How dreams are born and die out in silence
Even two to two-and-half decades ago, names of many now-populated areas in the Dhaka city sounded as names of rural settlements. They included Nodda, Kochukhet, Balughat, Manda, Dhourh, Basila, Shanir Akhra, Signboard and even another Gausia. Many considered them as places within the greater Dhaka, but outside the urban peripheries. Thousands of people living in these areas resort to commutes to the city hearts. They undertake the bus rides to attend private and public offices, conduct trading and business activities, and reach big universities and colleges. Most of these neighbourhods enjoy the privileges of satellite towns. Some of them remain deprived of the services provided by the then undivided city corporation. Many have felt stunned after newspapers published series-reports on these areas. In 2022, most of them are directly under the jurisdictions of either DNCC or DSCC. They have reportedly started attracting middle-class people since the late 1960s.
Finding the land prices wonderfully affordable, ambitious people from the nearby districts were seen migrating to the vacant spaces on Dhaka's fringe areas. Those were still chiefly croplands, or low-lying expanses. The plots were land-filled in phases. Preparing them as plots ideal for raising tin-sheds, or sliced bamboo cottages with tin roof, they started laying claim to these landed properties as legitimately their own. Thus vast segments of people not born in the city were added to mainstream citizens of Dhaka. Though being devoid of electricity, supply water and bus services, as well as police stations or outposts, these people bore with these urban deficiencies with tenacity. This patience or forbearance began paying off decades later.
Apart from concrete roads; spacious shopping malls, high-rise condominiums, schools and colleges, community centres etc have made the once snubbed areas stand out amid the greater Dhaka's squalor. In mere sixty years, the outback areas of the fast-growing city became integral to the city proper. Among these areas in Dhaka, the greater Mirpur, Shyamoli-Kolyanpur, Kamalapur, Gulshan-Banani, Tejgaon-Nakhal Para, Khilgaon, Rampura, Uttara, Rayerbazar etc emerged as full-fledged modern neighbourhoods by the 1970s. Problems lay with communication facilities. Despite the poor number of bus routes, almost all ending in the riverside port of Sadarghat, the wooden-body small buses were comfortable. The commutes were full of ease, the buses driven at modest speed, with no fear of racing to collect passengers. The earliest public transport in Dhaka was the horse-drawn four-wheel carriages commuting on short distances followed by cycle rickshaws. Baby-taxies eventually began plying the Dhaka roads, especially to and from far-away places within city. The introduction of the large steel-body buses haven't taken time. In the fast-growing city, these speedy buses emerged as a blessing of sorts to the people living in the far-flung areas. After rickshaws were pressed into service, the Dhaka residences in the both its new and older parts found a convenient mode of communication. Due to its narrow range of movement, rickshaws proved a highly passenger-friendly mode of transport it. In the earlier days, these pedalled vehicles were veritably off-limits to the busy, long-distance roads which were used mostly by trucks, buses and myriad types of mechanised vehicles. The rickshaw-pullers were content with plying the narrow dirt-roads and narrow alleys, preferred specially by the elderly persons.
Thanks to the rickshaw movement being kept confined to the quiet and sparsely populated areas, the non-mechanised tricycles' involvement with road accidents used to remain mostly unheard-of. This situation lasted for quite a long time. By the time Dhaka became the capital of the independent Bangladesh in 1971, the city had already shown the clear signs of its prospects for emerging as a busy metropolis. The settlements built on the cleared vast croplands and filled-up water bodies didn't take time to transform into residential pockets far from the main city's hustle and bustle. In a few years, vast areas of land in Banani, Gulshan and Baridhara sold to the exclusive segments in society received the strokes of development. They continued to develop in the style of 'posh residential areas' built much earlier in Dhanmondi, Lalmatia etc. However, the lower-middle class migrants to Dhaka in the late 1950s and the 1960s had already settled down legally in the expanses they initially moved into. Although not planned like that suiting the pure urban taste, the construction of low-height 2 to 3-storey dwellings couldn't be resisted. Due to their lack of architectural planning, many post-Independence neighbourhoods lacked the distinctive message of urbanity. Outwardly, residential and commercial buildings continued to come up even in the dingy areas. But they lacked the basic requirements needed for areas like this: well maintained roads, the quiet and cleanliness. Instead, these important areas have been found to be submerged with stagnant rainwater; motley of municipal wastes floating there.
In fact, within twenty years after the country's independence, the new settlements on the then fringes of Dhaka proved themselves not different from the chaos and unlivable condition of the downtown Dhaka. Whereas living in the fast developing city areas was once a blissful experience, life today in those neighbourhoods may appear dreadful. Even just 10-15 years ago, living in these semi-rural swathes was synonymous with pure bliss. With time wearing on, scores urban scourges began creeping into these abodes of tranquility. The ills range from waste-dumping into public roads, rickshaw and small vehicle congestions, stagnant rainwater around dwellings --- to shanties and different types of criminal activities.
Thanks to the unabated rise in both petty and hideous crimes, most of the gentler segments would prefer to live in the decaying Old Dhaka and its surroundings than in these once idyllic settlements. Long gone are the solitude of the semi-urban atmosphere, the neighbourliness and camaraderie grown among the 'muhalla' people, and most importantly, the latent resolve to remain united against the crooked, the proven agents of destabilisation. Township in few cities in the fast developing countries is condemned to turning unlivable in such a mindless manner. Against this backdrop, few areas in Dhaka are going to be spared the monstrosity of unplanned urbanisation. Unfortunately, the activists dreaming of an ideal Dhaka had yet to enter the scene.
The Dhaka life had once been strange to all kinds of social disharmony. Except on occasional outbursts of vulgar self-supremacy, it was humility and low-key sprightliness which would distinguish this historic city. Segments of rogues nurtured by the vested interests had tried to raise their ugly heads whenever there were opportunities. The arrival in Dhaka of the settlement-hopeful migrants carried the potential for creating a new and ideal Dhaka. All their lofty hopes have faced a premature death. The nooses of the presently nightmarish Dhaka life have long descended on them. The smell of the days of their first arrival in Dhaka 62 years ago is being overpowered by the stench of a fast decaying city. These people cannot utter the truth aloud. Their language seems too cryptic to the people of the greater Dhaka. The catch is unlike the ideal satellite towns around even the middle-income countries, those in Dhaka fail hopelessly to address even the preliminary requirements of its life. There are assurances. Most of the time, they prove devoid of any meaningful essence.