Imagine Bangladesh as a sprawling megapolis. It may very well be the answer to the accumulating problems afflicting the country, or headed this way with certainty: the scrambles to produce more while the low-wage advantage lies; building infrastructure to not only connect these manufacturing sites (variously known as special economic or export-promoting zones), but also link hinterland markets/suppliers to the external world through ports; rapid urbanisation, and with it unparalleled congestion and a permanent slum underbelly; deforestation, given the blind surge to industrialise, as if that is the only income source; coastal erosion driving population flocks further inwards; Rohingya refugee camps denuding whatever sparse hillside tracts remains; and so forth. We keep confronting these, the tasks keep getting more uphill, but we haven't surrendered as yet.
It is within that context that we could imagine the country as one sprawling metropolitan network, give or take a tea-growing Sylheti hill-side, Chattogram Hill Tracts rubber plantations, the Sunderbans remaining an eternal refuge, and savouring still the largest unbroken beach stretch under the sun. Minus these, Bangladesh could, through its numerous mega projects currently being constructed, easily absorb potential damage over far wider geographical arenas, thus resuscitating saturated and crumbling communities. All needed would be a well-coordinated, centrally-managed initiative to tailor what is being haphazardly built to produce a better mix of fresh air (the very essence of living), drinking water (the agent of perpetuating life), connectivity (between any point with any other point), and the typical metropolitan distribution of residential, commercial, industrial, recreational, and transit arenas.
'Living infrastructure' may be getting to the very heart of what Bangladesh could easily exemplify for so many other hitherto underdeveloped/developing countries: it includes everything a decent living would entail in the randomly sprouting upwardly-headed metropolitans. The very essence of anything 'upward' within society includes longer life, better health, solid educational infrastructures, recreational facilities, and open-ended opportunities to explore and innovate what all of the above require to remain concurrent, progressive, and rewarding. With enough educated youth to go around the world, not to mention within each country, galvanising such a community should become, one would think, a piece of cake. Once it so becomes, there vanishes the huge problem, consuming time, money, and patience, all at once.
Dhaka would be the centripetal location, perhaps the global model. Here, already, the World Bank, among others, proposed shedding the saturated and toxic western Dhaka by building an eastern community, largely on green pastures, aside rivers, and in close proximity to both highways and river transit routes (Towards Greater Dhaka, 2018). Properly done, Purbachal could become that global model and the springboard of the lifestyle upgrading consistent with a living infrastructure: beginning with more and wider pavements (of which Dhaka's paucity is world-famous, deadly, and an embarrassment), it seeks to restore a country-city balance, calibrate the green and the smog, shield the skyline from obscurity (the way Uttara and other residential neighbourhoods have invariably cluttered it with edifices). Should this blueprint prevail over all other private-peddling interests, Dhaka could open a brand new page.
For those familiar with the slow advent of Dhaka Improvement Trust (DIT) from the late-1950s, with Dhanmondi as its first test case, we now see how disastrously the neighborhood evolved once the apartment culture invaded the pristine land from the late-1980s: the sky simply disappeared, the lake got increasingly poisonous, and congestion riddled one section or anther constantly. Converting paddy-fields into 2 or 3-storey buildings was manageable, but pushing 2-3 stories into 12-13 broke the spine behind any living infrastructure.
Gulshan and Uttara first, then Bashundhara have similar lofty plans, until the commercial instinct of an upwardly-mobile Bangladesh got in the way. We have played this number so many times, Purbachal might become the last, the Rubicon, between a sustainable or irretrievably saturated metropolitan. Though Purbachal has been making the rounds in local media, what the broader Bangladesh megapolis context means may deserve a little bit more attention.
As we are well aware, Greater Dhaka (plus Purbachal) remains in close proximity to Naraynganj on the south, and thereby with excellent river access to the Bay of Bengal; likewise to its east through the Demra-Daudkandi sprawl; and to its north like Tongi, Jaydavpur, in fact, all the way up to Mymensingh through one flank, and Tangail through another. Already we can sense the geographical expansion of the Dhaka mega city through manageable transit-ways and decongestion plans. Spreading the compass wider, the Daudkandi spill-over itself feeds the Sylhet-Cumilla-Chattogram-Cox's Bazar stretch, already with a highway and railway, while Chandpur extends the river transit-way from Sylhet and Brahmanbaria to the Bay.
A similar nexus dots the western side. With the Jamuna Bridge now bringing in the northern and north-western urban areas, while the under-construction Padma Bridge promises to do likewise with Barishal, Faridpur, Jessore, Khulna, and Kushtia, just about every nook and corner of the country gets exposed to much more than agglomeration. In other words, with the mega projects satisfactorily completed and maintained, and backed up by decongestion urban plans, Bangladesh could easily become a huge terrain of intricately connected, resplendently productive, and constantly dynamic mega-polis.
This is not a new idea. Mega regions have been on the upswing globally, with the Boston-Washington, DC stretch in the Northeast United States already too well known to not enter anyone's mind (Iman Ghosh, "These mega regions are driving global economy," World Economic Forum, Newsletter, September 30, 2019). Others include Paris-Amsterdam-Brussels-Munich, Chicago-Pittsburgh, Greater Tokyo, Los Angeles-San Diego, London-Leeds-Manchester, and so forth, with a population ranging from 47.6 million in the first example, to 22.6 million in the last. These have become hugely productive arenas inspiring many others, some as close to Dhaka as Delhi-Lahore (27.9 million), Singapore-Kuala Lumpur (12.7 million), and so forth. Together, about 30 of them worldwide brings in $28 trillion of economic output, suggesting how 160 million Bangladeshis could reap lots of comparative advantages, promote efficiencies, reduce dependency on any commodity, and integrate the country far more effectively. All of these would spur further growth from out of the blue: just maintaining the infrastructures is a huge employment outlet, as too the planning and construction.
By distributing natural resources under less pressure and subject to more equitable distribution, Purbachal could be the harbinger of a transformed Bangladesh worthy the 'developed country' label and aspiration. The government cannot alone deliver these but supervising private investment and initiatives through greater coordination, every 'living infrastructure' component can be brought into the playground operationally, sustainability utilised, and made replicable models.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor and Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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