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Dhaka Tribune

Demolishing the past

What is the cost of our inexorable march towards progress?

Update : 21 Mar 2022, 03:26 PM

They are going silently. Impressive buildings and structures from the past are being systematically, whether contrived or not, demolished. History can be defaced and corrupted, structures can’t. They are as much a part of heritage as any other custom and rituals subject to the same decline.

In the great South, Americans still let stand palatial buildings and slave accommodation. Norway maintains the simple one-roomed living quarters of its citizens before wealth allowed them to move on. The Holocaust horror remains a reminder and warning that such terror should never be repeated. So does the Auschwitz camp.

Strewn across Bangladesh are remnants of superb buildings with tales of history both dark and light resonating from their walls. In terms of architecture and design they have lessons to be drawn from. Individually-owned ones are being taken down in favour of modern living as are those run and looked after by the government. Others are crumbling ruins left to decay in the face of time, to someday be forgotten. 

Progress tends to not take any enemies. Master plans of development in the capital will wipe out some of its most endeared iconic structures. The Azimpur Staff Quarters that saw generations evolve are being pulled down for loftier condominiums to meet the requirements of increased accommodation of public service employees. The word is that the planned playing fields in between buildings will be sacrificed. Dhaka University has proposed a Tk7,000 crore plan to build hostels, new academic buildings, and other facilities by pulling down the hallmark ones.

The insensible demolition of the landmark red-brick tutor accommodation has passed by in eerie silence. The institution supposed to build the character of future citizens along with equipping them educationally appears to have no compunction in destroying the character of the campus. The iconic Teacher-Student Centre will be demolished. Dhaka Medical College too will disappear in phases.

The story is distressingly similar in other parts of the country -- tales told by individuals that brave it to those extreme locations and raise awareness through social media. Nationalism and the several waves of events and occurrences that shape it can be dangerous if shoved down the throat. There’s pride in what patriotism has achieved. The elements overcome in such achievements don’t get to be mentioned. Human psyche is such that the before and after scenarios resound louder than mere words, statements, or speeches. 

The British empire’s shadow was long, 200 years of that episode is largely recalled through everything odious that they did. Not without reason. Even as they put into action Lord Macauley’s infamous doctrine of “dismantling education, culture, and society” to bring subjects to their knees, there were impressive improvements in terms of service and infrastructure.

The railway they introduced is the backbone on which improvements are made today. No matter how out of date, their laws and rules are largely that which are used to govern. That is where the “pull down, rebuild” strategy is more required. It cannot, will not happen because the very obfuscation needed to be cleared up serves a few coteries contributing to the British theory of divide and rule.

Architects and environmentalists have tried, with little success, to prevent such mass-scale intervention using the limited means at their disposal. Authorities do not adopt the inclusive approach in planning for the future. Instead, the relentless journey continues akin to the wreckers and steamrollers clearing the illegally occupied river banks and urban water body areas. 

Stampedes will bring casualties. It’s just that silent testimonies of history and the grand greenery can never be replaced or recompensed for. People travel to ponder over the ruins of Greece, Italy, and so many other countries. Bangladesh has its own share of such riches, except they’re not cared for or maintained. 

Civilizations are built on historical realities; of life, society, and lifestyles. Doing away with them is easy enough. In the process, an essential chunk of what we are, where we came from, and what we learned vanishes with it. 

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.


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