There is no spot in Bangladesh which is more than 400 km from Dhaka and no two spots in the country further than 750 km from one another
Not long ago I took an overnight trip to Srimongol, on the edge of the Lawachara forest in Sylhet district, famed for its seven-layer tea and one of the prettiest spots in Bangladesh, lush green hills dotted with tea plantations and misty ethereal marshlands.
It was a great trip, marred only by the fact that it took us four and a half hours each way to traverse the 150 km between Dhaka and Srimongol. The return trip got me thinking.
With a modern superhighway, the trip shouldn't take more than an hour and a half, but the truth is that Bangladesh is not really built for superhighways. Due to being a low-lying deltaic region, it is actually quite challenging to build or widen highways here. First you have to build earthen embankments, and only after the land has settled sufficiently can you build the road, which is often as much as six to eight feet higher than the (usually) paddy fields on either side.
And because there are villages and towns pretty much every mile of the way, local life tends to encroach onto the highways at frequent intervals, which quickly take on the appearance of a crowded city street, often lined with shops and with little bazaars springing up whenever the road runs through a town or village.
The obvious solution is a high-speed rail network that could connect Dhaka to Srimongol in 45 minutes. In fact, with Dhaka smack in the middle of the country, a hub and spoke system of high-speed railway lines could connect up all the major regions of the country with relative ease.
There is no spot in Bangladesh which is more than 400 km from Dhaka and no two spots in the country further than 750 km from one another. The total land area is roughly 144,000 square kilometres. This is the size of a small state or province elsewhere. Connecting up the entire country should be an eminently feasible task. Indeed, Bangladesh is pretty decently connected by rail and road, and there are few spots which are far from a paved road. The problem lies in the upkeep of the infrastructure and the numbers plying the routes.
A high-speed rail network connecting up the entire country would change everything and is the one project that has the most far-reaching potential to revolutionize the economy and turn Bangladesh into an economic dynamo. Indeed, even a decent state-of-the-art regular rail network would make all the difference.
The single biggest structural challenge that Bangladesh faces today is the over-centralization of everything in Dhaka and Dhaka's consequent descent from well-laid-out and well-administered country town to its modern incarnation as an impossibly crowded and polluted urban nightmare.
There is no question that we need to decentralize urgently. There is no need for the garment industry (in fact, the lion's share of all industry) to be located within Dhaka and its environs. There is no reason why one in ten Bangladeshis must live and work in Dhaka. There is no reason why Chittagong (once the commercial capital of the country, Mumbai to Dhaka's Delhi) should not once again flourish, and other cities and towns should not take their rightful place at the table.
No plan for Bangladesh's future can be considered serious that does not place emphasis on the need to move industries, businesses, educational institutions, government offices, and eventually people out of Dhaka and into the outlying districts.
If Bangladesh is to survive, we need to get people out of Dhaka and reinvigorate our smaller cities and towns. It doesn't matter how well we succeed elsewhere, if we don't reverse the calamity of Dhaka-centric thinking and planning, it will all be for naught. But the principal stumbling block has always been the absence of connectivity and the difficulty of moving between one place and another, hence the concentration of everything in Dhaka.
Fix that problem, and we can fix everything else.
Zafar Sobhan is Editor, Dhaka Tribune