Monday, June 22, 2009

Bangladesh's divided society writ large on the clogged streets of Dhaka

It used to be said that the British class system resembled that found on the country's trains: three distinct classes, open to all according to their ability to pay.
Similarly, Bangladesh's divided class system is replicated in the creaking Dhaka transport system.
The poor are forced to sweat it out on the city's 500,000 cycle-rickshaws and thousands of battered old buses, while the rich have their cars and jeeps, complete with a hardy driver able to negotiate the chaotic traffic.
Most people I spoke to in Dhaka, from businessmen to NGO workers and tuk-tuk drivers, agreed that their city was split between the very rich and the very poor, with a small middle class.
The motorbike, long the symbol of the growing middle class in countries like India, Indonesia and Vietnam, is hardly anywhere to be seen in Dhaka.
One by-product of this bizarre combination of large cars and buses and countless slow-moving rickshaws is total gridlock on the streets apart from on Friday morning, when people sleep in or go to the mosque.
It can easily take over an hour to travel a couple of miles so, on days when I had a number of meetings spread across this sprawling city, I probably spent half my time traveling.
There is, however, one up-side to this dire situation. As one entrepreneur told me, "you can't use the excuse that you're late because of the traffic, because it's always terrible".

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