By Aminul Islam
Dhaka has been rated, for the past several years, as one of the worst mega cities, with approximately 20 million people living in an area of 150 square miles. With an extreme level of pollution, health practitioners are of the opinion that Dhaka has now been an unlivable city for more than a decade. Some sensible urban planners, in private discussions, do not hesitate to call it even a ‘dead’ city.
Is Dhaka really unlivable?
Practically all the factors that make a city reasonably livable are absent in Dhaka. In terms of pollution, Dhaka exceeds the upper limits of WHO standards by 5 to 6 times. Water bodies in and around the city are highly poisonous for any living organism. The greeneries are conspicuous by their absence. Once every five to seven years the city goes under floodwaters for two to three weeks, playing havoc with sewerage and drainage systems. Dhaka needs 3 to 4 times the existing land area under roads to cope with the existing traffic volume. The number of vehicles in the city exceeds by five to six times the current road capacity. The residential, commercial, industrial and slum structures are all mixed-up across the city, slowly turning it into a concrete favela. The existing academic, cultural and civic facilities of all kinds are about one tenth of the requirement for city dwellers.
The severe gridlock, particularly at peak hours, is causing the worst man-hour loss. The annual loss to the economy of Bangladesh due to gridlocks is variously estimated at 12 to 20 billion US dollars, which works out to seven to 10% of GDP.
Dhaka is located right in the middle of an earthquake zone. The water table under the city has been dangerously depleted by WASA to keep supplying fresh drinking water to the city. In the event of a moderate to high level of earthquake, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 houses will collapse, causing outright death of three to four lakh people. The loss of life and property in the aftermath is incalculable. Rescue operations will be extremely restricted.
Are piecemeal solutions possible?
A number of projects have been completed in the past two decades and some more are in progress with the highly touted objective of solving some of the myriad problems of the city. But the sum total of all the projects have apparently achieved very little of the intended objectives. All the projects appear to have been conceived on an ad-hoc basis. They are essentially conceived as a sop to the public and the policy making authorities. The government might reassure itself better, before progressing further with the new projects, if it undertakes a thorough review of the projects completed in the last 10 to 15 years.
The ‘Body of Experts’ appointed to carry out this review must not include any working or retired bureaucrats, to assure its total independence. This body’s job will be to compare the projected achievements against the actual realisation. Its findings will provide invaluable confidence to the authorities in their decision making process. In spite of all that has been said and done so far, it must be very clear to all that a comprehensive plan for the city is the first essential tool for effective action by planners and policy makers. Only then can meaningful projects be realistically conceived and implemented in order for the problems of the city to be solved.
What about a comprehensive plan?
It is easy to talk about a comprehensive plan but it is extremely difficult to come up with one. It is possible to have a number of plans depending on the number of experts on the subject. Frankly speaking, the major discouraging factor for the experts is the attitude of the approving authorities. In the on-going planning process, the bureaucrats involved usually attach great emphasis to what is feasible rather than what is ideally desirable. Precedents literally override all other considerations.
A holistic solution demands a very radical approach, which few people will dare to think of or propose for fear of earning the wrath of their superiors. That is why government normally tends to muddle through project decisions, showing the public that they are doing something, without really solving the problems in a meaningful sense. The way to avoid this morass is an outright change in the traditional attitude of the approving authorities by encouraging radical “out of the box” solutions to problems. Changing the traditional attitude of the high-ups in the administration is easier said than done. But such a change is a must if one is sincere about the job in hand.
How to build a new Dhaka?
A possible comprehensive plan is to follow the thought process of the existing plot owners. They are demolishing their existing one or two storied buildings to build six or nine storied structures. Extend this simple idea a little further and you have the answer to the problems of Dhaka. A modification of this simple idea is to demolish, by phases, the whole of Dhaka city and build a NEW DHAKA by going up and up. This programme of NEW DHAKA will have to be implemented by a NEW DHAKA Authority, manned primarily by a group of foreign experts specialized in modern urban development. Going up and up assumes building, say four buildings of 40 to 60 stories high, within a gated complex to accommodate a large number of people in each such complex. Each of these buildings will have six to seven feet clearance above the existing land surface to avoid havoc caused by severe floods.
Each building will have car parking spaces for each of the flat owners of 750 sft and above. Adequate gymnasium facilities, socializing/prayer spaces, guest rooms, lifts, reception areas, fire-fighting devices, etc., must be provided for in each building. The gated complexes will have two or four swimming pools. Each complex is likely to be of about 4000 flats housing about 20,000 residents. It is suggested that the flats be of the sizes of 450, 600, 750, 1000, 1250, 1500,2000,2500,3000 and 5000sft. These sizes will provide for household workers, drivers, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class, upper class and super rich people.
Each complex will have flats of the same size so as to avoid interface of different classes. All these complexes should be properly spread all across the city. All structures of any type in the city must provide for adequate earthquake protection.
