Imagine Dhaka as a 21st Century city of 'spectacular growth', worthy enough for others to model worldwide. It would boast an economy of $273 billion, with a per capita income of $9,225, that is, eight-fold higher than now, but broadly speaking, also overtaking Mexico's Silicon Valley city of Guadalajara (though falling slightly short of that country's other major metropolitan, Mexico City). Based on RAJUK's Dhaka Structure Plan 2016-35 (published in 2015), the World Bank's Toward Great Dhaka (2018) makes these observations, among others, which Shihab Sarkar eloquently summarised in this very newspaper (July 12, 2018). It goes further, positioning Dhaka's possibly pivotal 21st Century moment alongside New York's 19th Century experience (when it "rose to its status as a world economic center"), and Shanghai's 20th Century positioning (eventually to rank "among the top 20 cities globally"). New York went on to have an economy "the size of Canada," of $1.5 trillion, with a per capita income of over $70,000, by 2016, while Shanghai boasted an economy of $600 billion, also by 2016, with a per capita income of $13,500.
The million dollar question is: how will Dhaka do it? The World Bank, which rarely glamorises growth-rates or stupefies with statistics, simply responds: follow New York and/or Shanghai. What New York and Shanghai did, as is elaborated in Chapter 6 of its own 2018 report (almost all statistics in this article are taken from that World Bank chapter), was to expand 155 streets (which did not then exist), from the southern coastal tip of Manhattan to the very north, from 1881; and Shanghai similarly expanded into the rural east of Pudang. Dhaka, the World Bank proposes, must follow suit by opening up its rural east: not only would this relieve the bursting west, which stands close to reaping diminishing economic returns, but properly done, it would help 'rebalance' Greater Dhaka's growth, such that its projected 2035 population of slightly less than 25 million (six million more than now), would live a less congested life than now: West Dhaka density per square kilometer would fall from 69,000+ to 61,000+, while East Dhaka would rise substantially locally, but to a relatively far lower 56,000+ with the Greater Dhaka context.
All this would be possible from the cumulative effects if the following four 'scenarios' is followed between now and then: (a) following the extant business-as-usual model, in which private enterprises swarm East Dhaka and build their own projects without any centrally coordinated agency supplying, for example, vital infrastructures; (b) constructing an eastern embankment just to prevent the low-lying, flood-prone land from being swallowed by monsoon rains; (c) building those infrastructures, not just across the metropolitan and its zones, but also connecting Dhaka with the rest of the country (and thereby linking up with international transportation grids); and (d) adopting the strategic approach of utilising extant high-skilled manpower, thereby attracting others from rural areas and Dhaka's west, and ultimately releasing 'productive and residential externalities' to reinforce each other, for example, through educational institutions, stores and malls, hospitals, and leisure/entertainment outlets.
Up to six million people would flock to the east, based on routine population growth-rate today (of 2.3), internal migration patterns, and growth attraction. Dhaka itself would be able to absorb 10.5 million more workers, especially with the growth of tradable services taking 10 per cent of that inflow. East Dhaka would account for 2.3 millions of those jobs, or 22 per cent of Dhaka's tally. Easier access to new country-wide infrastructures (highways, rail-lines), would connect East Dhaka better with other Bangladeshi cities and ports, thus cutting transportation costs for the country's exports and imports, and feeding significantly the corridors leading out of Bangladesh into India. Since India only just reduced tariffs on thousands of products, many facilitating Bangladeshi exports, and is in the process of opening special economic zones across Bangladesh, East Dhaka would be "in the hub of global transactions." What New York did in the 19th Century and Shanghai in the 20th could be replicated in Dhaka in the 21st as a salient element of Bangladesh's climb up the middle-income ladder, and its rapid conversion into a developed country subsequently.
Of course, reality does not unfold as automatically as idealised scenarios of reports do. Yet, the pathway is at least laid, needing only nurturing. No better agencies than the two Dhaka city corporations to fulfill that, meaning their priorities will have to be less and less insular and competitive, and more and more collaborative and complementary. Without them, areas such as Purbachal at the heart of East Dhaka, may just become another Bashundhara.
As Dhaka's largest private real-estate project, Bashundhara's owner, the Bashundhara Group's East-West Property Development, Private, Limited, has built all that can make it as attractive a neighborhood as can be in the country: top-flight apartments galore, a huge 150,000 square-footed mall, infrastructures, hospitals, and universities. Yet, the low-lying marsh it was built upon still floods the main areas several times every year, leading to costly and repetitive road-repairs, increasingly impassable accesses, and exposing residents and visitors to inconveniences, pests, and diseases. Among their consequences: travel disruption, which directly takes a toll on local universities (no wonder they seriously consider shifting to Purbachal), not to mention other public facilities and services, like hospitals and stores.
East Dhaka would have to control for these. No better a way than through the country's other innovative initiative: public-private ownerships, with one side supplying those infrastructures, the other utilising the opportunities generated. For Greater Dhaka to reach its forecasted potential, properly uplifting East Dhaka is fundamental, and stakeholder cooperation becomes its sine qua non. How we do that in 2018 will show in how we collaborate to complete the elections, then in parceling out the multifarious functions to the various public and private agencies, and ultimately, in how our export targets keep bringing in the funds we will sorely need.
It takes a very coordinated team of excellent players to win the World Cup, as we have just noticed. It will take nothing less for Dhaka to be considered a world-class metropolitan. Are you ready for your greatest show, Dhaka-ites?
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.