Occupy Narayanganj: Can the mayor-elect be the harbinger of good urban governance?

Published : 2 Nov 2011, 04:57 PM
Updated : 2 Nov 2011, 04:57 PM

There is an irresistible symmetry between the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the people of Narayanganj. Both have been underdogs in their respective political domains. The Occupiers are liberal-minded everyday Joes and Janes, tired of predatory capitalism's oppression of their lives. Before the recent mayoral election, the people of Narayanganj were condescendingly seen by the media and the rest of the country as hapless bystanders in the nexus of electoral politics. Both the Occupiers and the people of Narayanganj seem wary of known political figures and their tall pre-election promises. Both groups challenge the establishment and status quo.

There is also a vital difference. The Occupiers' movement is mostly an abstract, ideological battle against plutocracy, greedy CEOs, and all forms of economic injustices. The Occupiers seek a paradigm shift in the ways corporatist economic systems create a minority of haves and a majority of have-nots. However, it is unclear when and how this goal will be achieved. It is also fuzzy how the Occupy movement's gusty wind will yield electoral advantage.

On the other hand, on October 30, 2011, the people of Narayanganj fought a very tangible battle with both objectivity and abstraction: exercise voting rights to elect the best candidate, while at the same time take on the system that patronises thuggish and self-serving politics.

The Occupy movement that has gone global with makeshift encampments in iconic public places is largely symbolic and nobody knows where the movement is heading. It seems that the Occupiers would actually do well to visit Narayanganj, instead of just waiting it out on Wall Street. The way the people of Narayanganj have owned their city could offer a suitable model for the Occupy movement, as well as other projects of achieving social justice.

What is most noteworthy about Dr. Selina Hayat Ivy's victory in the mayoral election of Narayanganj City Corporation is that she has occupied her city, along with the people, with an equal dose of humility and resolve. She doesn't shout and she dismisses crass showmanship as an election campaign strategy. In a post-election statement, she said that no loud mikes and environment-polluting wall posters are necessary to win an election. Her message states that one wins by diligence and sincerity, not by extravagant display of macho power (one hopes that this message does not diminish when routine sets in).

After her stunning win, the mayor-elect's conciliatory tone, rather than the usual boastful barking, is a welcome change in our idolatrous political culture. Ivy's statement, "I am ready to work with Shamimbhai and Taimur Kaka," is hardly a conventional talking point when somebody wins a landslide victory in Bangladesh. Thus, it won't be too farfetched to say that Ivy exemplifies a fledgling political figure: you can be a party loyal without a Faustian bargain; that is, party protection and rewards by selling out the soul.

Whether Dr. Ivy's professional career, outside exposure (she lived in New Zealand), and her illustrious political pedigree (she is Narayanganj AL leader Chunka's daughter) helped her develop a humble but confident political personality is an open question. However, it seems that she has created a new political landscape that now must be propagated across the country. Without overemphasising the increasingly audible theme of the "third force" in the Bangladeshi media, blogosphere, and talk shows, the message of Narayanganj could be harnessed with great results for the future of Bangladeshi politics.

As history shows, there is every chance that the opportunity that has emerged out of Narayanganj for political renovation might be squandered. Hyperboles like Ivy would change the last 40 years' politics would only blur the long-term political meanings of this mayoral election. A new coterie of sycophants is now most likely to encircle Ivy like other leaders in the national limelight. And the party would try to reclaim her in its own patronising terms.

We hope that Dr. Ivy would resist easy temptations of party rewards. Instead of uncritically obeying dictates from Dhaka, she must stay her course in expanding the scope of the mayor's office, while influencing the party itself to embrace the ethos of reason and transparency.

The best scenario that might come out of Ivy's victory in Narayanganj is the empowerment of the institution of local government. Bangladesh is urbanising rapidly (according to a UN report, the country will become urban majority by 2030) and the country's historically agrarian worldview is now colliding head on with hyper-urbanism, creating all kinds of unexpected twists and turns in urban governance.

Dhaka, for instance, has recently been sliced into two City Corporations because the government erroneously decided that the capital had become too large for one mayor. Instead of adopting a policy of decentralisation, population control, urban growth boundary, and capacity building in the mayor's office, the government tragically opted for more divisiveness. On the other end of the spectrum, mayors like Sadek Hossain Khoka waste a valuable position by sitting idle and hiding their mediocrity behind the lament of not having enough power. Enterprising people who take bold initiatives, under any circumstances, may convince adversaries.

Under the tutelage of Dr. Ivy, Narayanganj could be a new model of holistic city governance. Given Narayanganj's strategic location on the flat Padma-Brahmaputra-Meghna alluvial plain of central Bangladesh, we hope that she would make environmental stewardship and sustainable growth of the city as her administration's motto. One of the oldest port cities in the country and an important jute trading and textile production centre located 20 km south-east of Dhaka, Narayanganj has been fast losing its ecological hinterland in the west to Dhaka's inexorable expansion. Shitalahkya, its lifeline, has been encroached upon by political mafias.

My memory of Narayanganj is a dusty, dirty, and crowded town. It is the type of town with a heavy concentration of environment-polluting industries (such as textile in its all stages of production, soap-making, metal re-rolling, and wood furniture making) that one would not like to consider for a second trip.

Could the mayor-elect Ivy take charge and lay down an urban vision that would provide a healthy environment to the people of Narayanganj, while inspiring other smaller towns in the country to follow suit? It would not be fruitless to study the urban reform programs that had made Jaime Lerner, the mayor of southern Brazilian city of Curitiba in the late 1980s, a living legend.

Narayanganj has been Occupied. Now it has to be rebuilt sustainably. Best wishes, Dr. Ivy.

Adnan Morshed, architect, urbanist, and associate professor at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.