The Plastic Menace – Aspiring for a Plastic Free Home

From the first object we pick up on opening our eyes every morning, to the last button we switch off at night, plastic is the material we touch and see all around us. Plastic as a material, has become an addiction. Yet there is increasing focus on the plastic menace, and the threat to life on planet earth.

It is not unusual for man to create things that eventually end up threatening his own survival. Starting out as a convenient, safe, easy to use, unbreakable though totally malleable, durable material, plastic was the big invention of the 19th century. A chemical compound, plastic is a polymeric material that can be shaped and molded by applying heat into myriad shapes and products, that are lightweight and yet not easy to break. Its plasticity apart, plastic is tough and transparent, with low density and low electric conductivity. Its usability extends from bags and bottles to machine parts, equipment and even textiles.

In simple terms plastics are chains of light molecules linked together. These chains are termed polymers, and come in forms like polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and so on. Easy to manufacture at low costs, they are waterproof and not easily breakable, even being resistant to corrosion and chemicals.

The Plastic story – how it all began

The very first known plastics come from nature, in the form of rubber, which has all the properties that plastic is known for. Plastic is derived from natural materials like oil, natural gas, coal, plants and minerals. The first synthetic plastics ever made, though, were made from cellulose, a material found in trees and plants. When heated and mixed with certain chemicals, cellulose yielded a highly durable material that could be put to numerous uses. It was also easy to make plastic out of hydrocarbons, found in oil, natural gas and coal.

The first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907, and made without using any natural raw material, it was called bakelite. The onset of World War II saw plastic being used to make lightweight airplane parts and nylon parachutes. It facilitated preserving scarce natural resources, and plastic being easy to mass produce, became the preferred raw material whose production increased by 300%. Plastic became the winning material across the globe, replacing steel in cars, for lighter parts in machines and airplanes, wood for furniture and glass and paper for packaging.

Plastic is cheap, and from its earliest days, it was used to make things that we did not wish to keep for long. Soon it got the prefix, ‘disposable’, meaning use and throw. Thus, it helped overcome the limitations of glass, iron and wood, and helped revolutionize the medical sector. It helped save fuel costs as machines and aircrafts became lighter, preserve the freshness of food by providing a fine transparent wrap to over, create toys for children, film rolls and prints, help transport drinking water to remote corners of the earth, and spare wildlife that was poached for ivory and tortoise shells.

From boon to menace

Plastic was created for a good cause, a substitute for scarce natural resources, to facilitate life and activity, not disrupt and threaten it. It was a boon that should have stayed within limits, but its production was unstoppable and usage far beyond the need.

As plastic surrounded us in every possible shape and form, it gradually came to be perceived as a cheap, inferior material of poor quality. Its mass production also meant that its waste began to pile up and it first cropped up as an environmental issue in the 1960s when the first plastic waste was found in oceans.

Plastic seems so easy to dispose of, takes less space, and is lightweight. But the abundance of plastic has made its waste also reach alarming proportions. It is non-biodegradable and will last forever in the environment (it takes 500 years for plastic to degenerate), and will keep increasing, since very little can be recycled, most of it being single use plastic. The additives that go into making plastic are harmful for all life, and the toxic chemicals leeched out of plastic end up in the human blood stream and body tissue, causing disease.

The plastic bag touted as the big find of the 1970s, has become the biggest menace, with 1 trillion bags produced annually, and almost a million bags used per minute. The convenience of carrying disposable water bottles, Styrofoam cups, glasses and straws, have only added to the colossal plastic piles. We carelessly throw such bottles etc, little realizing how its adding up – some 15000 water bottles are discarded into bins every minute globally. This accumulation of plastic products that float in streams, cover vast areas of land, end up adversely affecting life and habitats on the planet and has come to be called plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution has impacted 40% of existing marine species. According to the National Geographic magazine, nearly 9 million tons of plastic flows into oceans annually from the coastal regions. In urban areas, overflowing drains clogged with plastic, heaps of garbage in which plastic is conspicuous, have become sights we have grown to ignore, little realizing our own contribution to the mess. Landfills are seen on the outskirts of cities, beaches have corners where the piles seem to be constantly rising, and sometimes when the tide rises higher, it sweeps away some of the plastic into the ocean, which then mistaken for food, gets consumed by marine creatures, causing them a painful death when their digestive tract gets blocked.

