DHAKA, Bangladesh — Ripon Patwany, 23, is a child of Dhaka’s slums, and the slums have been good to him.
He lives with his parents and two siblings in a dense warren of shacks ringed by a polluted lake. But by the standards of Korail, one of the Bangladeshi capital’s largest shantytowns, they’re well-off.
Twenty-two years ago his father staked a claim here. As concrete high rises sprouted on the opposite shore, he bought rights to a small, tin-walled compound from another settler on what is still, technically, city-owned land. They rent eight rooms and bring in about $115 a month, more than twice the average national income. Patwany earns another $50 as a bill collector.
The signs of the family’s relative prosperity are subtle but significant: electric fans, wicker furniture, a two-room home. Patwany’s mobile phone is a sleek, recent model that plays MP3s. His favorite is a Bangla song whose refrain means, “I will make you my wife.”
Press him and he’ll admit: Her name is Jesmine. She lives across the lake. She’s the one he wants to ask.
But the question Patwany faces is whether he can ever afford to try. Weddings and families cost money. Like many slum youth, he dropped out of school long ago. His job prospects are slim, and his small salary makes it hard to save.
“I have no idea how long it will take,” he said.
Patwany’s future is tied to perhaps the most urgent challenge facing the exploding, hand-built cities of the developing world. How can slums become livable communities where climbing out of poverty is more than just a dream?
As the world’s fastest growing megacity — and one of its poorest — Dhaka is facing this challenge sooner than most. Its population, now estimated at about 15 million, is expected to hit 20 million by 2025. Slums house between 30 and 50 percent of all Dhaka residents — and they continue to absorb most of the hundreds of thousands of new migrants who arrive every year. What happens to Patwany’s generation could determine whether Dhaka becomes a model of successful development — or home to millions of increasingly poor, increasingly disenchanted youth.
“The danger is degeneration,” said Rehman Sobhan, chairman of the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka. “The prospect of anarchy in a population of 20 million is frightening beyond imagination.”
Despite challenges facing the city — routine water shortages, power outages – Sobhan and other Bangladeshi experts insist that preventing anarchy is possible, if the government acts now.
“I’m a life long optimist,” Sobhan said. The “government will realize that they are presiding over an unsustainable situation and their own political survival compulsions will demand they actually do something.”
The prescriptions are drastic but remarkably straightforward, at least in theory. First among them: remedy the basic inequality of city services. For example, millions of slum dwellers like Patwany’s family can’t get legal access to utility connections.
On average, the city’s poorest residents pay the city’s highest prices for water and electricity — creating a constant drag on already-meager incomes. Laws prohibit the city from connecting utilities to those without title to their land, which means most slum-dwellers resort to unreliable, pirated connections that cost many times the legal rates.
“The poor in fact are quite willing to pay market prices for both access to living space and also to the utilities,” Sobhan said. “But the market is failing to deliver services to them. So here you need public intervention.”
Dhaka itself has a model for how that might be done.
On the surface, there is little that differentiates Kallyanpur, a slum of some 7,000 people on the western edge of Dhaka, from the hundreds of other shantytowns that dot the capital.
Corrugated metal shacks line jagged dirt alleyways. Drying laundry and battered furniture choke the streets. Life is lived in public. The narrow paths serve as living room, kitchen and sometimes latrine.
A child waits for water near an illegal community tap in the Bhashantek slum in Dhaka.
But ask Fatima Begum, a 65-year-old widow who moved to Kallyanpur 30 years ago, and she’ll describe changes that are nothing short of revolutionary.
She once spent hours each day waiting in line to buy what little drinking water she could afford. She paid a dollar a month for around 60 gallons of water — about 100 times official rates.
“We’ve got to have water to drink,” Begum said. “So sometimes I would buy less food or clothes in order to pay for it.”
Then, five years ago, a local NGO called Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK) launched a project to hook the slum up to the city water system, provide drainage and sanitary latrines. The group served as guarantor, renting water connections in their name, and taking responsibility for collecting monthly fees.
Begum now gets all the water she needs for 10 cents a month. “We are getting water on our doorstep,” she said. “Now, we don’t get sick as much, we don’t have to spend so much on medicine, and I save all the time that I used to spend collecting water.”
For those they’ve served, DSK has meant a drastic improvement in quality of life. But it comes nowhere close to meeting demand, said Ranajit Das, who coordinates the project.
“Four million people need water,” he said. “We are serving only 100,000.”
Many experts argue that the key to serving those 4 million lies in restructuring city government. Right now, some 20 ministries govern different city services, from water supply to road building. Dhaka’s sprawl covers five separate municipalities, each with its own elected mayor.
“I don’t think any other megacity has such an uncoordinated management,” said Nazrul Islam, founder of the Centre for Urban Studies in Dhaka. “There is no central authority.”
Islam wants the government to create an authority to manage the entire megacity and all its services. By concentrating the power that’s now spread out among so many different institutions, the agency would have the clout to undertake big projects, like a mass transit system, and it could be held accountable for its failures.
“This is the absolute, ultimate, and also most basic thing that we need to save this city,” he said. “Poor management, poor planning leads to degradation.”
But a national authority alone, most agree, will not be enough to make Dhaka livable. “If it keeps on growing as fast as it is now, then even that kind of authority will not be able to manage,” Islam said.
Key to stemming the growth will be moving some of the magnets for migration out of Dhaka. Seventy-five percent of the country’s garment factory jobs are in the capital, along with most of the country’s universities and the national government.
“Let’s create opportunities outside of Dhaka,” said Sabina Faiz Rashid, an anthropologist and professor at BRAC University’s School of Public Health in Dhaka. “I mean, it’s not like everyone’s dying to come and live in a slum settlement. Of course, they want better lives. We all do. But they don’t have options.”
Many in Dhaka have begun to argue for satellite cities outside of the capital, linked by mass transit. Factories, universities, and other services could relocate, drawing new migrants to places where land is cheaper, and utilities more manageable.
“Some of us who have been activists on this issue have said, ‘Take the whole government out into a new city,’’’ said Atiq Rahman, a Dhaka climate and migration researcher who heads the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies.
Rahman said, if a place like Dhaka can rein in its chaos, slow down growth, and improve services to its poorest residents – it could serve as a model for developing world.
“Anything that we can make work in Dhaka,” he said, “we could make work in any other city.”
Editor's note: Join us on Sept. 24 at Noon (ET) for a live conference call with reporter Erik German. The third world's sprawling megacities are typically viewed as hopelessly blighted. But could they actually be good for the environment? What German found is surprising. To join the call, become a GlobalPost Member today by clicking here.