Tuesday, May 21, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Opportunities too, come with a cost

It's impossible for Dhaka to become a “smart city” without major overhaul

Update : 20 Mar 2023, 12:21 PM

It took two major disasters, The Plague and The Great Fire of London before planners and authorities got down to serious planning and laid the foundation of London that has since incrementally grown as the city that attracts as a hub of business and tourism. 

There was rebuilding required post World War II, though nowhere near that in Japan and Germany. All three countries rose from significant rubble to economic powerhouses. 

The latter two sought opportunity in dire adversity, and the scarred populace went through hardship that has sadly not been documented as well as it should have. 

Essentially, running as per the dictates of the conquering powers it was up to courageous business leaders such as Mitsubishi's CEO to declare from his factory ruins that he could offer no salary but square meals to employees, including himself.

Perhaps the weak political structure had something to do with the case study of the two; one the economic leader in Europe, the other the third largest economy in the world.

Fast-forward to the present where more and more countries are faced with the harsh reality that incremental development of cities, towns and villages no longer work. 

Colonial countries were introduced to a semblance of planned living albeit in scales that were grandiose compared to the colonizing countries. As independence was gained in scattered forms and fragments, a political divide backed by the ever-intrusive business interests led to unrealistic and unsustainable extensions of cities and towns. With growing populations and an ebb in moral values and integrity, anything went.

Dhaka and other major cities of the country are glaring examples. Urban planners had drawn a decent map of Dhaka city more than 70 years ago, progress against which was tortuous but visible. For some unknown reason, the rickety shambles of most of the old city were ignored. 

Compare those plans with what exists in the then new township areas of Gulshan Model Town, Uttara Model Town, Banani Residential Area, Mirpur, and Mohammadpur, and they seem worlds apart. 

The “model town” concept allurement to reluctant buyers no longer exists. A combination of political browbeating, corruption, and atrocious incrementalism have produced what sane planners say is a disaster waiting to happen. 

The original planning had provisions for shopping centres, kitchen markets, residential quietude, and parks. Growing demand for space should have been to expand the city. The opposite happened. Tall buildings, commercial and residential, were allowed with no consideration for utilities and, crucially, environmental sustainability.  

The government has in the past decade planned and executed some significant expansion of the city, but there are grave doubts about utilities, commuter connectivity, and once again, sustainability. 

Following the Holey Artisan mayhem, the Ministry of Works identified more than a hundred commercial and educational establishments that should never have been allowed to be set up in the Gulshan, Banani areas. 

Notices were to have been served to such establishments to relocate within a designated period. Then there was silence. After a few earthquakes and cases of buildings coming to grief so as to become unliveable, more than 200 dangerously unstable buildings were identified for demolition. Then there was silence.

Small surprise that most people yawn and shrug shoulders when even after the F R Tower debacle, the Nimtoli disasters and, of late, the series of explosions, fires, and regrettable deaths, there's another call for more lists to be prepared. 

Leading the way is one that covers government buildings. It's unfathomable that with requisite departments engaged, repairs, modification, retrofitting, or demolitions haven't been regular features.

Buildings have life cycles as do utilities. It's impossible for Dhaka to become a “smart city” without major overhaul. There will be implications and cost. A fresh team has to work literally with blank paper to design that city. 

Akin to what many middle-eastern countries have done, it's more about a 100-year plan. To begin with, unauthorized structures have to give way as do those that have deviated from approved plans. 

Those involved with illegal approvals, whether in service or not, must be made accountable and punished accordingly. Developers responsible for deviations have to be taken to task even if it means cancelling licenses for previous offenses. 

And the weak arguments about costs and loss of livelihood have to pale before basic citizen convenience. The removal of the BGMEA office from Hatirjheel was a huge success. More are needed, some exemplary and some a matter of process. 

That includes forcible reclamation of parks and open spaces and special force implementation of on spot fines for illegal parking. Short of this in the major cities -- and we're barking up the wrong tree.

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

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