The growth of plastic in all forms has far outstripped the ability of the waste management industry to dispose it of, without harming the environment. This is particularly true in the rapidly growing Asian countries where waste management and awareness about problems posed by plastic is in its nascent stages and largely ignored.

Myanmar is also seeing increasing levels of plastic pollution, where an estimated 200 tons of waste enters waterways everyday. Attempts are being made by grassroots organizations to educate the people about minimizing plastic waste, and help people make small changes that will have a beneficiary long term impact.

The way forward – start small, keep plastic free homes

Plastic is here to stay, more for its practical uses, and for making things easier. Using it responsibly, is in our hands though. If bio-degrading solutions could be found, plastic would become similar to the organic waste, and focusing on recyclable plastic would help in limiting waste quantities, and prevent it from reaching oceans and water bodies, threatening marine life and even polluting the food chain.

Only 18% of plastic is recycled, and plastic bottles remain the most used. Recycling reduces the need for producing more quantities of plastic and the existing plastic gets used rather than going in to landfills and waterbodies. The first recycling mill accepted residential plastic in 1972, and since then plastics have been segregated and sent to such mills that are now seen in every part of the world. Ideally, the waste at one stage must become a resource for the next.

The toughest issue is finding alternate solutions to plastic. Till then, we can take a few small steps, by not buying more plastic, what is discarded must not be replaced with more plastic, and make conscious changes in our daily life, what we buy, how we use and how we throw. We must stop accepting plastic bags from super markets, instead carry our own reusable bags, made of paper or cloth; replace all our plastic containers with those of glass or steel, never get take-away single use plastic boxes, minimize the use of cling film and Ziploc bags, avoid microwaveable plastics, and use only glass bottles for water and for storing other things. A plastic free kitchen would actually be a dream, but one cannot change the plastic used to make some of the gadgets we use. It will also help if we buy natural, locally produced unpackaged soaps, buy shampoos in glass bottles and oil in tin containers. With none of these to throw, our trash cans will be lighter too.

We need to change our mindset towards plastic. In Myanmar, as early as 2013, it was heartening to see the famed Sharky’s Restaurant and Deli, pack foodstuff in carry bags made out of newspaper. Retailers are trying to do their bit to reduce the plastic bag menace. It is estimated that an average of 4 plastic bags per person per day get used in Myanmar. Citimart, the leading supermarket, marks the last day of the month as ‘no plastic bags day’. It is heartening to see some carry their own reusable bags to bring back their purchases. Paper bags are a good substitute but has its flipside too. While paper takes resources and time to generate, plastic takes a longer time to degenerate!

Plastic must not flood our planet and leave little place for living beings, and this needs every individual’s contribution.

Yangon-A Place to Learn Meditation

Living in Myanmar is a different experience. The whole country is quieter, calmer than the rest of bustling Asia, beautifully, naturally green, with an unparalleled aura of peace. This is seen even in its biggest cities like Yangon and Mandalay, which have all the features of buzzing commercial centers, and yet have a soothing effect. It’s the tranquil air that touches deep, and most who experience it, opt to stay on. A far cry from lives many of us have left behind, to set up homes in Yangon, we now shun the noise, frenzy, stress and rush that is a part of daily lives in places not far from here. Many of us have turned to Buddhist meditative practices, and now understand how little we need to survive, and while we have not yet renounced material belongings, the craving for more, has dissipated.

The peaceful ambience has to be witnessed and experienced in person, to comprehend what it means to have a calm existence, without any rush or frenzy, without noise and pollution, without panic and chaos of multitasking which at best, yields half-baked solutions to multiple issues. The people also appear so calm and gentle by nature, there are no loud haranguing voices, no shouts and fights, only soft sounds of conversations even in cafes and tea shops. This can be attributed to their Buddhist beliefs, with 90% of the population following Buddhism. Meditation is a way of life, an essential that they turn to, frequently, and most people try to take a few days off annually, for mediation retreats in monasteries in some part of the country.

