. During the busy times of the year, villagers generally work from dawn to dusk tending their crops and animals. One Bangladeshi woman asked Hillary Clinton on her visit to South Asia in 1995, "Do you have cows in your home?"

In an article on Bangladeshi village life, Kamran Nahar wrote: “Culture is called ‘the total way of life of a people’. John H. Bodley says, ‘Culture involves at least three components: what people think, what they do, and the material products they produce. It includes traditional shared beliefs, values, customs, behavior, and artifacts of the members of a society, transmitted from generation to generation through socialization. Also, these components will partly be changed in every age by adapting themselves with modern ideas and technology. There is a smell of accordance in the culture of Bangladesh, especially of rural areas, while her most parts are villages. The same style of housing, clothing, food, ideas, values etc. are found there. Even folk tales, literature, puzzles, paradoxes, songs and dances of various areas are, though with a little difference, very close to each other. In spite of all these accordance in the culture of Bangladesh, every village has originality with some unique features and tradition, different from the others’, as an individual’s behaviors are, in many ways, different from those of a crowd. [Source: “Bangladesh Culture: A Study of the South Para of Village ‘Silimpur’” by Kamrun Nahar, September 2, 2006]

Rural Society in Bangladesh

The basic social unit in a village is the family (paribar or gushti), generally consisting of a complete or incomplete patrilineally extended household (chula) and residing in a homestead (bari). The individual nuclear family often is submerged in the larger unit and might be known as the house (ghar). Above the bari level, patrilineal kin ties are linked into sequentially larger groups based on real, fictional, or assumed relationships. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

A significant unit larger than that of close kin is the voluntary religious and mutual benefit association known as the "the society" (samaj or millat). Among the functions of a samaj might be the maintenance of a mosque and support of a mullah. An informal council of samaj elders (matabdars or sardars) settles village disputes. Factional competition between the matabdars is a major dynamic of social and political interaction.*

Groups of homes in a village are called paras, and each para has its own name. Several paras constitute a mauza, the basic revenue and census survey unit. The traditional character of rural villages was changing in the latter half of the twentieth century with the addition of brick structures of one or more stories scattered among the more common thatched bamboo huts.*

Although farming has traditionally ranked among the most desirable occupations, villagers in the 1980s began to encourage their children to leave the increasingly overcrowded countryside to seek more secure employment in the towns. Traditional sources of prestige, such as landholding, distinguished lineage, and religious piety were beginning to be replaced by modern education, higher income, and steadier work. These changes, however, did not prevent rural poverty from increasing greatly. According to the FY 1986 Household Expenditure Survey conducted by the Ministry of Planning's Bureau of Statistics, 47 percent of the rural population was below the poverty line, with about 62 percent of the poor remaining in extreme poverty. The number of landless rural laborers also increased substantially, from 25 percent in 1970 to 40 percent in 1987. *

Village Life in Bangladesh

In the article on a village named Silimpur,Kamran Nahar wrote: To research the “originality or uniqueness” of this village were collected information through face to face interviews of some people, who inhabit the south para of Silimpur. In this respect, questions with the request of independent answers are used to gather information. Also, observation and empirical methods are used too, since the author has come in close contact with the people of this area for 25 years. Limitations This study has some limitations. Since Silimpur is a large village with five paras (neighborhoods), this is difficult to discuss on all the areas in this very short time of making an assignment. So, only one para named ‘the South Para’ is taken under the consideration and scrutinized to discover all things. [Source: “Bangladesh Culture: A Study of the South Para of Village ‘Silimpur’” by Kamrun Nahar, September 2, 2006 \=]

“Silimpur is a historical village near Bogra district town in Bangladesh. Many are either startled or simper or frown, even simply after hearing the name ‘Silimpur’. What the name is! They think or say. It’s not unusual to think so, since the name itself bears a magical touch. Imagine that there lived a king, either kind or cruel, who knows, with his all pomp and power. His name was Selim Khan. People say, in British Period, the English couldn’t utter Selim; they called him Silum. The area, he reigned, was called Silimpur. His palace is ruined, but people feel proud to say that once there was a palace here, though they have little knowledge about how it really looked like and what it symbolized for. /=/

“An excellent historical story or myth is wrapped with the name of King Selim. It is said that the king once dreamt of a dream, which he considered as an omen going to happen after his mother’s death. He saw that a fox was snatching his mother’s dead body digging the grave. While his mother really died, he remembered it and made a special grave on a small hillock in the jungle, around which a canal was dug, so that either a fox or a dog couldn’t reach the grave. But unfortunately, on that night, a cunning fox came on that hillock by swimming water and went away taking the dead body in the same way he dreamt. Whether the story is true or false has not been proven, but a grave is found surrounded by a canal in the Taher Ali Munsi Para of Silimpur. The place is called by the locals as Berar Bari (the house in the enclosure). The jungle, once abounded with foxes, is now clear by cutting wood indiscriminately. /=/

