Are we there yet?

How can we ease Dhaka’s traffic congestion?

According to a recent survey of IQAir, Bangladesh tops the list of the world's most polluted countries in terms of air pollution, and Dhaka as the most polluted city. Such a record is certainly not a source of pride for us. Dhaka has become almost an abandoned metropolis due to traffic jams, and air and noise pollution. Any foreign tourist or government official in Dhaka actually calls it a “dead city.”

The government was suffering from complacency about the traffic jam in Dhaka, as the educational institutions were closed for two consecutive years. After the reopening of schools and other education institutes, Dhaka seems to have reverted to its old ways again.

In the last two and a half decades, six governments have built seven flyovers in Dhaka, but traffic congestion has not decreased. A metro rail line is currently under construction and there are plans to build four more routes, including a BRT, by 2035. After 13 years, when the metro rail will be launched on all routes, only 17% of the transportation pressure will be managed. This means that the traffic situation is not being solved completely even after so much development.

According to the Strategic Transport Plan (STP) to reduce traffic congestion in the capital, in 2016-17, there were an average of 30 million daily trips for people in Dhaka and its adjoining areas, 40,000,000 trips will be made in 2025, and more than 50,000,000 in 2035. There is also the transportation of goods. Realizing this, the government is now thinking of constructing 11 subways with a capacity of 4,000,000 passengers at a depth of 25 to 70 feet below the ground in Dhaka.

The problem is that not a single line of metro rail, which was approved by ECNEC in 2012, has been inaugurated in 10 years. Will they be able to inaugurate any subway at all before 2035 or 2040 in densely populated brick slums? So, what is the way? What can be the final answer to traffic jams in Dhaka?

In the beginning, open digital administration based on merit, qualifications, and statutory legal process has to be done by completely transforming the ad hoc administration. Millions of people, including employees, officials, or any head of government or non-government organization outside Dhaka, should be stopped from being called to the Dhaka Secretariat for office work, allocation, purchase, permit, approval, posting, transfer, or problem solving. All work must be done online. This alone would reduce the movement of people and vehicles on the road, the government's transportation and fuel costs.

The tendency to keep files and work stuck in every lobby of government offices creates five to ten trips in one place. So all of these have to be communicated via emails and recorded phone calls, and at least 90% of the meetings have to be done online.

Some of the required physical appointments will go to the regional office. The central work of the secretariat will be decentralized to the upazila office. There will be digital dossiers instead of paper files. All types of file processing time must be controlled. Any file will be based on software and database, and not on paper. There will be a specific time allotted for the signing of the approval of the secretary and the other staff. If you do not work within that time, the work will go to a higher level. Those in charge will get punitive points in promotion as penalty.

A few crore people from all over the country, including 20 million people in the capital, go to offices in Agargaon for national identity cards, passports, etc. About 2,000,000 vehicles in the country have to go to Mirpur three to ten times in one place for fitness, driving licence, or case settlement work. This creates traffic congestion.

National identity cards, passports, and driving licences must be delivered to the individual's address by confidential post, and all applications will be examined and interviewed online and at the ward's one-stop digital service centre. Finger identification equipment must be taken to the police station at special times. Millions of people will not go to the central service centre, but the service centre will be decentralized and will come to the doorstep of the people.

Driving licence and motor vehicle fitness verification, every job has to be left to the private sector with a police station based licence. BRTA will only control and audit the quality of work. If the motor vehicle violates the road law, in case of an accident, the digital camera will detect it and automatically deduct the fine from the owner's bank. Police will not be able to stop any vehicle on the road.

Up till primary level, every student has to be taught within the boundaries of his ward, and every secondary student has to be compelled to go to an educational institution located under his own police station. This will build better educational institutions and reduce traffic congestion.

Colleges and universities can remain open, but in those outside Dhaka, all modern, functional, and technical departments will have to be opened according to the needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Teachers and presidents of educational institutions outside Dhaka must be residents. Thus, district, upazilla, and local doctors will be obliged to stay in the workplace.

Many students will not need to come to Dhaka if the first tier private universities have campuses in divisional cities outside Dhaka. Although opportunities were created to study in their respective divisional cities, Dhaka also got some relief and traffic congestion was reduced. Living in the city, the current traffic congestion-friendly model of mooseball control needs to be discontinued.

Education, healthcare, jobs, security, etc must be taken out of Dhaka by ensuring decentralization of power and governance through effective local governance and digital administration. Urbanization, action, education, health, security; in other words, the one-way Dhaka-centric current of all events and needs of life must be stopped immediately.