Myanmar’s association with Buddhism and meditation is centuries old, actively supported by royalty down the ages, and meditative practices were passed on from masters to disciples, generation after generation, and never getting lost. The Vipassana technique of mediation, though originated in India, continued only in Myanmar in its pristine form, while getting lost for centuries where it started. Today, mediation in various forms is spreading all over the world, and many of those carrying this torch have taken their first steps on this path, in Myanmar.

Yangon then, is the ideal, perfect place to learn meditation, with its numerous meditation centers offering comfortable though basic living facilities, and these too, free of cost. Any donation made to compensate for expenses is highly appreciated but remains optional. It is only if one goes for a mediation course that combines yoga, nature walks and meditation and is organized by travel agencies, that one has to pay, depending on the duration and quality of living quarters.

What is Meditation all about

There is always an urge to improve as human beings, meaning that we would like to get rid of our bad habits, vices, negative thinking patterns, and develop a pure mind, far removed from venomous thoughts, ill-feeling towards others, and never wanting to hurt or harm anyone by our words and actions. This is possible only if we develop a razor-sharp mind that stops us before we make a wrong move or utter hurtful words, develop empathy and move towards a high level of purity that touches the core of our being. Meditation is the only way to self-purification.

Asian cultures have inculcated a need for spiritual elevation as one gets on in age. However, in recent years, the spiritual journey for many, begins once they cross twenty and seek a meaning and purpose in life, beyond the material and the mundane. All the meditation centers have a significant number of disciples in their twenties, and some even conduct special courses for teenagers.

Our lives that focus on the physical and material cause only pain, misery, jealousy, craving and aversion. Spirituality and its pursuit lifts us above these. Meditation is the route to freedom from all misery-causing factors, like the ego, which is often the root cause of all negative sensations and aversions in our body. Forgetting the “I” and overcoming self-importance is the only way we can reach the stage of non-self. In the present age, self has become most important and all our actions are about self-gratification, the rest of the world ceases to matter.

Mediation helps us make our mind calm and through introspection, looking inwards rather than outwards, we achieve peace. It involves different ways and methods, though the end goal is the same, achieving peace and rising above misery. One can focus on an object, a part of the body, an action like walking, but all the time, being mindful. One practices moment to moment awareness of the physical and mental state, observing every sensation that arises and passes away. This helps us understand how impermanent everything is, every feeling that comes, goes away, whatever begins will come to an end. We observe and we understand, and eventually imbibe this well enough to apply this truth to every aspect of our daily life.

Meditation need not stretch for 24 hours, day after day. It has to be learnt, and then practiced, preferably daily, whenever one can spare the time. It does require quiet surroundings to facilitate concentration, at least initially, till one has reached such an advanced stage that noise and surroundings no longer distract.

Meditation Centers in Yangon

There is always a long waiting list of prospective students of meditation, both local and international. Before enrolling at any center, it is important to know the precise meditative practices taught and practiced at each of these, and see which one we resonate with. Some teaching walking and sitting meditation, both being an exercise in mindfulness.

All the centers have comfortable living quarters, separate for men and women, provide simple, nutritious food, and basic facilities to accommodate new and old students. The rooms do not have any phones and it is generally recommended to not carry laptops, smart phones, books or reading material. Communication with the outside is possible through the office which has international calling facilities, fax machines etc. Doctors are available for medical emergencies.

Most centers teach Vipassana using the Mahasi Sayadaw method. Dhamma Joti Vipassana center was set up by S N Goenka and follows the tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin. In most centers it is possible to receive instructions in English as well. Every year, thousands of international and local students of all age groups enroll for courses in these centers. The daily practice begins at dawn though timings of different centers vary, and continue till nearly 10 pm, with breaks for food and rest. There is time for individual mediation and group sittings, and teachers are available for improving the meditation technique and resolve doubt. For the few days spent in these centers, living is confined to one’s own physical frame, where one focusses on mindful actions of oneself, and not interact with others at all. Even eye contact is avoided.

Students are expected to adhere to the rules and regulations of the center, follow the eight precepts, practice noble silence, and eat twice a day, abstaining from eating after noon time. Beverages are offered in the evening. This gives us a sense of how little we need to survive, and how wasteful our lifestyle is, in the outside world. This may appear tough as an outsider, but once we step in, the purpose spurs us on, and the focus is on learning alone.

