A capital city, down and depressed

Faruk Wasif | Update: | Print Edition

Man and his wife with a baby walks in dangerously polluted air in Dhaka. Prothom Alo File PhotoSeventy-one per cent of the residents of capital city Dhaka are suffering from depression. This is not the romantic depression of the poets. It is the depression of humans having to live inhuman lives.

Twenty years ago, young poets basked in a depression of a different nature and so did rickshaw-wallas. Morose rickshaw-wallas would pedal their way through the city streets at night and behind them the young bards would be singing their sad serenades. That sadness was tinged with a sense of sweetness. But the depression detected in the BIDS survey is hardly of a poetic ilk, it couldn’t be more prosaic. The people are crammed into small matchbox units called home from where they emerged onto the streets like teeming ants every morning, only to be packed once again like cattle in overcrowded buses. It’s an incessant struggle to survive, a survival of the fittest.

Today’s depression saps the body of health, drains the mind of strength.

The people from up north would stream to Dhaka, driven by the famine-like ‘monga’, searching for a means of living. It was just the pangs of hunger that drove them the city, where they lived sub-human lives in the slums. Depression is inevitable.

Then depression gripped the innumerable garment industry workers. The shackles of survival chained them to the city too. These girls, instead of enjoying the exuberance of their youth, spent 12 to 14 hours a day, bent over their work in the factories, mistreated by the foremen and managers, only to return to their slum-like homes to cook and attend to the other domestic chores. Hope does not arise in such a life. In this slavery-driven economy, on one hand huge profits are amassed, and on the other, depression grips the workers’ lives. It’s like the sugar cane juicer, where the sugar cane is passed through the steel rollers, juice pouring out one end and the dry discarded pulp on the other. Depression descends on the discarded human pulp.

Joy is alien to the majority of our migrant workers. Depression is the constant companion of the fathers working in distant lands where they have no recreation, where they are unable to be there when their child is born, to tend to their loved ones in times of distress. The remittance sent in by the migrant workers is stamped with their sadness.

Then there are the millions of low-income families living in this city. Families comprising husband, wife and children live in 700 to 800 sq ft houses in Bashabo, Khilgaon, Mugdapara, Mohammadpur, Adabor, Mirpur, Old Dhaka, Keraniganj, Bhashantek, Rampura, Badda. Is there any relief in such a life, any relief in the overcrowded, polluted and humiliating streets of the city? Then there are the spiralling costs of living, the fears all around and the uncertain future ahead. It does not take long for them to be trapped in the snare of depression.

Many of the Dhaka denizens live in messes. Thousands of young men and women come to the city to study and find no vacancy in the university halls. They rent cheap rooms in the messes. These messes are the abode of young people desperately seeking jobs. There is no respite for them to spend time in the city parks, squares and river side. There are no playgrounds for the children. The streets, the transport, the administration, nothing is conducive to the people, the children, the young and the old. Venturing out to work is a virtual battle. Commute is a struggle, offices are dens of bribery and corruption. But there is nothing to be done. Things slide from bad to worse. Those who can, leave the country. Those who can’t, sink in the quagmire of depression.

This depression is not just economic, not even just the result of botched urbanisation. Much of it is sparked off by political fatigue. There is a term, culture of fear. But actually it is the environment of fear that has seeped into the culture. People’s interaction dwindles. Freedom of expression diminishes. Even the dregs of dignity disappear. Culture is lost.

Depression becomes an epidemic in a country where people do not have the right to vote, where protests mean a life-risk, where difference of opinion means being ostracised. Depression has a politics, a politics that bows down the head, that creates killers, looters, criminals and oppressors.

Passengers try to get into a bus. Prothom Alo File PhotoThe BIDS survey says that 10 per cent of the income of the wealthy people in Dhaka is equal to the 44 per cent of the income of the city’s entire population. And the income of the poorest section of the people is less than 1 per cent of the city’s entire population.

Such statistics are downright depressing.

The burgeoning mental pressure on these helpless, hapless people leads to social cannibalism. It is a minor manifestation of a desire for others to be harmed. When this desire takes on major proportions, this leads to killing, crime, rape and mob lynching. This is nothing news. When there are not enough bus seats, not enough rooms in the halls, and not enough jobs, people are bound to fight each other fang and claw. Such depressed and anxious people become enemies to each other. A deep mistrust seeps from politics into the society. Relationships deteriorate to envy, jealousy, exploitation and harming others for one’s own gain.

Of the 71 per cent depressed people of the city, 68 suffer from physical ailments and 3.5 per cent cannot manage three square meals a day. Nine per cent of the earnings of the city’s people are spent on medical treatment. Depression kills enthusiasm, the will to fight against all odds.

We turn to Algeria’s revolutionary Franz Fanon to try and understand things. He called this intermediate violence. Enmity between two is a personal matter. The violence of parties, governments, states and criminal groups is political. And when a mob lynches someone to death, that is intermediate violence. In a country where the people are unable or unwilling to establish justice through struggle, movement, rebellion and revolution, there personal, public, political and social violence spreads like the plague.

What is the solution? It is useless to hope for a solution while the prevailing governance and blundering urbanisation continues. A city is a place of trade and commerce, of political mongering. It has been an error to make the city the main space in which to live. Yet some of our ministers say that the villages will be transformed into cities. Very few families in Bangladesh have a long history of city life. We have lived jointly in the villages for centuries, close to nature. Cities are bound to depress us. Surely our fate cannot be a city where the cost of living is the highest and yet which is the least livable in the world. A capital city is the cover of a country. What hope can we cherish in a city with such depressed and inhuman facade?

* Faruk Wasif is an assistant editor of Prothom Alo and can be reached at faruk.wasif@prothomalo.info. This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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