Postcard from…Dhaka

I hate malls, maybe more than anything else in this world. But I knew I was in for a mind-blowing experience the second I heard there was a brand–spanking-new mega-mall in the heart of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Opening in 2004, “Bashundhara City” is eerily and aptly named. It features 20 floors (eight for shopping, the rest for offices), 2,500 stores, a multi-screen movie theater, a Gold’s Gym, a swimming pool and yes, even an indoor amusement park. It claims to be “South Asia’s largest shopping-cum-recreation complex.”

From traditional saris to western guitars, anything you need and more of what you don’t can be found there. Each of its eight floors of shopping is efficiently segregated between various products. There’s one floor just for cell phones, one just for men’s clothes, one just for women’s, and well, you get the point. Flashing lights, young hip teens, shiny products in shinier windows, and “Grameen Phone” advertisements wallpaper the entire mall.

Of course, once you immerse yourself in this fully air-conditioned mini-city, you almost forget about the real city on the other side of the walls that encircles it with 100-degree heat (plus Dhaka’s famous humidity). The architecturally stunning building sits in stark contrast to its surroundings – amidst a passionate and resilient people that probably couldn’t care less about it. In fact, the rest of the 12 million people in the metropolitan area who can’t afford to shop in the mall are physically kept out by the “round-the-clock security” that the mall brags about having.

Bashundhara City is the 12th-largest mall in the world in one of the 50 “least developed countries” on earth. Half of the Bangladesh’s population of 154 million lives below the poverty line. Dhaka itself is considered to be world’s fastest-growing city, with 400,000 people migrating every year. The city is already so densely populated that Dhaka’s rickshaw drivers outnumber the entire population of Miami.

Since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, most leaders have embraced the mantra of trade liberalization and privatization as the key to solving the countries problems, though it consistently has not worked. This giant mall has become a symbol of this overall approach: Bangladesh can shop its way out of its problems.

As Abdur Rashid, one of Dhaka’s 400,000 rickshaw drivers, told the BBC, “I have never been inside because we have very little money. There is a deep division between the rich and poor, but maybe in the future my grandchildren or great-grandchildren might be able to shop there. It depends on luck, if luck supports you anything might happen.”

Abdur is absolutely correct – “luck” is the only way this approach is going to work.

Saif Rahman is the Movements Coordinator for the Institute for Policy Studies and is the Youth and Activism Editor for Foreign Policy In Focus.