This state of affairs in Dhaka is a very recent phenomenon – only in the last few decades has Dhaka transformed itself into this behemoth of a city from its quiet gentle origin
If your eyes and ears are open and functioning and if you are not sleeping you will definitely be aware of the Dhakite's earnest yearning for a decentralized city. Why would they want that? Look at the newspapers or the social media on the net or at least look outside your window– it will be clear to you. The cacophony of the army of double and single deckers, mini and micro buses, covered vans, trucks, cars, CNGs, and lastly the richshaws/rickshaw-vans on your road will remind you about the reality of living in the city of Dhaka. In livability, Dhaka has been earning the distinction of being among the lowest ranking world cities.
For those of us who grew up in this city, this is very tragic! We remember the hustle and bustle of the Nowabpur road traffic, the shopping streets of Islampur/Patuatuli, the crowds of Chawk/Moulovi Bazar, the quite living in old Dhaka mohollas, rich areas of Wari, Purana Paltan and other places. We watched the quiet growth of the newer part of the city that started after the partition – commerce in Motijheel, shopping in New Market, living in Azimpur and Dhanmondi, Mohammadpur and Mirpur. The growth was, as I have already characterized, quiet.
The city was growing at a human scale. By small accretions. You never felt threatened by the pace of development. Not like what is happening now! If you have not been visiting an area in the city for a couple of months nowadays you will not recognize the area. You will feel like a stranger. Such is the pace of development now!
This state of affairs in Dhaka is a very recent phenomenon – only in the last few decades has Dhaka transformed itself into this behemoth of a city from its quiet gentle origin. During the fifties and sixties, Dhaka was a small city with a population of from three to at best ten lakh people. Spatially, the city extended from the river bank in the south to around Dhanmondi, Mohammadpur and Tejgaon area to the north. Thus the size of the city was suited to the few centralized city organizations providing the services needed for its citizens. The modest Dhaka Municipality used to provide the utility services and there was not that much complaints. Even then, as an essential service, the government of the day created a separate agency for water supply during the mid sixties. Similarly, a separate physical development organization, the Dhaka Improvement Trust, was created.
However, with independence the pace of development changed dramatically. The 1974 census estimated the population of Dhaka city to be around eleven lakhs. At present, the city area population is given as around one crore while that of greater Dhaka is around two crores. As you can see, within the core city area the population changed at an accelerated rate. This rate of increase created an enormous pressure on the city services. We should also remember that the additional one crore populace who live outside the core city area also tap into a lot of the city services. The centralized services provided mainly by the municipality, a little later the WASA, the electric supply (forgot what they were called) and the East Pakistan Police ( also popularly known as 'Thola' bahini) could not cope. This reality has taken away the quiet, efficient and the 'romantic eastern capital' that we senior Dhakaites still reminisce.
The quality/quantity of city transportation is the most immediate and the most visible evidence of the sorry plight (referred to above in the first paragraph) that bore down heavily on the low liveability ranking of the city. But this is only one sector or issue of urban life among multiple others. All the utilities for urban life, the water you need for drinking and washing, the fuel you need for cooking, the electric energy that you need for lighting are all in short supply, expensive and irregular. And you are not sure that the air you breathe will not give you diseases. Thus on all aspects of city services our score is low. Why has this happened?
I would think there are several reasons: First is, we could not keep pace with the enormous population that flocked to Dhaka since our independence. Why did they flock to Dhaka? For an answer look at the comparative distribution of the services vis-à-vis the other cities of the country. The lion's share of our development investment came to Dhaka. We tried (as per the chiefs of the country at different times) to make Dhaka the 'Tilottoma' (whatever that means) city. Most new jobs came here. With jobs came people. To service these people came more people (to occupy the informal sectors). They take up places, they crowd out services.
The second is that we could not decentralize spatially. Even though our successive administrations have never been averse to such decentralization and have taken half-hearted attempts towards it – they have never proceeded with a clear plan of decentralization. I remember during the last tenure of this government we heard a lot of noise about creating four satellite cities around Dhaka so that the pressure on the central city can be eased. This came from the highest echelon of the government of the time. I remember that even the proposed sites were selected and visited by the relevant minister of the day. But over time, the idea fizzled out and everyone forgot about it.
There were scores of intermittent calls in the last fifty some years for investing in the intervening secondary cities which are on the path of the capital – like Cumilla, Mymensingh, Bogura, Faridpur and others. This would stop the flow of people to Dhaka – the experts would have us believe. They argued (on the TV talk shows of course) that arresting the flow of people in those cities would make Dhaka an abode of peace and tranquility! They did this, while investing billions in the infrastructure development resources in Dhaka. The largescale low and highrise residential building projects both in the public and private sector, large numbers of highrise private and public commercial buildings, the mega projects in the transport sector like the metrorail projects, the large number of mega shopping malls, large stadiums for international games and tournaments etc resulted in a megacity that none of us could cope with.
I would ascribe as the third reason, our amazing capacity of indiscipline! While we were talking and contemplateing and making plans – of which we have several in recent years (remember Detail Area Plans and other versions before it and the upcoming New DAP. Everything is clearly laid out in these plans) – we are apt to not follow these plans while we develop Dhaka. Why? Because the plan does not allow me to go up as many floors as possible. Or it does not allow me to extend as near as possible to my plot boundary line. I can do that because the RAJUK chairman is my wife's uncle or my friend is a friend of the assistant Vice-chairman of the neighbourhood ruling party unit.
You can also add the centralizing tendencies of the important service providing organizations for adding to this problem. RAJUK, WASA, Eletric Supply - all kinds of organizations in theory have all been decentralized with branch offices spread out all over the city. But if you need any services from any of them, you wil be very lucky if you do not have to go to the head offices and have somebody call up from there to look at your troubles. So much for decentralization!
So far I have restrained myself from using the 'C' word. For the time I can bring this as the fourth reason. I am sure a lot of people will agree with me because it is difficult to find any person among my readers who has not encountered corruption in one way or other living in this city. And they would want to rank it as the first reason. Doing any business here without encountering this C phenomenon is beyond comprehension. This is an all-encompassing, ever present item of our daily urban life. All our plans for development, development through decentralization misfire because the C activities destroy the objectives and the methods of decentralization.
The author is a former Professor of Geography and Environment at the University of Dhaka. He can be reached at: email@example.com