Rickshaw in Dhaka
Rickshaw in Dhaka

How colonial history is shaping Dhaka's modern urban identity

Where does our image of a modern city come from? Why don't we label a traffic jam in the city centre of Nijmegen as chaotic, but we do label a traffic jam in Dhaka as chaotic? Anthropologist and Radboud researcher Annemiek Prins indicates that the colonial past still (unconsciously) influences the image of the 'modern city' worldwide. To illustrate this, she spent more than ten years researching the role of the rickshaw in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, known as 'the traffic capital of the world'.

The rickshaw: transport and safety net, but also outdated?

The rickshaw, a colourfully painted bicycle taxi, is today one of the primary forms of transport for the middle class in Dhaka. Prins points out, 'By no means does everyone in Dhaka have a car, and not all neighbourhoods and streets are easily accessible by car. The rickshaw is also an important source of income and a safety net for poor rural migrants facing crises, such as when a flood has destroyed their crops'.

She continues: 'Despite its advantages, it is a mode of transport that many people look down on. Dhaka likes to profile itself as a 'modern city', and the rickshaw does not fit into that picture'.

Mobility and urban inequality

Therefore, the rickshaw is facing restrictive measures in many ways. Policymakers are introducing so-called 'VIP roads' that allow only motorised vehicles. It becomes much more challenging for rickshaw drivers and their passengers to get from A to B in one trip. In addition, some politicians and policymakers are painting the rickshaw as the cause of all traffic congestion: it is becoming a scapegoat.

This outlines what Prins' research is all about: how mobility is related to urban inequality. In other words, who have access to the city and can live and work there?

What exactly is a 'modern city'?

To understand how mobility is related to urban inequality, Prins says it is crucial to be aware of the word 'modern'. She explains that for a long time, the norm of modernity was defined mainly by Western countries, and the colonial past played an essential role. When England colonised Bangladesh, they saw that its infrastructure and urban layout differed from their Western homeland.

Prins explains that in 19th-century Western Europe, the modern city was an ideal, with wide streets, large parks, and clear boundaries. This was at odds with the organic way a city like Dhaka had developed. Here, traffic, work, commerce, recreation and living ran through each other. There was no clear division between public and private. As a result, the British regarded Dhaka as a disorderly and chaotic city. In fact, it did not conform to their own image of order'.

Residential neighbourhoods

To change this, they introduced the concept of residential neighbourhoods. The idea was to separate urban functions such as living, working and commerce. Moreover, these neighbourhoods were intended for local elites who worked for the colonial government. Whereas these residential neighbourhoods in Dhaka increasingly came to symbolise modernity, the rickshaw, which can also manoeuvre through all kinds of small alleys, carries the stigma of disorderliness. Modernity is thus not simply the result of technical progress but also the result of a Western view of order. 'The residential neighbourhood today, for example, fits well with an auto-oriented form of urban planning,' says Prins.

Modern colonialism?

Politicians today are making their mark on the city by building elevated highways, big bridges, or the VIP roads mentioned above to shake off the image of disorderliness. In addition, urban policy in Dhaka has long been determined by foreign, often Western, consultancy firms. Large organisations like the World Bank still significantly influence how the urban landscape is shaped. Phasing out the cycle rickshaw is one form of discrimination that the working class in Bangladesh now faces. In addition, it is becoming increasingly expensive for temporary rural migrants to be able to work and stay in the city. So, there is a degree of exclusion.

Awareness is the first step towards more equity

The world is urbanising at a rapid pace. To think about mobility in an equitable way, we need to identify inequalities. Who gets access to the city, and who does not? Which vehicles get space, and which people benefit? Prins' research shows that awareness of this can help change inequalities worldwide. 


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