It was a pleasant sight to watch an overhead train move on its viaduct-based railway tracks in Dhaka last week. The scene had been long anticipated. The trial run was conducted on a short-distance route covering four stations from Uttara North to Pallabi. After completion by December next year, a metro rail will have to cover 16 stations located on a 20.10 kilolometre route from Uttara's Diabari to Motijheel on one way. The people in Dhaka, especially those who commute between the Uttara area and the points around Paltan-Motijheel, are waiting eagerly for the elevated railway service to start. Presently, an Uttara-Motijheel bus ride takes 3 hours, in rush hour 4 to 5 hours. After the full opening of the metro train service, the time will be reduced to 40 minutes. To the gridlock-plagued 21st century Dhaka, the reduction in the travel-time veritably carries revolutionary prospects.
Since the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh, the capital Dhaka has increasingly been recognised as a fast-growing city. Along with the upgrading of its status, Dhaka witnessed a sharp rise in its importance. This led to an increasing number of its commuters. Over more than four decades, the then set-up of helping its residents commute in the capital almost broke down. It happened commensurate with the frenzied rise in Dhaka's population. In spite of the introduction of thousands of motor-vehicles, mostly public transport and private cars, the situation remained unchanged.
Commuting in Dhaka is fast becoming a nightmare. The situation keeps worsening by the day. Against this backdrop, Dhaka's having an elevated railway system in place is set to emerge as the prelude to a radical transformation in its commuting style. In the early part of the 20th century, this city had to make do with a primitive transport system. Motorised transport for public use had yet to be in use in those days. The town of Dhaka saw the first-ever motor car in 1904, courtesy Nawab Salimullah. Inside Dhaka, horse-drawn carriages were the chief means of transport for the colonial British civil servants and the Bengalee white-collar job holders. On the city outskirts and villages, bullock carts would rule the roost. Those were used for carrying both crops, various types of tradable goods as well as passengers. For people in the river-dominant areas, there were varied types of boats. Boats still enjoy a dominant place in the whole gamut of river transport. Those were the days which had yet to see the fast-moving steamers and small launches.
Dhaka's graduation from a sleepy, quiet town to a bustling city fills many with amazement. Many ascribe it to historical events and their impact on people. Both related to the achieving of independence --- one from the British colonialists in 1947. And the other was from the Pakistani autocratic rule. In the first case, the Bengalees in the erstwhile East Pakistan were promised of an all-round development spree. In just 24 years almost all this proved illusory. In spite of this, Bengalees in the eastern wing witnessed their faltering entry into the modern mode of life. By the 1960s, Dhaka was a full-fledged urban centre. With the creation of jobs for the middle and lower-middle class Bengalees, the province's people living in the capital Dhaka could boast of being the residents of a growing city. All modes of motorised and non-motorised traffic began filling the Dhaka roads. For the general people, there were the cycle rickshaws, motorised auto-rickshaws and small wood-body buses plying the Nayarhat-Sadarghat route. By the mid-sixties, Dhaka had a fully functional public transport system. At one stage, its fleet of public transport included state-run buses connecting the two farthest corners of the capital. They joined the Secretariat-based Paltan area and the business district of Motijheel from the less populated zone of Banani-Gulshan.
In the same decade the then East Pakistan provincial government launched inter-district buses, with Dhaka as the centre. Launch services connecting both the nearby and mid-distance districts facilitated people in need of remaining physically linked to Dhaka on different purposes. In time, launch routes were extended up to Barishal, and farther south. The railway network operating nearly in all parts of the country remained in place without much inconvenience caused to the people. The most congenial factor which remained in place to back the whole transport sector was the sparse population of the province, especially of Dhaka and the other cities and towns.
The whole situation underwent a great and radical change in the independent Bangladesh. It was the land's second independence achieved after the 1971 Liberation War. Also called a people's war, it was necessitated by the inevitable process of history. Its seeds were sown when the Bengalees realised that they were being deprived politically, economically, socially and in many other ways by a veritable oligarchy centered in the western wing of Pakistan. The independent state of Bangladesh dreamt of a country having socio-economic self-sufficiency. But nonstop and galloping population stood in the way of achieving this goal. The post-Liberation War governments in the following decades tried their best to keep Bangladesh on the track of development. But the unbridled exodus of rural people to the capital and other cities foiled the development programmes of the successive governments. One of the most affected sectors turned out to be the urban public transport sector.
With the construction of new inter-region highways covering almost the whole country in the 1980s, optimistic people looked forward to a nation which could boast of a modern road and transport network. But against the backdrop of a political impasse, the programmes on roads and highways development had to be shelved in the 1990s. It took 10 long years for the new sitting government to take up fresh infrastructure-building projects. Led by Awami League, the party which played a premier role in the birth of independent Bangladesh, the development-focused Bangladesh took up scores of mega projects in the road transport, port and bridges sector. In the initial days, sloppy performance in the implementation of these grand projects led to their being shoved into the slow lane. A few were dropped for missing deadlines and cost overrun. In spite of these hiccups, a number of projects vital to national development remained on track. The grand project of mass rapid transit (MRT) for Dhaka is one of them. The elevated metro rail for the capital is set to be made fully operational under MRT.
That Dhaka would see the operation of this modern urban transport mode so early was beyond the expectation of the general people. Many thought by taking up two fast-track mega projects, the other being the Padma Bridge, at a time, the government will eventually find itself in a tight spot. The reality proved otherwise. The countdown has already started. After a few more trial runs, the MRT-6 authorities hope to put the metro rail into operation on its designated route by December next year. By that time, the 6.15km Padma Bridge, one of the longest in the world, is set to open to traffic. The benefits of the Padma Bridge project after its completion are set to go to all the social segments of the country --- irrespective of the people living in the locations of various eastern and western regions.
The completion of the two projects is expected to do away with society's rich-poor divide to a great extent. Coming to Dhaka, the fully operational metro railway service may prompt lots of middle and upper-middle class people to avoid the gruelling travels to downtown by their private cars. When it comes to economising on the commuting time, the conventional road transport is nowhere near metro railway. In a few years after the launch of the Dhaka metro, the fashion-conscious business women sitting side by side with shabbily dressed RMG lady workers would be common sights in a moving train. There would be no feelings of embarrassment. A one-way trip between Uttara and Motijheel is estimated to take around forty minutes only.