This article is written by Tanjil Sowgat and was originally published by NEWAGE. All views are the author’s own and not attributable to SHLC.

Dhaka, one of the densest megacities of the world, is rapidly growing and hosting new migrants in and around the city. With a very imbalanced economic agglomeration in other cities, Dhaka’s primacy has resulted in a high concentration of economic activities in the city and its fringes.

Workers are walking to work in an industry near Hemayetpur, Savar, Dhaka. © 2020 SHLC Bangladesh. All rights reserved

To benefit from transport networks, low land price and supporting services such as electricity, water supply and piped gas, industrialists chose to be near Dhaka. As a result, workers come for jobs and start living in peri-urban areas and seek new income opportunities.

Industries and the new demand for workers’ housing are rapidly changing the rural landscapes of the areas on the outskirts of Dhaka. The agriculture-dependent rural communities are now turning to congested housing settlements. Many farmers have gone for new and cheap housing projects on their land that they once cultivated crops on. These housings have become cheap rental accommodation for factory workers who migrate from different parts of the country. As the land owners earn more from rents than agriculture, they prefer to convert the agricultural land into housing projects. They usually build tin-shed structures and rent them as shared housing units with common toilet and kitchen facilities.

"The agri- dependent rural communities are now becoming congested housing and settlements. Many farmers built new housing in the lands that they once cultivated crops"

Housing and industries are rapidly taking over the water bodies and agricultural lands in Borpa, Narayanganj, Dhaka. © 2020 SHLC Bangladesh.
Housing and industries are rapidly taking over the water bodies and agricultural lands in Borpa, Narayanganj, Dhaka. © 2020 SHLC Bangladesh.

At the same time, the easy money from real estate development and rental housing has encouraged a rapid conversion of agricultural land to new housing areas, especially over the past 20 years. Private developers have bought land at low prices and then constructed roads and subdividing plots. They then have sold the land to middle and higher middle-income people who wanted to own a piece of land near Dhaka. Such conversion has created pressure on food production and rural livelihood but has created new housing areas. These half-built residential areas with poor drainage, roads and amenities are common in the outskirts of Dhaka. These new residential developments have, however, followed very little planning guidelines for fringe areas. Except for a few sites and services scheme, the changes have been largely unplanned and uncontrolled.

A real estate development sites with new high-rise apartments in the background in Baipail, Dhaka © 2020 SHLC Bangladesh. All rights reserved
Unplanned and organically grown residential areas in Siddirganj, Dhaka © 2020 SHLC Bangladesh. All rights reserved

In some cases, small rural settlements are replaced by very congested housing because of growing demand for housing the low-income people. With no requirements for permission from the local union council, everyone feels free to build with very minimum setbacks. Rural roads have become urban but the width has neither increased nor has the quality. Blessings of rural electrification are even encouraged within neighbourhood industries, which have ignored the miseries of pollutions that they create within the neighbourhoods.

While walking along some of these streets, we found trash everywhere as there was no solid waste management system in these officially ‘rural’ but unofficially urban settlements. Without a sewerage and water supply system, people here are struggling to manage a safe and clean environment. Overall, it reminds us of the factory towns during the industrial revolution, the settlements that were built for the industrial workers by the capitalists without ensuring quality and safety.

Unplanned and organically grown residential areas in Siddirganj, Dhaka © 2020 SHLC Bangladesh. All rights reserved

"In some cases, small rural settlements were replaced by very closely congested housing because of the growing demand for housing low-income people. With no requirements for planning permission from the local Union Council, everyone felt free to build with very minimum setbacks."

Dhaka is privileged in that the city has the scope to use the land in adjacent areas to urbanise. As the urbanisation process is unavoidable for economic growth and agglomeration, this is obvious that rural areas will become urban to accommodate changes and improved urban services. However, the challenge is that if the growth is not guided, the prospect may turn into chaos and misery. Over the past six months, we intensively visited Dhaka neighbourhoods and were shocked to see how the serene rural areas are giving in to chaotic and unplanned urbanisation.

It appears that we have ignored and are still undermining the future of Dhaka as these peri-urban areas will become parts of the city soon and probably until then we will not complain. By the time we will get concerned, the settlement will become chaotic and unmanageable urban slums.

We are privileged that the government is much concerned about proposing new plans for upazilas — with efforts to turn every village into a township. It gives me hope that the government will look into the dark areas right underneath the urban lights of Dhaka. There will be plans soon and, most of all, regulatory mechanisms to guide the development of these spontaneously growing and urbanising villages. If you are unable to guide the transformation process, the future Dhaka will become an ugly eight-feet Frankenstein.


The GCRF Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC) is an international consortium of nine research partners aiming to strengthen capacity to address urban, health and education challenges in neighbourhoods across fast-growing cities in Africa and Asia.

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