The World Bank (WB)-sponsored international conference in Dhaka, held on July 19 last, highlighted the need for a move 'Towards Great Dhaka'. However, many disheartening features of the current conditions in Dhaka City came out to the fore, such as Dhaka City's population has grown from a level of three million in 1980 to about 18m now, of which about 3.5m live in informal settlements (slums), lacking in basic amenities, and the population size may even surge to a level of 35m by 2035. The city's acute traffic congestion ('janjot') is unprecedented. The average driving speed in the city has come down to less than 4.0km per hour from 21km per hour ten years ago - almost a walking speed. Consequently the city loses 3.2 million working hours each day, and cost the economy several billion dollars a year. It has all come to this pass, not overnight but due to lack of right remedies over the decades.
The government had in fact turned to the WB earlier. In response to an official request, the Bank had appraised the Dhaka Urban Transport Project in December 1998. In independent Bangladesh, this represented the first comprehensive attempt towards tackling city's acute traffic congestion problem. The WB approved a $ 234.2m-project with many components, such as 1) Traffic Management, 2) Road Improvements, 3) Bus Route Improvements, 4) Rehabilitation of Bus Terminals, 5) Pedestrian Facilities, 6) NMT Network Improvement, 7) Grade Separated Interchanges, 8) Flood Damage Rehabilitation, 9). Equipment, 10) Technical Assistance and 11) Rehabilitation.
During the mid-term review in February 2002, the Bank revised the scope of the project dropping some components. In consequence, a project estimated originally to cost $ 234.2m, was wrapped up within $ 140.00m, dropping some components like Jatrabari Flyover, and consequently, a precious amount of $ 79.5m fund (almost grant like) was not utilised for the alleviation of the 'Janjot' for which the project was originally designed.
The Bank, however, prepared an Implementation Completion Report in December 2005 in which it admitted flaws in project preparation, saying that a "formal Quality at Entry Assessment was not undertaken", and that "there were significant shortcomings in identification, preparation and appraisal" for the following reasons:
In view of its restructuring, with some components dropped, for the remaining components, the economic rate of return (ERR) computed indicated, in terms of rate of return, a declining trend. It is conceivable that even at mid-life, virtually none of the components implemented was rendering the desired level of services.
The WB approach was narrowly focused during project preparation, without recognising the basic causes of the city's 'Janjot', such as population influx, and unregulated entry of motorised vehicles, among others. It should have been recognised that Dhaka is surrounded by river and water bodies on all sides, its overall size is finite, its potential road space is limited and, thus, it could not accommodate ever-increasing size of population or number of motorised vehicles. An approach that infrastructure provision alone will tackle Dhaka's 'Janjot' was not proven by the performance of the WB project.
Against this background of the WB's past intervention and its outcome, it is only logical that the Bank would seek to pick up the pieces and address itself afresh with ideas, and formulate a new project for a functioning capital, which would assuage the distressed Dhaka citizens and inspire hope. Instead, it is extraordinary to hear a WB official to suggest in the July conference that "developing east Dhaka in a sustainable manner was more meaningful than attempting to retrofit the over-built and over-congested Dhaka". To this end, the Bank introduced its draft report 'Towards Great Dhaka: A New Urban Development Paradigm Eastward'.
It seems that the conference focused on erecting a 'Shanghai' for Dhaka, in the model of its adjoining city of Pudong, which would inevitably cost many billions of dollars.
WORLD BANK'S DRAFT REPORT CRITICISED: However, Mr. Zhao Qizheng, former vice-mayor of Shanghai, said that "Pudong's experience may be applicable in some parts of China, but it may not be suitable for Bangladesh …". We have to recognise that China is a vast country with a huge population and the size of its gross domestic product (GDP) is the second highest in the world. It holds the world's biggest foreign exchange reserve.
Bangladesh, a low-income country, has limited means. There is need to focus on its basic needs, affordability and pursue economic development policies which would limit the influx of unemployed rural population into Dhaka. The valuable wet land in the east of Dhaka is important for the city's environment. Country's planners should perhaps prepare development plans centring round the divisional headquarters, and make them self-sustaining. This stance would be in conformity with the Prime Minister's avowed objectives of devolution of powers to local authorities who would pursue economic development creating jobs, and set up quality health and education facilities and improve quality of life at the local level. This development stance will have the potential not only to lessen pressure on Dhaka but also to improve governance by taking the government to the door of the people. All these are doable, given political will.
Dhaka should perhaps emulate the experience of Kolkata. Kolkata's performance, under the jurisdiction of Greater Metropolitan Development Authority, may be an eye-opener. Its population, according to 2011 Indian census, grew, on average, at a rate of 19.9 per cent in 1991; 19 per cent in 2001; and 7-6 per cent in 2011. Kolkata's area within the Municipal Corporation is 185 sq. km. Its population, which was 5.08m in 2009, reduced to 4.5 million in 2011. This outcome, it is claimed, is due to significant policy changes, through land reforms and concentrating in rural-based development work undertaken over a long period. There is a consensus among development experts that combined with improved agriculture production and development of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), instead of implementing mega projects, all around the country, is perhaps clue to the tackling of the country's problem number one, which is unemployment.
The most important related issue, the former Chief Minister of Delhi Sheila Dixit pointed out in the conference, is one of Dhaka City's effective governance. Perhaps it is high time to introduce the system of city government. Thus a single authority can bring about proper coordination among many agencies, sometimes engaged at cross purposes. Both the Mayors of city corporations concurred with the idea.
Dr. Abu Reza, a Transport Economist, worked at WB/IDB.
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