Some of the mediation centers in Yangon are listed below:

  • Dhamma Joti Vipassana Center
  • Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center
  • Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Mediation Center
  • Panditarama Meditation Center
  • Shwe Oo Min Dhamma Sukha Yeiktha
  • International Theravada Buddhist University

For those wanting complete solitude away from the city, can opt for the few forest retreats in Myanmar, like the Pak Auk Forest Monastery in Mon State, and the Panditarama Forest Monastery not far from Yangon.


Is Yangon Sliding Under Urbanization Pressure?

Yangon’s crowds are growing and the numbers on the roads are increasing, be it vehicles or people. IS Yangon overcrowded? Yes, very much. Parks are packed with people taking a break, the sidewalks with pedestrians, and the roads with more vehicles than Yangon has ever seen before. All this is in stark contrast to the Yangon we saw in 2013, when its seemed the most refreshing place to live in, a very green, quiet and serene city with an aura of peace that permeated the inner most core of our being, a few cars, a few people, and there was sufficient room for all. Anywhere I went, there were vast open spaces, quiet corners and empty roads. Fast forward to 2018, one look at Yangon now, and this would seem like a fairy tale.

Yangon today looks like any other big Asian city, with its traffic jams, congestion, pockets of densely populated areas, emerging slums, crowded streets and people spilling everywhere. The once neat and clean city, is often seen with littered sidewalks, broken pavements and everything one sees in a place that cannot take the load of the number of people occupying it.

The transformation can be attributed to a series of factors linked to economic development, which brings with it, urbanization, industrialization and modernization.  Migration from rural to urban areas is one of the first phenomena ones sees.

What Yangon stands for

Yangon’s pristine aura of peace, enigmatic charm, unparalleled scenic beauty, colonial heritage and elusive old-world charm, has made it a top tourist destination and the most popular city for the people of Myanmar. As the country’s biggest urban center, Yangon has charmed one and all. Once the center of art and education, Yangon has been changing and evolving, for better and worse. Today, it is a city that is ready to burst at its seams, stretched to provide basic amenities and subsistence to a rapidly growing population. It is rapidly emerging as a cosmopolitan, commercial hub, providing jobs, homes and livelihood to locals and expatriates alike. Yangon is the country’s commercial capital, with the best quality of life, and the first stop for everyone entering the country.

Yangon being the largest city, has 8% of the country’s total population, the number of people being four times more than those living in Mandalay. This accounts for nearly 52% of the country’s total urban population. The current population growth rate of 3.4% per annum, will take the city to the 10 million mark by 2030.

For Myanmar folk, it is the land of opportunity where the best of education, job opportunities and healthcare facilities are available. Yangon accounts for 50% of the country’s industrial capacity, is the largest financial and commercial center, the seat of education, art, culture, healthcare, tourism, research and development.

Yangon’s character has changed with bridges and flyover, vertical high rise structures rising alongside pagodas, housing sector expanding, shopping malls and multiplexes mushrooming all over the city.

Urbanization and the migrant influx

Urbanization in Myanmar has been pushed due to challenges faced in rural areas. With employable population increasing, earning money has become difficult, since there is lack of sufficient land to employ everyone, old farming techniques still being used, threat of natural disasters and difficulty to overcome past disasters, and lack of work opportunities beyond agriculture. The urban pull emanates from better job opportunities in various fields and higher minimum wages. Evidence shows that urbanization peaks when city wages exceed rural earnings, and revenue from natural resources becomes stagnant with limited potential for growth.

Myanmar’s urbanization process has radically changed two big cities, Yangon and Mandalay, and urban population accounts for 34.65% (2016) of the total. Over 50% of the 11,000 registered firms in Myanmar, are Yangon based. Industrialization which incorporates manufacturing and services, is a big driver of urbanization and this holds true for Yangon. As a result, migrants from all parts of Myanmar come to Yangon looking for jobs and earning options.

Theoretically, urban hubs are the perfect meeting place for talent and opportunity, but lack of a qualified, educated and skilled work force, is an issue. Consequently, jobs which do not require high skill levels are easier to find. Often such jobs do not pay well enough to provide subsistence to families, despite the fact that government-stipulated minimum wages are paid. The result is, search for cheaper accommodation, the growth of slums, and squatters seen in all parts of the city.

