Of Dhaka's resilience: the endless saga

| Updated: February 07, 2023 21:16:52

Traffic congestion in Dhaka is one of the worst in the world. (Collected Photo) Traffic congestion in Dhaka is one of the worst in the world. (Collected Photo)

Residents of the Dhaka metropolis are not used to seeing wide-angle photographs of the like published recently in this daily. The aerial view catches the sprawling city in a rare glimpse filled with freshness and a magnificent beauty. In fact, this is not the original and usual Dhaka, filled with all kinds of eyesores and repugnant spectacles. In spite of the FE photograph being one of the many of Dhaka's fast emergence as a modern city with serpentine flyovers, high- and mid-rise buildings, swathes of vacant lots in between, it has something unique. The photograph registers the areal beauty of a point in the Mirpur area, infamous for its traffic gridlocks and the monsoon water-logging. In spite of its air and other pollutions, unplanned growth, traffic chaos etc the city hasn't lost all its chances. Compared to many old but anarchic cities, now almost beyond reform, Dhaka is amply featured by openings to all kinds of renovation --- and also innovation. Flyovers and their use have changed the view of the city. But the squeezing of the space below and the crowded footpaths warrant the city fathers' intervention. The moot point here is vast areas in Dhaka have the inherent flexibility to adopt a series of changes.

Partial opening of the overhead metro rail has given Dhaka a smart look. After the inauguration of the total length of the line, the urban character of Dhaka in the vast area from Uttara to Motijheel is set to undergo series of changes. With the flyovers Dhaka has tentatively entered its modern age. It has to be followed by the construction of properly planned vertical office and residential building throughout the city. Dhaka high-rises have lately earned a bad name for their sloppy designs. The 400-year-old city has seen three bursts of modernisation --- in 1905 after the Partition of Bengal, in the 1950s after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and the 1970s onwards following the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. The real urbanisation, however, got underway in the 1970s onwards. Many of the privately-owned buildings constructed in the early part of this phase were ill planned and below par.

The government buildings nowadays stress their aesthetic beauty. In the very first look they baffle the viewers. But when it comes to permanence, they fail miserably. From this point of view, old-time instances can be cited. To the colonial merchants, mere construction of palatial buildings and business houses was not enough. They would lay much emphasis on the durability and living friendliness of the structures. The secret of the British era buildings still standing erect can be found here. For a modern city strong and comfortable buildings are considered a sine qua non. Like the residential and office buildings, all infrastructure of an ambitious city ought to have a mix of aesthetic beauty and durability. The aerial or atmospheric beauty of a city like Dhaka also warrants the attention of the authorities. In the past, the city planners and implementers often faltered on the issue. But today, there are few scopes to take a laidback stance on it. In spite of being a capital, with scattered 4-storey or 5-storey buildings, Dhaka thrived on its small-town environs and beauty in the 1950s and the 1960s. But with the Dhaka-bound migration of the educated people in the late fifties, the then provincial capital found itself facing many urban challenges. Heated politics coupled with the faint signs of unrest, and the demand for autonomy, prompted the people to prepare for a tough time. In those days of turmoil and face-offs, urbanisation of Dhaka took a back seat.

On some counts, Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, had to wait for two more decades to have the semblances of a faintly growing metropolis.

Considering its outward size, Dhaka could be defined as a metropolis. It is a large city with its basic infrastructure in place. Its complete elevated metro rail is set to roll at the year-end this year. Part of it comprising nearly half of its length was inaugurated by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on December 28 in 2022. With the whole infrastructure of the metro rail in operation, Dhaka is expected to enter the new age of communication. Elevated metro rails and subways within the city, on completion, will open a new chapter on Dhaka. Mid-haul bus services connecting the city with the nearby districts are a proof of the expanding bus network. The beginning of the bus age in Dhaka was quite humble. In the 1940s and the 50s, small, wooden body buses would be seen plying a few roads. The chief mode of the commoners' transport in those days comprised mainly horse-drawn carriages and cycle-rickshaws. Those were seen plying the Dhaka roads throughout the day, their well-known stands being the two railway stations, the hospitals, and a few other spots in the old Dhaka. The cycle rickshaws began plying the streets a little later.

Like the road communication infrastructure in other large cities, the one in Dhaka began from a humble stage. The journey has yet to reach any specific stage. But despite the chaotic roads ruled by the reckless buses and other vehicles, the policy makers continue to put in the best of the efforts to streamline the whole traffic scenario of Dhaka. But practically, the recommendations remain lodged in files.  Reforms remain elusive. In the 21st century, the main challenges posed to Dhaka residents come from myriad sectors. Housing is one of them. Six decades ago, Dhaka's skyline was clear. Tall buildings had yet to fill it. Be the place a residential area or the business district, the buildings there were of low-height. The middle-class neighbourhoods in the whole Dhaka would comprise tin-shades or half-brick and half-tin houses. The whole cityscape underwent a radical transformation in the independent Bangladesh. In the outlying areas, tin-sheds were replaced by concrete buildings. In areas, multi-storey buildings stood in place of the single-storey ones. This march continued without break until the 1990s. The use of the term Dhaka metropolis in place of Dhaka city began approximately from this period. The business district of Motijheel had by then become one of the most bustling and the busiest areas in Dhaka. In the following years, the hectic nature of Motijheel and Dilkusha only increased. The blight of congestion on the roads, roadsides and footpaths didn't go away even upon occasional changes made to the parking areas. In such a stifling situation, many started thinking of shifting to the spacious areas in other parts of the city. The crippling traffic gridlock in every part of the city saps out the inherent vitality of Dhaka.

In spite of it the ever expanding city doesn't lose its resilience. Notwithstanding its existence of four hundred years, the city's full urbanisation began later than many South Asian cities. Dhaka's belated coming of age proved a boon to it. For the city still is full of prospects for a rejuvenation, not to speak of its wearing a new look. Dhaka's untimely aging has been prompted by, among others, the pressure of its population density. This overburdened situation is exerting lots of pressure on its different utility services. The new residents and those coming from far-flung areas together pose a formidable challenge to the city's wellbeing and liveability. Discouraging the ambitious new comers from arriving in any city from other areas is no rational answer. It leads to bad blood among the citizens of the same country. All citizens of a country enjoy the constitutional right to the privileges offered by the national capital. In the absence of discriminations, which are unthinkable, Dhaka cannot but absorb the people coming from villages and smaller towns. In accommodating the people from outside, Dhaka residents have never dithered over sharing its resources with them. Coping with population density is one of the greatest challenges facing the Dhaka metropolis. The city has not much uninhabited land to accommodate even the upper and middle-class people, let alone the landless segments. In such a case, vertically built accommodations might come up as the way out in the distant future.

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