Thursday, June 27, 2019 | ePaper

Save Dhaka, make it a liveable city

Old part can be turned into a most beautiful place

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Rayhan Ahmed Topader :
Nobody owns this city. Not even those who were born here. Poor people believe that they belong to their villages. Middle class older people also came from small towns or villages decades ago. Rich and solvent people are trying to move out of the country. Nobody owns this city. If they owned, the streets won't be this dirty, the traffic won't be this bad, the street security won't be this awful.
I hope someday people will start owning this city as their home and start changing as it is our own responsibility to fix it. With responsibility, comes love. The success of Dhaka, one of the megacities of the world, is critically important for the economic and social development of Bangladesh. The city's astonishing growth, from a population of 3 million in 1980 to 18 million today, represents the promise and dreams of a better life: the hard work and sacrifices made by all residents to seize opportunities to lift themselves from poverty towards greater prosperity. However, as Dhaka has grown to become one of the most densely populated cities in the world, its expansion has been messy and uneven. Dhaka's growth has taken place without adequate planning, resulting in a city with extreme congestion, poor liveability, and vulnerability to floods and earthquakes. Many residents, including the 3.5 million people living in informal settlements, often lack access to basic services, infrastructure, and amenities. Unplanned and uncontrolled growth has created unprecedented congestion: the average driving speed has dropped from 21km per hour 10 years ago to less than 7km per hour today.
 Continuing on current trends would result in a further slowdown to 4km an hour slower than the average walking speed! Congestion eats up 3.2 million working hours each day and costs the economy billions of dollars every year. Some of the most important economic benefits from urbanisation are missed out due to this messiness, resulting in lower incomes for the city and the country. These problems will not go away on their own. Dhaka's population is expected to double once again by 2035, to 35 million. Without a fundamental re-think requiring substantial planning, coordination, investments, and action, Dhaka will never be able to deliver its full potential. Dhaka is at a crossroads in defining its future and destiny. Since the deadly Chawkbazar fire, the issue of redevelopment of Old Dhaka has been under discussion. But what does this redevelopment mean? Will Old Dhaka's distinct character remain intact after its redevelopment? Old Dhaka can be turned into the most beautiful place in the capital if we can properly redevelop it. As part of the redevelopment process, the heritage buildings should be protected and renovated if needed, keeping their original character intact. Recently, Sardarbari, a heritage site in Sonargaon, was renovated by a team led by the past president of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB). Likewise, the old buildings that have been declared heritage buildings by the High Court should be renovated and protected.
To encourage people (owners) to protect the heritage buildings, the government should introduce a law of Transfer of Development Right, which already exists in many countries. Moreover, the unauthorised buildings should be removed and Bangladesh National Building Code-2008 should be followed in building new structures. Then comes the issue of improving the road conditions. There is no doubt that widening the narrow roads is very important. But only widening the roads will not solve any problem. There are many wide roads in Dhaka where there is huge traffic jam. It takes 2/3 hours to come to Dhanmondi from Uttara although the roads are quite wide. In many developed countries, there are places with narrow roads like those in Old Dhaka but that never becomes a problem because of the way they manage them. With proper management, the conditions of the roads in Old Dhaka can be improved significantly. The narrow roads can be made one-way. Or we can enforce some restrictions on movement of vehicles on them. The roads that are too narrow can be made off limits to cars and other modes of transport by building gates at both ends of the roads, allowing only rickshaws to move through. The decisions should be taken by the transport experts with consultation with the local residents and the authorities concerned.
Setting up water hydrants in the roads of Old Dhaka is something that we have been demanding for long. Dhaka is the only capital in the world that is surrounded by four rivers. But it is most unfortunate that during fire incidents, the fire brigade often cannot do their work properly because of insufficient water sources. If there were water hydrants, scarcity of water would never be an issue. However, water hydrants will not serve any purpose unless the fire brigade buys special pumps which will be connected to the big vehicles. These pumps can be unlocked from the vehicles and dragged to the site of fire. Such pumps were used in the small towns of the country in the past. With the money spent on building a flyover, it is possible to set up water hydrants in the entire Old Dhaka area. According to government estimates, the flyovers in Dhaka serve only eight percent of the residents. But still such projects are taken because those involved get commission from these projects.
And finally, the chemical warehouses and factories should be relocated in a separate place with modern facilities. These were some of the suggestions we had made after the Nimtoli tragedy. But, as it seems, all the efforts made at that time miserably failed to bring any result because none of the decisions taken were implemented. Do you think the way the government has been progressing with their relocation plan and conducting drives against chemical warehouses and factories will be sustainable? How about engaging the local residents with the whole process?
The decision of relocating the chemical and plastic warehouses and factories in a separate area must be implemented to save Old Dhaka from recurring fire incidents. But forcing the owners to do so, disconnecting the utility lines, and fining the owners of warehouses may not help. If the traders are forced to stop their business here, new chemical factories will spring up at different corners of the city and the whole city will be at risk. So, the government needs to engage the local residents in the whole process. Instead of threatening them with jail terms and giving them 24-48 hours' prior notice to shift their business, they should be motivated in a way so that they willingly agree to relocate the warehouses in the government-fixed area. This can be done by giving them incentives. The tenants of the chemical warehouses have to pay a lot of money as rent. The government can take decisions such as giving tax waivers, say, for five years, to those who would relocate their factories and warehouses, and impose higher tax (say, 400 percent) on those who want to stay in Old Dhaka. Giving loans at low interest rates may also encourage many to shift their businesses from here. Also, before starting the relocation, the government needs to ensure all structural and other facilities in the designated area. The present condition of the tanneries that were relocated a few years ago should be a reminder for us as to what happens when relocations are done without properly developing the infrastructure and other facilities.
The experience of Shanghai and other cities shows that success requires a clear vision one that is embraced by government agencies, private investors, citizens and development organisations, and supported by careful planning and tight implementation. Leading up to a forthcoming report, to be released this fall, the conference presents four scenarios for Dhaka's future depending on the actions that it takes today, through decisions such as completing an embankment in East Dhaka, investing in transportation, and managing and enforcing planning and zoning laws. The simulation results show what a big difference a strategic approach to Dhaka's urban development would make.
The opportunity to create a bright future for Dhaka, as a vibrant and liveable city, must be seized now before it is too late. Theatres have an organic relationship with social movements. We started out in order to reach the people. Street theatres are very effective because even people who are illiterate can understand theatre very easily and relate it to their own lives. They can imagine themselves as the people in the plays, though sadly most of them do not recognize that they are the protagonists of their own lives. Street theatre reaches out more than films and has the power to spread a message because it has a direct relation with people. The impact of theatre is tangible, but nothing immediately concrete. People have more interest in street theatres and new forms of communications such as flash mobs. Sometimes people from the crowd come forward to talk about the issue. This is the best part and is essentially our goal.
(Rayhan Ahmed Topader; Writer, Journalist and Columnist; raihan567@yahoo.com)

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