Slums are informal, temporary, non-pucca hutments or shanties that crop up in clusters, wherever there is free space, generally on the fringes of cities. Unofficial figures indicate that a quarter of Yangon’s population lives in slums that have cropped up in suburbs. An influx of tenants leads to an escalation of rents in the city areas, and pushes the poorer section further away towards the outer parts. Most slums are overcrowded, unhygienic with limited access to clean water and adequate sanitation facilities. Housing space per family is generally less than 200 square ft, the construction type being wooden frames with leaf roofing, temporary and vulnerable to the elements. Hlaing Thar Yar township has the highest number of slum dwellers, most of whom have migrated from the Ayerwaddy Division.

Myanmar is one country whose urban poor are worse off than the rural poor. This is because urban living requires cash for everything and nothing comes free. In rural areas, there are no payments needed for a lot of things that come free, there is exchange and barter, and very few people sleep hungry in villages. The same does not hold true for Yangon’s squatters. Their living conditions are in sharp contrast to the middle and upper classes, and the contrast between the haves and have-nots, is the ideal breeding ground for petty thefts and crimes. The opening up of the country, the influx of foreign goods and capital, the emergence of shopping malls and entertainment areas, has evoked interest from the once content and complacent population. There is a desire to acquire the latest in fashion goods, devices and gadgets, and get a taste of all that Yangon offers. Those opting for shortcuts would resort to dishonest ways of getting these.

How Urbanization impacts developing countries

Developing nations surge ahead on the basis of manpower that drives industrialization. There is a redistribution of population, an exodus from villages towards cities, in search of better job opportunities. Urbanization involves rural flight and expansion of urban areas, and it is almost always, driven by economic factors, since earning potential in urban areas is much higher than rural areas. Agriculture is the primary source of employment in villages in most developing countries where governments have not been able to set up small scale or cottage industries that tap local resources and add value to raw materials.

Urbanization is an essential step for all nations on the path of development. Urban areas are the ubiquitous centers of education, talent, training, capability, experience and expertise-all prerequisites for industrial growth, which will lead the country towards self-sufficiency, increase productivity, generate employment, raise standards of living, increase per capita incomes, savings and investments. Thus it leads social and economic transformation of societies, improving quality at micro and macro levels.

Nearly 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas today, a far cry from 1800 A.D., when urban population was just 2%. By 2050, the United Nations expects two-thirds of the world population to be in urban areas This is because empirically, it has been seen that cities have more economic potential with their concentration of resources including capital and labor, where talent meets opportunity provided by the manufacturing or services sectors. Urban areas provide variety of opportunity on one side, and consumption on the other.

Urbanization also results in high population density (the number of people living per unit of area), causing overcrowding, shortage of space, homelessness, congestion and pollution. In most developing countries, there is inadequate infrastructure, insufficient affordable housing, water and sanitation, and other basics that are a citizen’s right to lead a dignified life. The dearth of housing leads to slum creation, squatters, shanties being put up on pavements, sidewalks and under bridges, and herein fester crime and danger, out of poverty and frustration, and people take to begging just to survive.

A series of push and pull factors are the root cause of urbanization. Residents of villages are forced to move out when survival becomes difficult, earnings do not cover expenses, and there seems to be no future opportunities for improvement. Hence the push factors come into play, which include landlessness, low wages as farm workers, seasonal work in fields depending on the crop, lack of alternate employment opportunities, and natural disasters that cause loss and damage.

Pull factors include the facilities and opportunities that cities provide. From afar, cities appear to be like paradise and survival easy with all that they offer, better and multiple employment opportunities which are not seasonal, potential to improve skills, better education and healthcare, better infrastructure and communication facilities.  These somehow camouflage the impending threats of extreme poverty, unemployment, vulnerability to crime, exposure to pollution and unhealthy elements.

Can rural exodus be stopped

In the ongoing debate on the ills of urbanization, there is talk of halting the process and a search for alternatives. The solution lies in providing employment opportunities in rural areas through the setting up of small scale industries in villages where local arts and crafts can be manufactured, value added agricultural products can be produced in villages close to the source of raw materials to avoid transportation costs as well. Myanmar’s export earnings from rice, beans pulses, vegetables and fruits, fisheries etc can increase substantially if they are packaged according to international standards and sold as finished goods rather than being finished in other countries. Improvement of education facilities, setting up secondary schools and vocational training centers will also stem part of this influx into Yangon.

