How barrenness grips Dhaka's ecology

| Updated: August 02, 2022 21:14:12

Ramna is one of the few green areas in Dhaka now Ramna is one of the few green areas in Dhaka now

Even the infamously mechanised city of Kolkata, the Indian state of West Bengal's capital, now boasts of its patches of green. Even during his youth one-and-half century back Rabindranath Tagore portrayed Kolkata as a city, "where the residents were mere insects living in the narrow holes of bricks." In reality, alongside the central and commercial Kolkata, the city's greying process had just begun encroaching on its suburbs. The fringes of Kolkata were still filled with dense lush green trees, bushes and shrubbery in between urban patches. In comparison, no matter whether a part of Dhaka was in the downtown, its older segments or the outskirts, the city stood for a purely sylvan tranquility. It took a little over a century for the East Bengal capital to emerge as a soulless concrete jungle. According to Dhaka's urban experts, the horizontal expansion became faster than Kolkata's in the 1950s. They ascribe it to Dhaka's smaller size compared to Kolkata's, and people's frenzied rush to the city from the rural and semi-rural areas. Most of them thronged Dhaka in order to search for private or government jobs, or look for business openings.

It took less than three decades for many suburban areas in Dhaka to get denuded of trees. By the late 1960s to the 1970s, the once barren plots and agro-lands were transformed into sprawling residential areas filled with corrugated iron-made sheds and residences of half-brick buildings. The greater Mirpur, Kamalapur, Badda and the adjoining areas soon shedded their pastoral look. After the 1971 Liberation of Bangladesh, Dhaka's process of urbanisation gained speed. As the country's capital continued to expand to all its sides, multi-storey and, later, high-rise buildings became a common spectacle in Dhaka. The trend gained speed with the passing of decades. In the first quarter of the 21st century, Dhaka has entered the process of its full-scale transformation into a fast-fledgling metropolis. It, however, has its limitations. In reaching its present stage, the 400-year-old city has earned a lot of ill reputations.

It's now widely recognised that Dhaka, at present, is one of the most ill-planned, dirtiest and polluted cities in the world. Environmentalists are unanimous about the fact that it is the fast vanishing trees and various forms of greeneries which is responsible for this plight of the capital. Ironically, Dhaka was once recognised as one of the healthiest cities in South Asia. Many with sharp memories can still remember the mention of Dhaka city as a healthy place in their lower-class health science books. The name of Dhaka would find place alongside Darjeeling, Jammu, Abottabad, Shimla, Manali, Shillong and a lot other places in the sub-continent. Most of the places mentioned above still draw local tourists and those from abroad.  Except Dhaka, the health resorts are nestled in hills blanketed by green trees. The historic city has never had hills or hillocks. But it used to take pride in its centuries-old banyan, shaal, Debdaru and other large trees. Almost all the Dhaka's main roads in the areas north Nawabpur Rail Crossing would be distinguished by these trees. The Nilkhet and Pilkhana areas were famous for their 'Koroi' trees. The roads in front of the S.M. Hall and near the EPR (now BGB) headquarters eventually turned out to be two attractions of Dhaka. The trees standing on the left of the New Market were felled for reasons not explained. The same applies to the trees of the roads near the Shahbagh area. It is alleged that a section of 'town planners' in the Dhaka city of the fifties and the sixties were opposed to roadside trees. As they viewed it, trees posed security risks to the VIPs making daily trips through the roads beneath the trees. Those town planners' ghosts returned in the 1980s. In the large cities of big countries, trees are common sights around the government buildings.

Many suspect that this anti-tree campaign in Bangladesh has instigated both common people and builders to clear the green patches of Dhaka of valuable trees. It now seems incredible that the Dhaka-dwellers once loved to grow trees.  Rather, they appeared later to have grown a hostile attitude towards the plant world. Both the Mughal and the British rulers of Dhaka were passionately in love with trees. Had it not for the tree-loving Mughal military-ruler Subahdar Muhammad Azam Shah, the landmark fort of Lalbagh might not have been built. The ancient fort followed a unique architectural design in which tree-covered ramparts occupied a vital place. In a twist of history, the Lalbagh Fort couldn't engage in any battle. With the shift of the Bengal Subeh's capital to Murshidabad from Dhaka, the fort's importance kept fading. As time wore on, the Lalbagh Fort kept wearing out to end up being a ruin. After lying hidden in wild bushes for decades, it was cleared of undergrowths. Later, it opened to the curious members of the public.

Trees and meticulously grown gardens were once integral to Dhaka. These sites added much to the beauty of the city. Apart from the government-owned gardens and parks, like the sprawling Ramna Park, there were scores of privately owned tree and plant corners. The remarkable of them included the Baldah Garden, the Rose Garden and many residential gardens. Amid the indiscriminate felling of trees, the smaller public parks and gardens have vanished. The main impetus behind making Dhaka free of the 'troublesome trees' has been the smooth execution of development projects. Most of those were related to spacious housing projects accommodating multi-storey condominiums. In 2022, Dhaka has few areas which do not have arid landscapes flaunting scores of high-rise complexes. They also patronise tree plantation --- in the form of roof gardens. Dhaka's view from a top position in the past would offer an enchanting view --- lush green and eye-soothing. The present spectacle invariably makes the elderly Dhaka-lovers hark back to the city's bygone days, when the city's skyline used to be filled with a collage of unalloyed green. Bellow, the city people once remained absorbed with their sedentary way of life. Like Kolkata's Maidan area, Dhaka didn't have large patches of trees and open grass-covered grounds. But it did have its fast expanding of the now-closed Race Course ground, with specially tended golf patches scattered everywhere. At variance with this semi-barren ground, the former Race Course now serves as a tolerably functioning oxygen bank for the fresh air-seeking Dhaka residents. Renamed Suhrawardy Udyan, the grass-covered ground has been in a phase of outward transformation since the 1990s. Saplings of mid-size trees have been planted throughout the Udyan. Most of them in 2022 are full-grown trees giving cool shade to the leisure-seeking youths, as well as the retired elderly. Yet this tree coverage is not enough for the metropolitan Dhaka.

According to city planners, a liveable city should have at least 25 per cent greenery of the total area it has. Unfortunately, Dhaka has barely 5 per cent green areas. For it, the planners blame lack of regular tree plantation, veritably round the year, with no maintenance of the existing tree corners. Moreover, unplanned urbanisation along with development programmes, forcible occupation of greenery to build one or another multi-storey building speaks volumes of the city authorities' incurable apathy for the liveliest representative of nature --- trees. The 'official town planners' have the least headache for a healthy and mentally peaceful and tranquil urban life for the city residents.

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