Reviving Dhaka through eastward expansion  

Helal Uddin Ahmed         | Published: July 17, 2018 22:16:42

As one of the foremost urbanisation experts Jane Jacobs (1992) pointed out, creative and workable cities have been at the core of flourishing and prosperous societies. Households and firms become more productive when they concentrate in cities, and this in turn attracts more firms and households. Land availability and land use patterns are crucial in effective functioning of cities. In recent years, urbanisation has been taking place rapidly in the countries of South Asia, as a result of which some megacities have emerged. They are serving as drivers of economic growth and helping lift millions out of poverty. But this urbanisation process has been quite messy in some instances, as urban land availability grew mostly in a crude manner, leading to diseconomies in the use of lands. This in turn is resulting in excessive congestion and low liveability despite some gains from agglomeration. Bangladesh capital Dhaka is a typical example of unplanned and unchecked expansion of cities in South Asia, which is increasingly constrained by flooding-cum-water-logging, severe congestion and overall messiness.

Greater Dhaka has some interesting statistics that expose the contrasts and contradictions the largest city of Bangladesh is currently mired in. It occupies only 1.0 per cent of the country's territory but accounts for as much as 10 per cent of the population and 36 per cent of urban population. The population density in the western part of Dhaka City Corporation is an astounding 41 thousand per square kilometre, one of the highest in the world. On the other hand, greater Dhaka contributes 20 per cent of Bangladesh's GDP, 31 per cent of the country's manufacturing jobs, and 44 per cent of formal employment. Besides, around 80 per cent factories of the country's highest export earning sector - the readymade garments - are also located here. But based on the liveability index prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit that combines information on education, health, infrastructure and stability, Dhaka has been ranked 139th out of 140 cities in the world, only ahead of Syrian capital Damascus. It is 11th largest city in terms of population, but only 78th in terms of GDP.

The above-mentioned figures have been revealed by a World Bank report titled 'Toward Great Dhaka: A New Urban Development Paradigm Eastward' released recently. Divided into seven chapters, the report dwells on the present dynamic but messy character of Dhaka city, fragmented responsibilities due to weak urban authorities and ineffective coordination mechanisms, potentials and risks confronting Dhaka's western and eastern parts, urban development scenarios for future Dhaka, modelling city growth in the eastern part, envisioning a prosperous Dhaka in 2035, and returns, financing, payoffs, risks and mitigation through implementation of the proposed vision for eastward expansion of Dhaka.

Spread over an area of 1,528 square kilometres, Greater Dhaka encompasses an urban core surrounded by satellite cities, towns and villages. But agricultural land account for around 40 per cent of its surface, which reflects the rural character of the city's periphery. The rural local government bodies consist of about 90 union councils, while the urban local government units comprise five municipalities and the four city corporations, viz. Dhaka North, Dhaka South, Narayanganj and Gazipur.

The World Bank report has identified three critical challenges facing Dhaka at the present juncture. The first one is flooding, which translates into a high probability that a land area will not be fully usable for long periods of time. The second one is congestion, which implies that traffic congestion leads to wastage of many person-hours that could be devoted to work or leisure. The third one is messiness, which refers to the inadequate coordination among various infrastructure and service delivery apparatuses across different sectors. If these constraints cannot be overcome, then Dhaka city will miss the gains emanating from a virtuous cycle of location advantage, economies of agglomeration and self-selection. The World Bank report therefore proposes three critical interventions that need to be incorporated in the strategic approach to the future development of East Dhaka. These are: Building the eastern embankment along the Balu River; developing the critically important transport infrastructure in East Dhaka; and, reducing the cost of doing business in this new area.

The simulations carried out by the World Bank have revealed the extent of difference between continuing with the business as usual scenario and pursuing a strategic approach to the growth of East Dhaka. They showed that Greater Dhaka would have a population of 25 million in 2035 and a per capita income of US$ 8,000 at 2015 prices based on the current trends. The overall population of the city would rise by 1.5 million and half a million jobs would be added if the eastern embankment is built. Another 1.5 million people with 0.6 million jobs would be added if critical investments are made in the transportation sector. As many households and firms would choose to move eastward, the population in the existing space of Dhaka would also be reduced by 1.0 million compared to that of business as usual scenario. Encouraging eastward movement of high-value-added activities by easing the cost of doing business in East Dhaka would add another 2.0 million people and 0.7 million jobs.  Dhaka would then emerge on the map of global cities as a productive entity having per capita income of over US$ 9,200 at 2015 prices.

Therefore, similar to what China chose for the growth of Shanghai, a strategic approach to the development of East Dhaka would make Greater Dhaka much more productive and liveable. This greater prosperity is likely to spread by making East Dhaka the pivot of Bangladesh's north-south and east-west transportation corridors. This would help Bangladesh absorb around 35 million Bangladeshis who are poised to become urban dwellers over the next two decades. The World Bank estimates that building the eastern embankment would require about US$ 2.0 billion, while installing critical transport infrastructure would cost nearly 10 billion US dollar. Mainly institutional efforts would be needed for reducing the cost of doing business in the new area through proper leadership and coordination among relevant agencies. This is unlikely to be too costly, and the provision of public services is likely to push the total bill to around US$ 15 billion. The World Bank holds the view that payoffs from embracing this strategic approach to the development of East Dhaka would be enormous compared to this relatively modest expenditure. The report certainly deserves scrutiny by all relevant stakeholders including the government.

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