Celebrating Thingyan in Yangon – Fifth Year In a Row

After more than four years in Yangon, I too, like everyone in Myanmar, wait with excitement and enthusiasm, for Thingyan, the water festival. Thingyan is the biggest festival, event and celebration of the year in Myanmar. It comes as a welcome break from the hectic pace of life, and brings all activities to a virtual standstill for all, when work stops and workplaces shut down, when the mood of holiday and festivity in the entire month of April means nothing will move. Except for the water spraying pavilions, loud music and vendors feeding the hundreds playing, the city or actually, the whole country is transformed, the buzz and bustle is missing, and there is just an ambience of relaxation and fun, noise and merriment. Those who can afford it, leave the country to take a break elsewhere and catch up on all that is missing in Myanmar.

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Yangon’s Architectural Structures Need Restoration

Yangon is a city with character, one that charms and fascinates, despite, the aging structures that line its streets. The impeccable glistening newness of the Shwedagon Pagoda reveals the effort that goes into maintaining this exquisite structure which is perhaps the most beautiful pagoda in the world. In stark contrast, as one drives around Yangon, one sees dilapidated structures, rundown buildings, belonging to the era of British rule. They contribute as much to the character of Yangon, as the golden spired pagodas, monasteries and other architectural marvels. British architecture stands out in all the countries that were once British colonies, be it India, Sri Lanka or Myanmar. But while their counter parts in Delhi, Kolkata, Colombo and a host of other cities have been restored, maintained and preserved, Yangon sees them slowly, silently crumbling.

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Four Years in Yangon

I set foot in Yangon four years ago, and vividly remember the feeling of dread as the aircraft circled over numerous water bodies, lush greenery and pockets of habitation over vast expanses of flat land. The first three months were difficult and then we began to accept the place and its people. We began to enjoy the company of the locals with their ever smiling faces, and admire their level of contentment despite their very limited means and minimal access to comforts and luxuries. We admired the classless society, though there was respect and reverence for the learned and the elite, and we began to understand their amazing attitude and look inwards too.

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Of Familiar Fast Food Chains And Local Culture

Change has become the only constant in Myanmar. From a country that barely witnessed change a decade ago, to have become a rapidly transforming and growing economy, Myanmar stands for optimism and hope, development and advancement…all the positives that appear once the need for embracing change is felt. The air is rife with optimism and enthusiasm, even as the local populace waits expectantly for the next set of newbies to appear.

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Myanmar- The Big Rural Urban Divide

The beautifully vibrant city of Yangon is the epitome of urban living in Myanmar. The country’s commercial capital, Yangon is home to over 5 million people, forming a big chunk of Myanmar’s population. The city juxtaposed against vast expanses of arable land and dry areas, with shanties and hutments in hamlets in the country side, brings out the stark contrast in life and living in Myanmar.

Like many other countries, a prominent rural-urban divide is visible in Myanmar. Inequalities are evident in all developing economies with higher dependence on agrarian activities, and till this dependence on agriculture reduces with alternative sources of employment coming up, the pace of development remains slow and the division between the haves and the have-nots unlikely to reduce. The gap between rural and urban development can be partly attributed to an urban bias and governmental policies which focus more on developing cities and urban areas. This is true of other countries like India, and neighboring Thailand which has seen urbanization centered around the Bangkok Metropolitan Region.

Myanmar today, is a country on the threshold of rapid development. According to the Asian Development Bank, the country’s GDP growth reached 7.5% in the fiscal year 2013-14. With foreign investment pouring in, and favorable government regulations, growth rates are expected to be even higher in the current fiscal year. The outside world is upbeat about the developmental prospects of Myanmar with its rich reserves of natural resources, an untapped market for consumer goods, and a strategic location.

But the ground reality reveals a country struggling with poverty with approximately twenty-three percent of its population living below the poverty line, overdependence on agriculture for subsistence and small-scale farmers forming the economy’s backbone, not to mention the acute dearth of skilled labor.

