Nothing is yours anymore. Your time is controlled by the incessant traffic, and your space is shared with a river of humanity bustling through all five senses. It even feels like you have to share the millimeters under your finger nails, so that Dhaka can squeeze one more person into the most densely populated city in the world. Dhaka hosts 114,000 people per square mile, making it ten times more densely populated than Tokyo (11,400), and 25 times denser than New York (4,600).
The air you breathe seems to have the warm essence of just having been exhaled, and yours is immediately sucked up by a passerby. The smell of open sewers hangs in humid tropical heat amidst an aura of exhaust fumes. The constant cacophony of car horns, rickshaw bells, generators, Bangla and construction rings through your dreams and over the constant drone of mosquitoes. Everything feels washed, worn, blunted — smoothed by the constant use of millions of people.
Dhaka is not a city; it is an organism that you become a part of. It is sweaty, slow, and sinking, seasonally infested with cholera and malaria brought by floods which can inundate the entire city and only seem to be getting worse. It sits mere feet above sea level in an alluvial river basin, which is also increasingly besieged with agrarian climate change refugees from around the country, further feeding the already overgrown city.
At least 90% of the buildings that stand on the shifting sands of the Ganges delta were not built to code, meaning sections of the city crack and crumble dramatically , and too often with spectacularly deadly consequences. The corruption extends far beyond the building codes, and seems like more of a permanent fixture than the concrete which built the city. In 2012, even the World Bank, which deals with dubious governments around the world regularly, canceled a US$1.2 billion dollar loan citing widespread corruption on the infamous Padma Multipurpose Bridge project.
The people of Dhaka are in one sense very united, as 98% of the population is ethnically Bengali, and 90% are Muslim, however, violence and civil strife in Dhaka is commonplace. Hartals are general strikes usually called by the opposition party which shutdown the economy, and often lead to bombings, vandalism and violence in the streets. In 2013, there were over 150 hartals called, killing over 120 people and injuring over 400.
There are signs that there is growing religious extremism in Dhaka as well. A Pew Poll in 2013 reported 82% of Muslims in Bangladesh supported making Sharia Law the law of the land, and 44% of these supporters favored the death penalty for leaving the Muslim faith. In 2013, Dhaka was ranked the second least livable city in the world only behind Harare, Zimbabwe.
The congestion created by so many people all seeking a better life simultaneously in one small space impedes anyone from obtaining one. It obstructs the building of foundational systems like a reliable electricity grid or subway system that might give the city a chance. In the case of Dhaka, congestion has become the biggest impediment to its own solution.
Unfortunately, this seems like a direction many other megacities are heading in the developing world, driven by the dream of a resource intensive modern standard of living, but undermined by the lack of an effective planning and coordination to guide it. It is a glance into the future of cities like Lagos, Karachi, and Jakarta. Despite its difficulties, Dhaka is an important reality to understand, and a mind blowing spectacle to be seen.
In this city of perpetual motion where everything seems to come in infinities, a beauty does emerge. It is captured in the hand painted rickshaws, the sweet milky rush of the cha (local tea), and the dingy pillars of ancient books in the local bookstores. It is in the tango of traffic, the perennial patience of the people, the history of daily struggle carved into the faces in old town, and the smoky smiles of old toothless men.
Travel to Dhaka to understand what humanity is when we take away the spaces between ourselves. Eat spicy river fish with your hands, follow a family of ducks through the mazes of old Dhaka, and hop into a boat at the Sadarghat terminal. Fall like a raindrop into the crashing waterfall of extreme urbanization to understand how it undermines the delicate ecosystems from which we emerged and how important it is that we create a more sustainable future.