When visitors come to Dhaka, I try to draw their attention to the many positive changes that have marked our socio-economic evolution over the last eight years.
I point out that, unlike the past, we tend to have electricity for most of the day and night. I draw their attention to supermarkets that have sprung up in most major cities, and particularly in Dhaka.
I refer to the advances made in education and women’s empowerment, and also to the dynamics of digitalisation that now pervades our lives. I also mention other improvements achieved in our infrastructural support paradigm.
This is exactly what I was doing on the morning of December 1. However, I had to cut short my references because I had to leave around 11:30am to attend a Namaz-e-Janaza. The funeral prayer, I had been informed, would be held after Zohr prayers in a mosque in Banani.
I live in Dhanmondi. Consequently, I thought that my travel time would not take more than one hour and 15 minutes (given that the mosque was about 8km away), and I would be in time to attend the prayer, due to be held around 1:20 pm.
I left my house at 11:32am and reached the vicinity of the mosque at about 1:50pm, after all the ritual prayers had already been completed. It had taken more than two hours and 20 minutes. I was not only angry but also sad.
Witnessing my predicament, one of my friends handed over to me an article written by Jody Rosen in the New York Times. It was published on September 23, and dealt with the dire conditions of Dhaka traffic. I read it carefully and had no hesitation in agreeing with most of the observations made by that journalist in that commentary.
The reason I am writing today on this issue is because of a photograph that appeared in a local newspaper about how digital traffic management in Dhaka had given way to ropes being strung across the street at a busy inter-section near the Prime Minister’s Office.
The traffic police has apparently been forced to resort to this in various parts of Dhaka because drivers flout all laws related to inter-sections at traffic crossing points. The quagmire deteriorates even further if the traffic flow includes motor-cycles, rickshaws, and rickshaw vans (as in the case of the inter-section near the Sonargaon Hotel and Karwan Bazar).
This dysfunctional approach towards the controlling of traffic has made Dhaka, a mega-city with a population larger than Belgium or Netherlands or Norway or Denmark or Sweden, a prime example to the rest of the world of how a city should not function.
Consequently, it has not been any surprise that in the 2016 Global Liveability Survey, the quality of life report issued annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Dhaka has been ranked 137th out of 140 cities, edging out only Lagos, Tripoli, and war-torn Damascus.
The traffic quagmire scenario obviously was one of the important factors that tipped the scale against Dhaka. Apparently, its infrastructure rating was also found to be the worst of any city in the survey.
The traffic situation in Dhaka has become singularly a negative reflection of the way we are managing our city. In a manner of speaking, the snarl within the traffic matrix has become detrimental to the city’s economic future and development.
The traffic situation in Dhaka has become singularly a negative reflection of the way we are managing our city
Jody Rosen comments on the existing situation in this manner: “We were in the heart of the city now, penned in by surging pedestrians and hundreds of vehicles competing for space on a wide road called Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue. There were passenger cars and puttering three-wheeled auto-rickshaws. There were buses so vacuum-packed with passengers that many riders were forced onto the exterior, clinging to open doorways and crouched on rooftop luggage racks. There were cargo tricycles, known locally as vans, heading to markets bearing heaping payloads of bamboo, watermelons, metal pipes, eggs, live animals. And, of course, there were the iconic Dhaka passenger vehicles, bicycle rickshaws. Officially, rickshaws are banned on major thoroughfares like Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue, but there they were, in vast phalanxes, their bicycle bells pealing above the roar of the traffic jam … It sounds like an overstatement, but to behold the gridlocked streets of Dhaka is to see distress in action, or rather, in inaction ... footpaths are also an issue. There are too few sidewalks in Dhaka, and those that exist are often impassable, occupied by vendors and masses of poor citizens who make their homes in curbside shanties. True or not, there’s no mistaking the pounding that the city gives to your auditory nerves. Traffic is Dhaka’s deafening music, a dissonant theme song of shouting drivers, rumbling engines and, leading the attack, honking horns: vocals, bass, ill-tuned brass … By the government’s own estimate, Dhaka’s traffic jams eat up 3.2 million working hours each day and drain billions of dollars from the city’s economy annually. Traffic in Dhaka is not just a nuisance. It is poverty, it is injustice, and it is suffering.”
These are not flattering comments and do not certainly depict Dhaka as a desired destination for tourists.
We have seen the installation of several dozen traffic lights, including some to be powered by solar panels. Most do not work and the results are unsatisfactory. The effectiveness of the new system is also hampered by policemen taking over the control of traffic even when there are functioning traffic lights.
Traffic is kept waiting when the green lights are on and allowed to go through when the red light is on. Rickshaws and rickshaw vans also enter into streets with fast moving traffic. This becomes more dangerous at night because nearly all of them do not have any sort of light on their body frame to indicate their presence.
This adverse scenario is further complicated when it comes to providing fast access to ambulances carrying patients in emergency conditions to hospitals. In most places, whim of the law enforcement official acts as the determining factor. Such a format for traffic management is contrary to established practice elsewhere in the world.
The state of affairs of traffic outside Dhaka, on the highways, also leave a lot to be desired. We have one of the highest death toll figures compared to rest of the world. It was revealed in The Daily Observer on December 2 that at least 3,080 people were killed and 7,918 others were injured in 2,717 road accidents across the country in the last 11 months till November 30.
Partially, this is due to inexperienced drivers, driving long hours on inter-District routes without required rest, and not following the respective lane arrangement. There is also the question of poor traffic management by the police. The other factor is the use of vehicles on roads without proper fitness required for long inter-city travel.
This discourages foreign tourists and many others from undertaking overland trips to destinations like Sylhet or Cox’s Bazaar.
We have to address this issue in a constructive manner -- the sooner, the better.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.