The Financial Express

Fifty years of Bangladesh and its capital

A sky view of Motijheel commercial area in Dhaka during 1980s 	—Collected Photo A sky view of Motijheel commercial area in Dhaka during 1980s —Collected Photo

Even 10 long years after the independence of the country, its large cities had not seen much change. The capital Dhaka had to wait up to the 1990s to see much of its infrastructural change in some major sectors like communication. Until the beginning of that period, the urban lifestyle of Dhaka used to hark back to the occasionally fast but essentially tranquil days. In fact, unlike the other big cities in the South Asia region, Dhaka was able to retain much of its halcyon times in many sectors. Patches of woodlands, tree-lined roads, sparsely moving traffic would once feature Dhaka. Even its river-ports, including the large ones at Swarighat and Badamtoli, were free of the later-time feverish hustle and bustle. The chief river Buriganga and the three others encircling the greater Dhaka were soothing sights. Add to this the proverbial Dolai Canal, which would be used by merchants to carry their assorted merchandise deep into the city.

Since Dhaka's start of the urban way of life in the 1950s, it had not been in a hurry to opt for anything remotely linked to turbulence. But later it was made to follow such a course. As it was linked to a long struggle for self-determination of East Bengal, the general people found itself hard to remain dissociated from their existential need for reinventing their place in the then national perspective. Henceforth, the need arose for Dhaka's transformation into a politico-economic and economic hub. Unfortunately, these national aspirations were not forthcoming. For those to become a reality, Bangladesh had to count days for emerging as an independent nation.  

There were cogent reasons for the belated start of the phase of infrastructural development in the very 1970s. After the surrender of the Pakistani occupation army to the victorious joint forces of the Freedom Fighters and the Indian Army on December 16, 1971, what the liberated nation found was a land devastated in a 9-month all-out war. The post-independent government had to make way through a series of politico-economic hurdles to swing into the bouts of nation-building. Periods of delay in laying out plans for the new projects were unavoidable. In spite of these disincentives, the newly independent Bangladesh began finding itself among the nations not wasting much time in recouping the losses incurred during an oppressive rule. Thanks to the people's indomitable spirit, Bangladesh was able to shake off the hangover of a 24-year neo-colonial rule and get down to brass tacks --- rebuilding the war-torn nation.

Today's younger generations may find the complete metro rail installation set for 2022 in Dhaka and the planned 258 kilometre 3-phase subway network by 2070 a fairytale dream. Speculations tinged with absurdity were made during the final opening of the Jamuna Multi-purpose Bridge, later named Bangabandhu Bridge. The same compulsively sceptic segments of people appear to have entered the scene expressing their doubt about the completion of the massive Padma Bridge. Detractors have been active in almost all the sectors since the nation's birth. Disproving their misgivings, the successive governments, especially the present one, came before the nation with grand pledges. And, to the chagrin of the naysayers, they have made good on them. On the 50th anniversary of the country's independence, a number of fast-track projects are in the pipeline. Notable among them are the Payra Seaport, the Matarbari Deep-sea Port, the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, the Karnaphuli Tunnel and scores rail links, elevated expressways etc. It's an irony that Bangladesh was once globally famed for its cash crop jute, agriculture being its chief means of survival.

Against these grand projects, one may feel nostalgic, albeit eerily, about the wooden body small buses shuttling between Nayarhat and Sadarghat in Dhaka. Made by the domestic bus-maker Momin Motors, these buses plied the streets even in the mid-sixties. Later, they have been replaced by the steel-body, speedier buses. Many might fancy that had Dhaka been not the capital of independent Bangladesh, it would have somehow survived as a humble provincial town. It was not to be. Bangladesh had been destined to emerge and survive as an independent, sovereign nation. The comfortable and leisurely rides on cycle-rickshaws on the Dhaka roads appear to have lodged in the greying memories of many Dhaka residents. The same also applies to the city's horse-carriages.

Rickshaws even in the late 1960s had yet to emerge as a dreadful transport in terms of their recklessness. The minimum fare of these tricycles used to range between 4 annas (25 Paisa) and 6 annas (37 Paisa). The highest fare in the city area was Tk 5, like on routes between Nilkhet and Gabtoli. Those were the golden days in Dhaka, with fond memories of romantic pairs, or newly married couples moving aimlessly on rickshaws in the relatively quiet areas. The vice of mugging had then yet to vitiate Dhaka's atmosphere. Moreover, the rickshaw-pullers had yet to become defiant in their movement and engage in misbehaviour with passengers. These vices entered the capital after rickshaw-pullers began swarming on Dhaka to make a quick buck. Most of them were ignorant about the big cities' traffic rules. It led to frequent road accidents involving unskilled rickshaw-pullers and the unwitting passengers. In the ten years of Bangladesh independence, wide-body passenger buses were common scenario on the city's different routes. However, the low-fare state buses had started dominating Dhaka's public transport sector since the early 1960s. Eventually, the capital witnessed double-decker buses, those fitted with air-conditioners --- and the ubiquitous mini-buses.

Meanwhile, the capital's population began sky-rocketing with every passing decade. The prices of landed plots in the previously fallow lands and swampy areas on city fringes soared to incredible highs. In the 1990s, Dhaka virtually became a concrete jungle. There were few areas in the prime parts of the capital which didn't see multi-storey apartments and commercial buildings coming up one after another. Motijheel, Dilkusha, Moghbazar, Farmgate and, even, the greater Banani-Gulshan areas offered a radically changed look. In tandem, scores of real estate companies vied with each other to grab the suitable plots and enter into contracts on sharing floors. This competition has prompted the town planners to formulate a detailed area plan (DAP) for Dhaka. It has also been necessitated by the largely unplanned growth of the metropolis leading to many civic-life ills. Dominant among them were water-logging, flooding of the low-lying areas and air pollution. Despite its often-magnificent infrastructural growth, the unbridled increase in the number of all types of vehicles in the capital now places it among the most ill-managed cities in the world. The hustle and bustle in the ever expanding capital of the independent Bangladesh could hardly be viewed as unusual. The problem lies with its wild growth. Unless it could be reined in by implementing pragmatic plans, the fruits of living in the otherwise infrastructure-rich capital are feared to go to waste.

When it comes to electricity, the existing demand and supply gap can be bridged by ensuring smooth transmission and distribution of the commodity. Until the recent times, the power sector was beset with graft and irregularities. With the higher authorities coming down hard on malpractices in power distribution in Dhaka, the capital can now be declared free of its perennial scourge of outages. Around ten years ago, power supply disruptions veritably debilitated day-to-day life in Dhaka. Thanks to the rise in electricity generation and close surveillance on distribution lapses as well as measures taken on severing illegal connections, Dhaka can now compare itself with many cities in developing countries. The natural gas resources in Bangladesh have allegedly been depleted prematurely. The authorities appear to have taken a wait-and-see policy on inviting foreign companies in the exploration of on-shore and off-shore gas. Meanwhile, the government has turned to imports of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) and LNG (liquefied natural gas). These two fuels are set to bring about a radical change in country's use of fuels. 

While the nation celebrates the golden jubilee of its independence, it looks forward to newer frontiers in different economic and social sectors of national life. Of them, increased regional connectivity occupies a premier place. When it comes to ICT, Bangladesh is no longer dependent on other countries for keeping itself net-connected domestically, and with the outside world. For advanced broadcasting and communications, Bangladesh now has its own geostationary Bangabandhu Satellite-1. It's just its first leap into the vast satellite-based communication world.


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