East Dhaka: Putting a vision to work

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: July 12, 2018 21:18:30 | Updated: July 16, 2018 21:55:31

Notwithstanding many people's throwing their hands up over the bailout of Dhaka, there are still scopes to have dreams about the metropolis. Perhaps, it prompts the urban development experts to draw mega plans and strategies for the city. In practical context, despite Dhaka's being 400 years old the city's pure urban and modern look dates back to less than 50 years, from the 1950s to be precise. Till the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the city underwent phases of development as a provincial capital. The pace began going full throttle when Dhaka emerged as the capital of an independent country. From the 1970s onwards, the city's march as a growing metropolis continued until it reached a frenzied point in the 1990s. In the second decade of the 21st century, Dhaka is veritably a maddening urban centre which keeps fanning out in aimless directions.

In spite of all this, Dhaka still stands the chance of a large-scale renovation and remodelling. Time for rectifying the past errors and lapse is not over. Against this backdrop, the Bangladesh capital has lately witnessed a number of brainstorming efforts to work out a pragmatic solution. Since the international conference on development options for Dhaka in July last year, experts have been stressing the concept of Dhaka's looking east. The idea is based on an urban planning to expand the metropolis to its eastern fringe. A similar strategy was unveiled in the capital on this July 05 which was prepared by the experts at World Bank (WB). It came in the form of an in-depth report that highlighted three areas of thrust. Chiefly based on building a 'new Dhaka', the study is called 'Toward Great Dhaka: A New Urban Development Paradigm Eastward'. The report takes into account the persisting problems like population pressure, traffic chaos etc that beset the city residents. As it views, the western part of the city has already reached a saturation point. It's now common knowledge that the broader western zone of Dhaka has long become unwieldy in terms of urban infrastructure and road communication. In brief, the basic livability of the capital is frequently being called into question.

In its recommendation to put increased focus on the development of the eastern swathe of Dhaka, the WB report, thus, prioritise three areas. They are flood protection embankment along the Balu River, improved road infrastructure and turning the eastern Dhaka into a business hub, especially focused on manufacture. As the report finds, these vital steps are set to take a large volume of pressure away from the long struggling western Dhaka to the eastern part of the city. Covering a vast area starting from Tongi to Tarabo at Rupganj in Narayanganj, most of the segments of eastern Dhaka still retain a semi-urban and rural character. The areas include Badda, Satarkul, Beraid, Purbachal and some others long eyed by private developers. The capital development authority is implementing a massive residential complex at Purbachal.

Martin Rama, Chief Economist for the South Asia region at the World Bank, reposes great hope in the virtually untapped areas comprising eastern Dhaka. He stresses building the infrastructure of a new urban centre as early as possible in the city's eastern part. The dreaded beginning of an unplanned development spree and the mushrooming of settlements has not eluded his notice. There lies the fear. As the economist feels, inordinate delays in swinging into action will only aggravate the situation. Letting the unscrupulous developers hold sway over the expanse by setting up residential pockets is set to end up being another ill-conceived and ill-planned extension of Dhaka. Such a 'new city' lacks proper road and other infrastructure. That's what has started happening to the eastern zone of the capital. In the tentatively emerging cityscape in East Dhaka, except the so-called 300 feet wide one, there are few roads and streets which befit an ideal city part. The WB report warns of hastily set up residential enclaves without proper road networks. In place of scientifically designed roads, the zone is feared to remain mired in a traffic-overflowing web of narrow roads and alleys. The report apprehends in the absence of deterrent measures, the vast area will eventually be made to go through the similar commuting and congestion ordeals as experienced in the present greater Dhaka.

Keeping an ideal and well-planned modern city in view, the World Bank report lays great emphasis on road infrastructure development. It also puts stress on rapid transits. Targeting 2035 as its time frame for building the new Dhaka, the WB study also takes into account the trends of Dhaka-bound domestic migration. As it finds, the greater Dhaka city will have to accommodate 25 million people by the year 2035. The report notes the population of the city has increased from 3.0 million in 1980 to over 18 million at present. Of the whole population, 3.5 million live in the slums without the basic civic amenities, the report observes. Given the ever-increasing population pressure that chips away at stop-gap and decaying infrastructure, local experts have reasons to develop a feeling of foreboding over the city's immediate future. As a pragmatic remedy, they are lending their strong support to the idea of East Dhaka. But they do not fail to underscore the formulation of a master plan and a strategic transport plan. The uncertainty over the full and effective implementation of Dhaka's Detailed Area Plan (DAP), along with many others related to rapid transit continues to haunt the local urbanisation experts. With the meeting of these vital prerequisites in limbo for long, the idea of the East Dhaka runs the risk of going awry.

The WB study has identified the bottlenecks standing in the way of the unhindered growth of Dhaka. One of them is the lack of inter-agency communication involving functions of various utility services. This particular drawback adds to the lackadaisical performance of the authorities in charge of the multi-pronged city functionality. The WB is aware of the fact that the 55 agencies working for keeping Dhaka livable overlap each other's area of work. Due largely to a lack of coordination, as well as their being underfunded, the agencies remain mostly idle. According to local urban development experts, in order to see the vision of East Dhaka materialise, these long-festering dampers ought to be dispensed with.

Singling Dhaka out as a conveniently located urban centre in the regional context, many experts lament the fact that the city's prospects are largely underutilised. The WB doesn't find the positive geophysical features of Dhaka in any other South Asian city. It observes, "Dhaka is one of the best pieces of real estate in Asia because it is located so well."

Owing to the fast growth of Dhaka's population and its unplanned spread to every conceivable direction, urban development experts cannot remain oblivious to the race against time. So does the WB. The urgency for taking efforts to develop an expanded Dhaka in its east has begun to be felt only in the recent times. It was triggered by an unhealthy trend, which saw the sprouting of a section of developers vying for space in the vacant lots. Most of the time, they resorted to encroaching on river banks or forcing small land owners into selling their plots at throw-away price. As had been feared, it led to a dirty competition to urbanise the outlying suburban expanses in a reckless manner. Most of these development works as they stand now are devoid of plans, threatening to finally appear as the same congested neighbourhoods as can be seen in the present Dhaka. Apparently to ward off this dreadful turn of things, World Bank Country Director Qimiao Fan says, "Seize the golden opportunity of building a planned east Dhaka now. And the cost of not acting will be enormous as seen in the existing Dhaka."

That Dhaka had great prospects for being built as an ideal city was realised by its Mughal rulers. Later it has not been lost on the British colonial town planners. Unfortunately, the rulers could not manage much time for Dhaka as they were focused on the then Raj capital of Calcutta. The post-Partition period found Dhaka being less favoured by the rulers than the cities in the then West Pakistan. In the meantime, the prospects for Dhaka continued to be frittered away in the independent Bangladesh. As the WB report has observed, time is not yet over for giving thoughts to building an annexed Dhaka. Few initiatives could be more pragmatic in bailing this city out than getting down to brass tacks: start of work on East Dhaka.        








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