The flats for household workers and drivers and such others ought to be heavily subsidised by the government and their ownership cannot be transferred except back to the government through appropriate compensation. All other residents, whether they are civilians or government employees, must be allowed easy loan facilities to help them own flats. It would be wise not to allow NEW DHAKA physically to grow any larger than its present size, because of extreme constraints of physical facilities.
All industrial operations ought to be removed from the city region. Railway facilities should be moved to outside the city area. The airport should ideally be close to the city and as such Purbachal appears an ideal area. The existing plot owners in that area will have to be adequately compensated and accommodated in New Dhaka.
Each citizen of the state has a natural right to accommodation only ,and not a right to a plot of land.In addition to residential accommodations, the city will need office spaces for public and private establishments, shopping malls, hospitals, clinics, sports complexes, cultural facilities, schools, colleges, universities, libraries,hotels, restaurants etc. All these facilities must be housed in structures of proper sizes and locations across the city. How high and large these structures ought to be will be dictated by the needs of these services and the planning paradigms. The city will also need new state-of-the-art adequate physical structures for water supply, sanitation and sewerage, roads and lanes, greeneries, water bodies, electricity, telephone and similar other facilities.
The total land area of the city should provide for essential urban requirements as follows:
1. Residential accommodation – about 25 % of land area
2. Civic and administrative facilities – about 32%of land area
3. Roads and lanes – about 25+% of land area
4. Greeneries – about 9% of land area
5. Water bodies – about 9% of land area
Total land area equals:100% of area of Dhaka
If the suggested “Out Of Box” programme as proposed here is implemented, the existing city of Dhaka will accommodate about 25 million people. It is estimated that about five to six million flats will be built in about 1300 gated complexes in the city. About 30% – 40% of the flats will be required to compensate the existing land/flat owners. The remaining flats will be sold to the prospective buyers on easy terms. The prices of existing land/flats and new flats should be fixed by ‘a body of experts’. It is expected that a substantial sum of money will accrue to the implementing authority from the sale of leftover flats. This will help fund the physical facilities and possibly some civic amenities of NEW DHAKA.
It is expected that government will have very little to spend from the exchequer for this plan. Each complex is estimated to need 30 to 40 bighas of land. For easy implementation of the NEW DHAKA project, the government should initially donate some 700 to 1000 bighas of khas land. The government may later on receive part of this land area back from the NEW DHAKA authority. It is expected that such a comprehensive plan will appear as a ‘ridiculous’ proposition to a lot of people, including those involved in policy making. There is no bar to suggesting improvements to the basic ideas of this plan or to put forth an altogether new plan. What is most significant is the thought of making Dhaka livable again. It is easy to criticize but not so easy to create something new.
For the cynics, here is an example close by. Look at the City State of Singapore. From a position of utter squalor and limited land area it has been turned into a very modern garden city in the space of merely 30-35 odd years. The solution was simple, just grow upwards since there is acute shortage of space and add soothing sophistication of gardens to go with it. Extreme discipline and daring have done the trick for Singapore. All our policy makers have seen Singapore but have never seriously thought as to how this could inspire and affect their policy process. The answer lies in daring and discipline. If Singapore could do it, so can Bangladesh!
What about other urban centres?
A similar approach should be followed for developing other existing or new urban centres so that by 2050 the cities can accommodate a fast growing urban population estimated at about 120 million or nearly 50% of a projected total national population of about 230 million. Since the government is working on a plan to develop 100 odd industrial zones across the country, it is assumed that these will be located close to urban centres. These urban areas must therefore be developed with proper and adequate civic, economic and cultural facilities which will help attract professionals of all classes and types which in turn will allow faster growth of the nearby industrial zones. Such cities will also use smaller spaces to accommodate a larger population than is the current practice. Saving space is a must for a country with small area, which is shrinking by the day,and an existing large population is getting ever larger. Economic development will need more and more spaces over time.These are possible distressing realities of Bangladesh.
What if the plan is rejected?
What are the likely consequences if this or any other comprehensive plan is unacceptable to the authorities? The present practice of muddling through will continue and good money will be spent after bad projects under implementation and in the pipeline. The problems of Dhaka will remain as they are or worsen significantly since the current and new projects will hardly reduce the gridlock and other problems. New vehicles on the road every day and an ever increasing population will nullify the possible good effects of the projects on hand. If the authorities refuse to act positively and urgently, nature will take its inevitable revenge.
Since Dhaka happens to be right in the middle of an earthquake zone, a high intensity earthquake, which is expected any time soon, will demolish an estimated 200,000 structures. As a consequence, widespread fires, looting and arson will follow. Several lakhs of people will perish in the whole process. Rescue operations will be extremely limited. In the event, a NEW DHAKA is bound to emerge on the ‘Dead City of Dhaka’. May God help us!