Where did it go so wrong?
Since its inception as Jahangirnagar during the Mughal era, Dhaka has slowly risen to be a noted trade and cultural hub for the east. For 400 years, art, tradition, and history have come together to shape the cultural identity of Dhaka.
Dhaka, during the Mughal-British era, was a prime example of urban settlement. Communities like the Armenians, English, Portuguese, and of course the native Bengalis, all settled together and made their own share of contributions to the growth of this great city.
Standing on the river Buriganga, Dhaka has always had an immense potential for growth and development. A Bengali commoner in the 1700s or an English commoner who had come looking for a job to the east, the land of opportunities, standing in an alleyway in the middle of a bustling bazaar, would take in the loud noises of people, smell of spices, music from a nearby brothel, the sound of azaan, the mild tolling of a bell from a faraway temple, and watch over the people of different communities and classes coming together and engaging in a flourishing trade.
And he would be completely innocent in his thinking that in about the next 300 years, this city of Dhaka would be the greatest city in the world.
Three hundred years later, that has not been the case. The modern 21st century Dhaka is the fourth worst city in the world to live in, according to the Global Livability Index 2017. According to the same index, Dhaka has also been ranked fourth among the most polluted cities in the world.
Four hundred years of culture and history have successfully gone through a metamorphic transformation in the last few decades, and resulted in a hell-like urban dust heap that everybody wants to get out of. In a once-rich and affluent city, there is now a cry for survival in the air.
There are parts of Dhaka that may remind one of a post-apocalyptic movie set. While the rest of the world has progressed steadily forward, even younger cities and countries than ours have successfully rocketed past, we have remained in the same pit we’ve been in for decades.
Cities with constrained resources like Singapore and cities with worse conditions than ours like Kolkata in the 70s, have shown us how it’s done. While they have focused on the development of their urban lives, our policies have stayed marred with political instabilities, corruption, sheer carelessness from the policy-makers and, above all, a general lack of civic education from every group of people who make this city what it is.
Dhaka never lacked potential. The Mughals and the Nawabs of Dhaka invested heavily in Dhaka during the 1600s to late 1800s, building beautiful mosques, gardens, and water fountains. Large roads and walkways, townships, public schools, and civic waters systems were built during the British period.
The signs of these old glory days are still to be found in the narrow and dirty alleyways of old Dhaka. The proper downfall of this great-to-be city began in 1947. What little was not hurt by partition was worsened by the biased central administration of the Pakistani government.
People of Bengal were, in general, deprived of the development policies of the Pakistani government. And the result was well reflected upon the capital city of Dhaka. After the initial swarm of people during the partition, under the Pakistani administration, Dhaka continued to see a steady influx of migration from the peripheral rural areas.
People came to Dhaka in search of a better living. The rate soared after independence when much of the country was devastated and the economy was on a heavy downturn. Rural migration accounted for 60% of the population growth in Dhaka during the 1960s-1970s. And the population rate kept growing higher in the consecutive years.
In 1975, the population of Dhaka was 2,221,000 growing at a rate of 10.08%. In 2018, as of now, the population has become a soaring 19,580,000. By 2030, this number could become well over 27 million, at the current growth rate.
With so many people crammed in a limited amount of space, accommodation started to pose as a major problem. And with people, came the slums. The streets started to become chaotic. Jobs were limited and people were frustrated. Political turmoil and instability never rested in the ever-growing city that was home to millions. It was a period of chaos and lawlessness that our policy-makers failed to put a leash on, that shaped the Dhaka that we see today.
Forty-seven years since independence, Dhaka is yet to find its niche among the megacities in the world. Our lawmakers have failed to take control over and over again. In the countable times when they did, the policies were riddled with the lack of a proper system.
The lack of system in everything is a defining feature of the modern 21st century Dhaka. Every urban regulation, from traffic management to public construction, lacks proper system and planning and has a unique way of mismanagement that is rarely found in rest of the civilized world.
In fact, modern urban planning is practically non-existent in this city that ironically boasts a proud heritage of planned urbanization. The failed attempts to revive the vigour of this city struggle every day on the tattered streets of Dhaka. It is rather funny that most people when they go to a restaurant or a cineplex or a mall that is a little different from the usual setting, they say, “It feels like you’re not in Dhaka.” It is quite sad considering how it reflects a yearning for getting out of this city.
But the story of Dhaka could have been different. Dhaka could have been a great city, with large plazas to roam around, clean air to breathe, abundant wide roads to drive on, enough greeneries and a planned urbanization boasting a beautiful cityscape. And 400 years of rich history, culture, and tradition to uphold.
Dhaka is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. With a little good will and accurate investment in the right sectors, Dhaka can still find its way back to its lost glory. The city of magic is on the brink of a literal doom. But is it already too late to dream on?
Zarif Faiaz is a freelance contributor.