The Rural Scenario

According to World Bank estimates based on UN World Urbanization Prospects, in 2012, Myanmar’s rural population forms 67% of the total population of 57 million that resides in its 40,000 odd villages.  Regional disparities are clearly evident and poverty in rural areas is a big concern. According to a UNDP report, rural poor account for 84% of the total poor population.  Rural poverty is the result of a series of factors like small or no farms, poor output which is sold at low prices, limited availability of non agrarian jobs, and lack of credit facilities. Majority of the farmers own less than ten acres of land and this fragmentation of holdings prevents higher yields at lower costs. 37% of the villagers do not own any land or livestock, and live and work in quite the same way as their forefathers did. The use of bullock carts for plowing fields, bamboo houses without access to electricity, safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, are some of the features of rural life that need to be urgently addressed.

Life in the rural areas of Myanmar today is medieval and slow-paced. The people lead simple lives, with no mechanization, their homes spartan and basic. Even electricity and water sources at home are available to a very select few. Communication, infrastructural facilities and healthcare all need to be improved and enhanced to extend their reach to remote and border areas of the country.

There has been an exodus of young men and women from villages to neighboring Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia for more lucrative work prospects. Their remittances have served as a boon and savior to families back home. Typically, the development process sees such migration to cities and towns nearby, but since industrialization and work opportunities have been limited within the country, the demand for semi-skilled and domestic labor has lured them beyond Myanmar borders. A larger number of women have joined the work force in neighboring Asian countries. It is only recently that rural women have begun migrating to garment factories coming up in and around Yangon.

The Urban Scene

At present, Myanmar’s urban population is roughly 30% of the total, with only 13% living in big cities. According to the McKinsey report on Myanmar, this percentage could increase sharply to 25% by the year 2030, with around ten million people migrating to large cities. Urban activity in Myanmar is concentrated primarily in Yangon and Mandalay.

Urbanization is the first step towards industrialization of an economy as the labor looks for work beyond farms in factories and companies. It offers employment opportunities almost absent in villages, a better standard of life and access to basic amenities like better housing, education and health care. Cities have better roads and transport facilities, besides higher availability of goods and services, despite being more densely populated. This makes life in cities more appealing and attractive. The attire and food habits of city folk are similar to their rural counterparts, but the urban poor are worse off in some ways, since they do not have access to agricultural produce that the rural poor can consume even as they cope with a higher cost of living.

The Rural-Urban Divide

Myanmar’s rural urban divide is conspicuous in every aspect of the common man’s life, be it access to education and healthcare, infrastructure, power, communication, or even general living standards. Since occupational fields in rural and urban domains are so diverse, there is a distinct contrast in earning capacities. It inevitably translates into economic inequality, lop-sided development and a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

