Brief glimpses of urban and rural life in South Asia

At the end of May I flew to Dhaka for a short visit, returning for the first time since 1997. In the intervening 21 years the population of Bangladesh increased by around 50 million! With a total of over 165 million inhabitants and a density of about 1100 people per square kilometre, the country is bursting with human enterprise in all shapes and sizes.

I stayed in Gulshan, the upmarket district of Dhaka, in a mini skyscraper hotel with fine views across the city’s rooftops. Construction is the name of the game in the capital, where buildings are zooming upwards as land is scarce. I watched the sunset and the moonrise through the haze of air pollution next to an odd little infinity swimming pool on the 9th floor.

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During my days in the city preparing an evaluation of development assistance I attended a series of meetings with representatives from different agricultural organisations. Going to and from the sessions in slow moving traffic I was occupied from dawn to dusk. But I also had an opportunity to spend a long day in a couple of villages 50 kilometres from the capital.

We left the city in the early morning when the air was relatively fresh and cool. On the way eastwards we took a wrong turn and found ourselves paying a road toll extracted by an elephant blocking the road. Our driver found some notes and placed them between the folds at the end of the animal’s trunk! I was too surprised to remember to grab my camera…

Bangladesh is a rice economy par excellence; tens of millions of farmers subsist on small plots of land on the fertile flood plains of the rivers flowing from the Himalayas through the delta into the Bay of Bengal. Over recent decades, yields and output have increased significantly, resulting in “food self-sufficiency” (in terms of rice) and higher standards of living. However, the poorest, marginalised farmers have a tough time making ends meet. So farm management training in better production practices, improved nutrition and more effective crop marketing is organised through so-called ”farmer field schools.” Despite the losses in translation from Bengali to English, it was interesting to gain some impressions of progress in the farming communities, not least for the women who bear the main burden in rural households.

Milk collectors and an agricultural adviser

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Children, baskets of brinjal (aubergines) and mobile ‘phones

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Some women show the proceeds from the sale of vegetables

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Paddy fields in the heat of the midday sun

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Women farmers explaining about what they have learnt at the field schools

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Men listening during the question and answer session

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The world is increasingly full of people it seems. But the biggest problem is the global transformation from low income, subsistence economies to middle class consumerism on a giant scale. On my way back to Copenhagen from Dhaka I spent a couple of hours in transit at Dubai airport. The phenomenal growth of trans-continental travel is on display at the sprawling airport, where streams of Asian tourists are heading west while the Europeans go east in enormous numbers. Emirates Airlines operate mostly Airbus 380 aircraft, which pack well over 400 people per flight and generate a significant cloud of greenhouse gas emissions. Embarking on a fully booked flight I reflected on how my carbon footprint is swamped in the stampede…

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