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A plan for Dhaka in 2019

  • Published at 12:00 am January 1st, 2019
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Not a pretty picture MEHEDI HASAN

Decentralization may be the answer to our problems. This is the first part of a two part op-ed

Decentralization is undoubtedly the most important buzzword for Bangladesh right now. This is a small attempt at trying to present the lens through which I see the issue altogether. 

According to the World Bank Group, “Decentralization -- the transfer of authority and responsibility for public functions from the central government to intermediate and local governments or quasi-independent government organizations and/or the private sector -- is a complex multifaceted concept.”

There are four types of decentralization: Political, administrative (deconcentration, delegation and devolution), fiscal, and market (privatization, deregulation).

Why it matters

Jadur shohor” (city of magic), “mayar shohor” (city of enchantment), “shopner shohor” (city of dreams), and the list of names can go on. Whatever name is given, the identity which our capital Dhaka most aptly and appropriately identifies with today is that it is the second least liveable city in the world.

People from all social strata want a better liveability condition in Dhaka. Dhaka is also the world’s most polluted city, with a density of 47,400 people per square kilometre. 

The slums of Dhaka are deprived of access to basic civic amenities like water, electricity, sanitation, and gas, making the capital more environmentally endangered with each passing day. The crime rates have increased due to the unnecessary spillover effect. 

Traffic congestion and sound pollution are reaching intolerable heights. The citizens are not interested in raising their next generation in this country.

Given its irreplaceable importance, Dhaka keeps getting bigger and bigger with each extra addition of a satellite/secondary city. The Dhaka zone is now larger than ever before, making the commute/mobility extremely difficult for its residents. 

But can the city really carry the burden of its own weight a few years down the line? 

I think collapse is inevitable if adequate decentralization measures are not taken. There is going to be a crisis of water, as every year the groundwater level decreases in Dhaka. The excessive use of gas and natural resources increases the proportion of carbon emissions and environmental heat, causing annual rises in temperature and changes in the climate. 

At this rate, decentralization has become a pre-requisite for better liveability conditions, both within and outside Dhaka. However, it also not a panacea through which all of the city’s or the country’s problems could be solved. 

More market flexibility, transparency, and social safety

Decentralization can open up more avenues of market flexibility -- eliminating trade barriers and removing dependence on monopolies and oligopolies. Moreover, when it occurs at a wide scale, local production will be enhanced, and more people will be encouraged to invest in local businesses. 

More opportunities for secure and innovative leadership will be created. Market confrontation can be avoided, administrative and legal transparency can be strengthened. Social justice can be served, and public safety can be ensured. 

Income sources can be generated for women, transgender people, and otherwise disadvantaged communities. Overall, sustainable ways of living can be fostered and accelerated. Disaster risks can be mitigated through effective decentralized governance. As Dr Gowher Rizvi says: “Politics is the art of the possible.”

The challenge

Bangladesh is not Dhaka. Dhaka is not Bangladesh -- the challenge of decentralization is explained in two very simple sentences. Every person who has been to Dhaka and any other part of the country will clearly be able to make this distinction.

But is anyone actually concerned about the points differentiating Dhaka from the rest of the country? I mean, if given a choice, most people would choose to stay in Dhaka despite getting the same amenities elsewhere in the country. That’s why the biggest challenge of decentralization is the mindset.

Debra Efroymson, the co-founder of Worker for a Better Bangladesh Trust (WBB), agrees with me in this regard: “The first challenge is the mindset. First, decentralization will not solve all of Dhaka’s congestion problems. If fewer people stay here but more of them use cars, we will still be congested. So decentralization is a way to reduce other problems but has to be enacted in combination with other measures to reduce car/motorbike use, both in Dhaka and in other cities.”

Secondly, there is the problem of irresponsible bureaucracy. Corruption has widened the rich-poor gap to such an extent that inequality now seems impenetrable. In reality, the urban poor is worse off than the rural poor as far as well-being is concerned. However, all public and private authorities are centred in Dhaka, making it indispensable for living. 

Despite showing bottom-up development approaches, the process of development is a top-down one -- solely because of our bureaucratic system.

There are hardly any public bodies that do not have their headquarters in Dhaka. But is it really that important? It definitely is.

Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to relocate the main offices of coast guard and shipping in Chittagong, and agriculture in North Bengal? Or if the major export-import companies and other industries were shifted from Dhaka? This way, it will not only be possible to prevent the regional associated risks, but also help in strengthening the overall management system. 

Shamsher Mubin Chowdhury, the former foreign secretary and diplomat, says: “When you say decentralization, you must also devolve equally. Decentralizing without devolving power is only half the job. You must devolve authority.

“You have elected city mayors who have no fiscal powers, or any fiscal power for that matter. They happen to rely on the central budget here or the LGRD ministry budget. So, keeping with the times, these reforms must be brought in. We have done well in social and economic areas, but politics has not caught up.”  

The concluding part of this article will be published tomorrow.

Maisha Mehzabeen works at the Dhaka Tribune and is a graduate in economics.

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