  • The power gap- The electrification ratio in Myanmar is much lower than that of its neighboring Asian countries in both rural and urban areas. Per capita electricity consumption is about one-twentieth of Thailand. Only 60% of the total power supply is reliable. The use of renewable energy sources like hydropower for approximately 70% of the total supply, makes it vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, and a dry spell leads to major shortages.  Rural access to power is more disturbing with over 72% villages still un-electrified, according to the MOEP report on rural electrification in Myanmar. Villages see only a small number of households connected with a tangle of wires to electricity poles. With only 16-18% of the rural people having access to power, the setting sun plunges the countryside into blackness. In sharp contrast, 89% of the urban population has access to electricity, which facilitates industrial production as well. With foreign investment being allowed, the power situation is expected to improve in the next 3-5 years.
  • Water and sanitation- Access to safe drinking water in rural Myanmar was 65% in 2010 compared to 81% in urban areas. Not that there is any dearth of water resources in the country. Myanmar has abundance of water with potential annual volume of surface water being 1082 cubic km besides 495 cubic km of ground water. Unfortunately, only 5 % of the potential water supply is used and access of safe drinking water or its use for sanitation is at disturbingly low levels.  Villages get most of their water from springs, open wells and rivers, with dwindling supply during the dry season, which forces people to consume even contaminated water. Urban areas have water sources in most homes, but national figures reveal that only 10.5 % of the poor have a water source in their homes. Sanitation facilities are available to 77% of the rural residents and 84% of the urban population.  International organizations like UNICEF, Red Cross, Asian Development Bank and countries like Japan are assisting the country in improving water and sanitation works.
  • Education – The rural urban difference is evident even more in the field of education though the country has a literacy rate of 89.7%. While every village does have at least one school, in remote and border areas, the number reduces to one school for five villages. The presence of monastic schools helps bridge the gap. Enrolment into primary schools is high, with 85% of children of primary school age attending school in urban areas, compared to 76% in rural areas. However, all the enrolled children do not complete primary school education. The dropout rate is higher in rural areas due to problems of transportation and access to schools, among other reasons. Attendance in secondary schools is lower with 69% of secondary school age children attending school in urban areas, compared to only 34% in rural areas. The 156 institutes of higher education are all in cities. Training facilities for teachers and availability of school supplies in rural schools are much lesser than their urban counterparts.
  • Healthcare- Myanmar’s healthcare services leave a lot to be desired, even though the government is refurbishing the system of providing basic medical facilities, with increased government spending of 3.9% of the annual budget in 2013, up from 1.9% in 2012. Rural areas have health centers, and the Township Health System introduced in 1964, continues. Both traditional herbal medicine and modern medicine practices are followed here, and preference for the former is evident. The rural areas have limited access to healthcare since very basic health problems can be resolved in their villages, and have to rush to neighboring cities for specialist treatment at Station Hospitals or Township Hospitals with 25-50 beds depending on the population of the township. Villages have primary health care centers, which have midwives and health assistants. All these come under the Township Health Department that is responsible for providing primary and secondary healthcare. Serious illnesses and deteriorating conditions push people towards specialist hospitals in Yangon and Mandalay, after traditional herbal medicines have also been tried and failed. The rural poor often seek treatment from untrained health workers since doctors are not easily available. Insufficient salaries, lack of learning opportunities and difficult conditions are some of the deterrents that discourage doctors from serving in rural areas. A few international NGOs provide free medical aid in rural areas. Hospitals are found in cities with specialist, children and women’s hospitals established only in Yangon and Mandalay.  Of late, private medical institutes including polyclinics have mushroomed in Yangon. The facilities, equipment and supplies, are not still state-of-the-art even in these private startups.  Foreign hospitals especially those from neighboring Thailand and Singapore have also set up representative offices with the aim of promoting medical tourism in their country. The contrast is striking.
  • Telecommunications- Telecommunication is the key to growth and development of economies. The telecommunication network in Myanmar is being built with participation of foreign companies like Qatar based Ooredoo, and Norway’s Telenor. At present telecommunication services are poor compared to other countries, and have been monopolized by MPT, the state owned enterprise. As of now, there is a single telephone for 169 people, and a SIM card for mobile phones costs between USD100-200. Oredoo has released its first lot of SIM cards costing only 1500 kyats. However, service issues, poor connectivity and other teething problems need to be addressed before it can be a threat to the reigning MPT.

Till these companies start full scale operations, less than 10% of the population has access to mobile phones, and the internet penetration is less than 1% of the total population, and this too is confined to big cities like Yangon, Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw and Bagan. Only around 10,000 users exist beyond Yangon and Mandalay. Internet cafes are common, but again only in cities. The situation in rural Myanmar can only be imagined, with villagers and farmers having little or no access to telephones, leave alone internet. Till end 2012, most villages were without fixed line telephone services. In the last one year, with SIM card prices falling, the number of subscribers has increased, but connectivity remains poor due to lack of supporting infrastructure to cater to a larger clientele. People in rural areas who can afford handsets costing between $45-350, have started buying mobile phones, but service remains poor and it is not always possible to stay connected.

The rural urban divide is not going unnoticed and the government is keen to address this issue and efforts are on, to bridge the gap so as to improve economic efficiency. President U Thein Sein addressed the National Workshop on Rural Development Strategic Framework in November last year, and elaborated on making rural development a key focus area with emphasis on providing food security, poverty reduction and sustainable economic development.

The rural urban divide can be a potential cause of social and economic instability, since inequalities provide for an unhealthy climate for growth. With new laws being formulated, and regulations being put in place, the process of change, improvement and development is irreversible. The only way seems upwards and with it will come, rural development, which will improve the quality of life and work of the rural folk, bringing them closer to at least urban, if not, international living standards.