I was in Manila recently attending a conference. I spent a week in the city, though part of it was spent cooped up in the hotel room. One can never know much about a country from the little one sees in a few day, so none of what I say should be viewed as an expert analysis of the Philippines economy or society. But what I write is based on what I saw – after all, where else but in a blog post can I ramble on? Take all of it with a pinch of salt, sure. But I do hope this provokes some thoughts.
Manila is an old city. Part of its central business district and some of the older neighbourhoods reminded me of Kolkata. But its financial district of Makati is very much like what our Gulshan could become in a few years if the trend of the past decade continues into the future. There are skyscrappers – office towers as well as apartment buildings. There are shopping malls everywhere, including one claiming to be the largest in Asia.
Yes, it’s a richer city than Dhaka, but over the past decade, I’ve seen Dhaka becoming more and more like this city. The question is, do we want Dhaka to become like Manila? I don’t know if the answer is an unqualified yes.
Let’s start with the traffic. Manila’s main roads are much wider than Dhaka’s. It has many more expressways or flyovers – in some cases, there are four layers of three-lane expressways. During the weekend, Manila traffic moves quite briskly. But during a weekday, traffic is, believe it or not, almost as bad as Dhaka’s. Yes there are more roads, but there are also more vehicles. There aren’t many buses. Locals with money have their cars and SUVs. Locals without money pack into ‘jeepneys’ (pictured left) in a manner that is called ‘murir tin’ in Dhaka. During weekday peak hours, there clearly are many more vehicles than the roads could accommodate. So there are traffic jams. What do the authorities do to solve the problem? They build more roads and expressways. Roads, you see, are prominently visible, and any politician seeking re-election can point to them as a sign of development. Building roads require much transactions, and much opportunity for wealth creation, both legally and illegally. And at least part of that wealth ends up in more vehicles on the road.
Does any of this sound familiar in Dhaka?
If the upmarket Dhaka is becoming more and more like Manila, then what about the way the have nots live? Manila has some of the largest slums in the world. There are slums and squatters by the railroad track. Squatters live in government occupied lands, whence they are evicted once a few years by newly elected mayors in the name of ‘law and order’ and ‘city beautification’. Again, sounds familiar?
Perhaps because I was already getting down with cold, I didn’t feel game enough to venture into these slums and take photo, but from afar, they looked worse than the Mohammadpur Bihari slum, about as bad as there is in Dhaka. And it’s not only slums, there are also beggars, including children, and rubbish scavengers next to the malls – the co-existence of private opulence and public squalor is eerily reminiscent of Dhaka.
This country is also reeling from high food prices that has hit us hard in the past year. Filipinos eat rice five times a day. They are one of the largest importers of rice. And the global food crisis has meant that the cost of a square meal has doubled in the past year.
So Manila is a richer city, but also a poorer one. In fact, the inequality is grotesquely striking. We have malls and slums in Dhaka. There is something in the outskirts of Manila that I haven’t seen, and hope never to see, in Dhaka. I’m talking about ‘gated communities’, housing estates that are behind secured walls where the affluent live seggragated from the poor majority.
These gated communities are guarded by well-armed security forces. Armed security, that is something I haven’t seen as much in Dhaka. Yes, I’m aware that our uniformed soldiers are everywhere these days. But I’m talking about private security forces. And these guys aren’t armed with 303 rifle. No, they carry automatic rifles and light machine guns. On the outskirts of southern Manila, there is a service station and rest area popular with tourists and the local elite. This establishment is guarded by people carrying uzis.
There are good reasons for the security. The Philippines has been wrecked by two insurgencies over the past few decades – a Maoist-inspired peasant rebellion, and an Islamist-separatist movement in the south of the country. As a result of these, there are guns everywhere. Couple of hours south of Manila, near a tourist spot, one can shoot automatic weapons rather cheaply – my wife fired a 9mm 0.45 calibre Beretta thrice for 500 peso (750 taka), also available was an M16 rifle, while if we waited for an hour they could get an AK 47.
A major contrast between Dhaka and Manila is that the former is by and large a male city, whereas Manila’s gender-balance is skewed to the better sex. This is parly because of cultural reasons. For example, traditional Filipino wedding involves a brideprice, not a dowry. But there are also economic factors at play. There are nearly 90 million people in the country, and another 10 million or so Filipinos overseas. This makes the Philippines even more dependent on remittance. And the Filipino emigrants are of both gender, and hence there are large economic benefits for educated women to be at work than home.
And yet, the emigration has a dark side. Most of the emigrants are guest workers in the Middle East or other richer Asian countries. As such, these men and women cannot take their families with them. Meanwhile, in this deeply Catholic country, contraception is a big taboo. The result, far too many children growing up with either or both parents. Juvenile delinquency – from truancy and graffity to drugs and prostitution – is a major problem.
Meanwhile, many more migrate to Manila in search of a better life abroad than can find jobs overseas. Some of those who cannot make it have little choice but to take up unsavoury work in ‘escorting’ rich westerners (of either gender).
Each of these issues - traffic, slums, inequality, migration – are present in Bangladesh. I don’t presume to have any answers, but sure would like to hear from people who know. Sometimes we talk about them. Tanvir Islam has written an excellent series on urban planning in Dhaka. Amer Ahmed has written about the urban poor. Today’s Prothom Alo has a frontpage piece on regional inequality. But we really aren’t discussing these issues enough.
How can we? For the past couple of years, we have been revisiting arguments about politics that we thought we settled 18 years ago. When the coup happened last January, some folks thought ‘ah, finally a break from politics, cool, we can discuss policy now’. How naive they were! Politics didn’t leave us. Rather, we’ve been fighting old political battles against militarisation and impending authoritarianism that we thought ended in the 1980s. There is no such thing as a non-political time, so let’s have normal politics back, with all its namecallings and food fights, and then let’s figure out a way to inject these policy discussions into our political discourse.
(Cross-posted at UV).