Saturday, January 28, 2012

Living between the two worlds - 2

My port city of Chittagong, situated on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, in Bangladesh is no longer the town that I grew up with or the city that I left some 34 years ago when I came to North America to pursue higher studies. Chittagong was a sleepy little beautiful town on the edges of vast hilly terrain that stretched throughout the entire district. There were enough roads to commute easily anywhere. The air was fresh and clean. The people were nice, warmhearted and helping, watching out for each other.

I remember that in some of the weekends, which usually meant Friday, my parents would take us all in our family car for picnics in the nearby Chittagong Hill Tracts, or the beautiful Patenga Beach, or the Fauzdarhat Beach, or to some other scenic picnic spots on the hills in and around the town. Those scenic spots were sparsely crowded to enjoy a family outing.

Back in the late 1970s, the city population was below a million. Today, Chittagong cannot be recognized by anyone who had been away from this growing metropolis for a decade or two. It is now one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Although official estimate of the city would put the population at around six million, the actual population is between eight and ten million. While most city roads have widened somewhat in the last three decades, hardly any new road has been built, thus adding to the growing agony of the daily commuters who have grown ten-fold. With all the new imported cars, buses and trucks, let alone single-engine taxis, gridlocks are now a daily nuisance that the city dwellers must live with. The air is polluted and unhealthy.

So, when I visit my parents in Chittagong, I usually prefer not to go anywhere but spend time with them and my siblings. Outside the Foy’s Lake, located close to my parents’ home in the northern part of the city, most of the picnic spots are long gone, having made spaces for the booming real estate business. Even the beaches are so crowded these days that they don’t attract me any more to spend some quiet times when the sun sets into the Bay of Bengal.

Commuting within the city, even meeting family members, is no longer fun. It could take anywhere from half an hour to an hour just to go a mere 3 to 4 miles by car or taxi, depending on the time of the day one is traveling. Dr. Aynul Haque, a businessman friend of mine who is a prominent developer in the city, was lamenting that the country was losing at least 20% of its GDP because of such delays in commuting. In some of the major crossings, and there are plenty of those in any major city including Chittagong, a commuter may end up waiting for 15-20 minutes before the road clears.

Bangladeshi roads, like in many parts of South Asia, are still swamped with rickshaws. It does not take a genius to figure out that if the vehicles, manually pedaled or engine powered, move at different speeds it is the slowest one that would dictate the flow or speed of the traffic. Thus, in most roads and crossings, Chittagong City has its share of problems dealing with the slow-moving rickshaws. Pulling a rickshaw, although a very laborious and tiresome task, is easy to learn for anyone. It does not require any test, conducted by the municipal office, to get a license. And the earning at the end of the day is not bad either. With the ever expanding mechanized ploughing introduced in the agriculture sector, and the shrinking job market in the rural areas, many of the poor (usually landless) peasants have no other alternative but to seek jobs in cities. Once they find a job, they then bring their family members to live in ever expanding shanty towns that dot most cities as eyesores for the local residents.

Zakir Hossain Road that runs in front of my parent’s home is now 65 feet wide. A half century ago, it was a narrow patch of muddy road, where my father could not bring his car into our properties. We had to leave our car, half a mile away, near a Muslim shrine, Goribullah Shah Mazar. We would then either walk or take a rickshaw to come to our properties. But now this very road, connected to Dhaka Trunk Road - connecting the port of Chittagong to the capital city of Dhaka -- is one of the busiest roads in the city. With all the heavy convoys moving from the industrial parts of the city to either the port or the capital city, even in the late hours of the night this road does not sleep. Even to crossover to the other side of the road can be quite hazardous!

Many residents have found out that it actually takes less time to walk to their banks or shops than to take a ride in a car, taxi or rickshaw. Unfortunately for the pedestrians, the footpaths are ever shrinking, thanks to many shoppers and vendors who have made a habit of bringing out their merchandize all the way to the footpaths. The traffic and local police ignore such incursions on public properties. In most cities, the city government is inexcusably dysfunctional providing hardly any service to their tax-payers. Garbage is rarely picked up completely and parts of most roads and footpaths are littered with such dumps, which pushes pedestrians to walk on the edges of busy roads. And then with never ending construction works by the developers or city utility companies, both the roads and the footpaths that run parallel become narrower, thus adding to annoyance of all – drivers and pedestrians alike.

With the ever-expanding middle class, and their preference to own flats or apartments rather than live as tenants, the real estate business is booming. So fast is this change that I often have serious difficulty recognizing the landscape of the city, in spite of the fact that I visit Bangladesh every year!

Bangladesh with an approximate 56,000 square miles area and a population in excess of 150 million, is one of the most densely populated places in our planet. Consequently, land-prices are skyrocketing. It is probably the best investment one can make! (However, holding on to one’s legal properties is not easy!)

When I grew up in the town, Chittagong’s tallest building was below ten storied high, and now there are dozens of taller buildings all across the city. In my neighborhood, our house ‘Aranika’ was once the tallest one – a six storied house. And now there are hundreds of taller houses in our neighborhood in Khulshi. That is how fast Chittagong’s skyline is changing!

During the pre-liberation Pakistan era, Chittagong was the second largest city – a major commercial and industrial centre of the then East Pakistan -- and still it is in the post-liberation Bangladesh era. It was the major port then, and still it has held on to its status. However, with globalization, it has evolved into a globally competitive economic hub. The tax-free Export Processing Zone has attracted many international investors to establish their manufacturing centers near the port. With the Port of Chittagong being expanded and developed, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar (Burma) - the regional neighbors of Bangladesh -- have eyed Chittagong as a future regional transit hub. The port city is seen as crucial to the economic development of landlocked southern Asia including Northeast India, Bhutan, Nepal and parts of Southern China and Myanmar.
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To be continued>>>

For the first part see the link here.

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