“Many ponds and a famous canal called ‘Barshi’, which was dug probably near 1870 and fell in the river Karatoa in the east, abounded with fishes of many kinds. In Every house, people domesticated cows, goats and poultry. Because of all those food available, most of the villagers liked rice and fish, when meat was rarely cooked. Milk was also included in every day life. Women made various Pithas (cakes) in winter, namely, dudh-pitha, vapa, puli, kusli, pati-sapta, mutha, tal-pitha, jhal pitha etc. In Sab-I-Barat, women prepared bread from corn and distributed to every house. Also, Khichuri was prepared in the Muharam and distributed in the same way. Sweetmeats like Khir, Payesh, vermicelli, etc. were cooked in various ceremonies. /=/

“At present, many cultivable lands are divided peace-meal into nuclear families, and also ownership has gone to the others, who live in towns. Ponds have been filled up deliberately with soil and the canal is dying losing its flow and depth. Gardens are going to be extinct. All these have brought changes greatly in food habit. People rather like to buy beef than fish, since it is less cheap. Women still like to make pithas, but not so many as did before, since they don’t get rice abundantly. Niggardliness of trees in their production of fruits deprives new generation. Yet, people try to keep the tradition in making bread and khichuri in religious ceremonies. /=/

History of a Village Clan in Bangladesh

Kamran Nahar wrote: “This historical village now consists of five Paras, viz., the North, the South, the West, the Middle and Taher Ali Munsi Para. This discussion relates to the South Para exclusively. The South People have tendency to regroup in factions. So, the South has been divided by an imaginary line into two parts — Talukdar and Gara Paras. Gara is a slang dialect, descended from the word Gari, which means marsh. [Source: “Bangladesh Culture: A Study of the South Para of Village ‘Silimpur’” by Kamrun Nahar, September 2, 2006 \=]

“Talukdars and their ancestors The historical hero of this area, whose name was Shah Mamud Mondol, along with his brother, came at first in Silimpur from where people exactly don’t know, but from a place not so near or so far from Bogra, and settled his habitation in Uchubari of Gara Para. Information has not been found about right when he came to this area. But analyzing various sources, it can be sure that he came in the Mughal Period, i.e., at the end of 1700 A.D. and the title of his name proves that either he or his forefather was a foreign Muslim. He made his new house, some yards away from Uchubari, where started to live permanently and gave birth to 5 sons, namely, 1. Gul Mamud 2. Ash Mamud 3. Het Mamud 4. Lepu Mondol 5. Khepu Mondol (died in 1886) /=/

“Who, when and how at first became the owner of taluks (landed estates), information on these is not certainly found. So, this is an assumption that Gul Mamud and Khepu mondol became the permanent owner of many Taluks under the East India Company to collect revenue and taxes. From then, they and their descendants were and are called Talukdars, and the particular area, they lived in the south zone of Silimpur, is still called Talukdar Para. Their huge lands stood in the villages of Silimpur, Malgram, Koigari, Kanar, Durgapur, Shitolai, Joysara etc. Their other brothers remained economically backward, and later unfortunately their descendants worked as laborers in the land of the rich. /=/

“Talukdars were the owners of all land around, where so much rice was produced that it overflowed the barn. Trees were overburdened with so much fruits that excessive ones weltered in the ground, but none thought to steal those.

Clever Electricity-Free Village Cooler Made with Plastic Bottles

Sonam Joshi wrote in Mashable: “A Bangladeshi inventor has made a simple yet effective cooler to help poor residents of his country cope with skyrocketing temperatures during summer without any electricity. His tools? Used plastic bottles. [Source: Sonam Joshi, Mashable, June 9, 2016]

“Ashis Paul's eco-cooler is a zero-electricity air conditioner that uses repurposed plastic bottles to draw cool air into tin huts, in the absence of electricity. It became a low-cost and environment-friendly solution for Bangladesh's poor citizens, a majority of whom live in corrugated tin huts, which can get unbearably hot during summer, when temperatures rise up to 45 degree Celsius.

“The cooler is designed by cutting plastic bottles in half, and then placing them in a grid on a board. This is then placed on the wall like a window frame. It works on the principle that the bottle's neck can compress the hot breeze and cool it down, dropping temperatures inside the house by as much as five degrees.

“The project is a collaborative effort between Bangladesh's Grey Group and Grameen intel Social Business Ltd., whose volunteers teach residents how to make the eco-coolers with discarded plastic bottles. They have also put up an instruction manual on their website. So far, the coolers have been installed in over 25,000 homes across the country.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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