Clearly, the decentralized political and administrative powers from the Prime Minister's Office, the Secretariat, and the National Assembly have not been taken to the lowest levels of city corporations, municipal corporations, and local governments, and all government and private services in city wards and villages.

If it does not go to upazilla and union, there will be no permanent solution to traffic congestion in Dhaka and other metropolitan areas; in other words, the main task is to introduce real digital administration by empowering the local government in a sustainable model. Wherever a person lives, he must be provided with everything from birth certificates to education, health, passports, police services, and, above all, employment.

Additionally, people should be evacuated from Dhaka by creating tight security measures in every district and divisional town including improved schools, madrasas, hospitals, banking services, recreation centres, and industries.

If a digital administration can be ensured, the obligation to keep the head office in Dhaka will be lifted by talking about the convenience of communication with the centre or the secretariat. Head offices of government and non-government service organizations, army, navy, air force, Ansar, police headquarters, secretariat, and head offices of the ministry should be taken in districts and divisions.

That is to say, we have to go for the plan of taking regional action. In the age of digital administration, there is no reason to have all public-private offices in one city. It is very easy to send the head office of a private bank insurance and corporate company to the divisional town with adequate discounts and incentives on corporate taxes and duties.

We also have to do away with the idea that all head offices should be built in Dhaka. Suppose the Tea Development Board has no reason to keep it in Dhaka without keeping it in Sylhet. Again, I don't see any reason to keep the Fisheries Institute in the heart of Dhaka without leaving Chandpur. Coming out of such an idea, considering the importance and effectiveness, it is time to move these regional based head offices from Dhaka.

There is a need to build more efficient alternative systems instead of subways. The risk of climate change has increased the incidence of rainfall at specific times. There is no pond, lake, or open park in Dhaka to filter soil in rain water, which leads to rain and drain-sewerage water all resulting in catastrophic floods. On the other hand, the water level has gone down as the groundwater is being pumped. In this situation, canal rescue, implementation of drainage master plan, and suburban rail without reducing urban runoff is a risky dream.

Dhaka needs a low cost modern surface tram, electric tram bus, and BRT. These will run on the current road, not flyovers. The drainage system will be fixed, but in case of excessive waterlogging, trams will have to construct several high parking lots in the vicinity of Dhaka for parking. Trams, electric tram buses will be implemented on all medium and large roads in all areas, except alleys. If necessary, leave the whole road or half of the tram, no private car will run there.

There will be no privately owned bus in Dhaka. Only one road at the intersection has to be taken to the underpass with drainage and pumping facilities. This will be followed by one-way roads, concept of even-odd vehicles, double the cost of fuel used in private cars in the capital, very high carbon tax, high route fees for private cars, 8 to 10 times the tariff for the first car on the second car. Besides, the entrances and exits of Dhaka should be interconnected through waterways, circular railways, and ring-rods. External transport through Dhaka must be stopped. Inter-district bus stations will have to go outside the entrance of Dhaka. The entrances need to be connected with trams, BRT, and metro rail.

I think it is time to stop VIP traffic on the streets of Dhaka, and stop the use of private cars by government officials. It is important to start high speed trains with the nearest areas of Dhaka such as Gazipur, Savar, Narayanganj, Dhora, Narsingdi. This will move the employees from those areas away from Dhaka and reduce the load on the city. It will play an effective role even if more double-decker buses are introduced on different routes in Dhaka, as there is an opportunity to carry more passengers in double-decker buses.

In the 80s and 90s, engineers and architects suggested moving the Secretariat to Rupganj across the Kanchan Bridge, much like Putrajaya in Malaysia. No government has listened to them. One after another elite residential project has been carried out by filling sand catchment areas of several rivers, including Shitalakshya and Balu, there is no opportunity to increase them. There is talk of building a new Dhaka in Purbachal. By transferring the secretariat there, it is possible to revive some life in the middle of Dhaka.

A metro rail or sub rail system will not provide permanent relief from unbearable traffic jams and a chaotic public transport system. Relief will come through systematic changes in service delivery, effective decentralization of political-administrative power, and decentralization of business, services, education, employment outside Dhaka. There are both ways and strategies to save Dhaka.

The symptoms of this disease called traffic jam are known, and so are the treatment methods. Now the responsibility lies with the authorities. The manner in which they seek treatment depends on their own will and foresight.

Rakib Al Hasan is a physician, author, activist, and international award winning youth leader of Bangladesh. His twitter: https://www.twitter.com/rakibalhasan_bd.