Every day Mohammad Khairul Islam arrives at Dhanmondi Lake before the break of dawn.
The 40-year-old then sets out his tools on a small table. As joggers and walkers pass by, he offers to test their blood sugar and blood pressure levels for Tk30.
By 9 am, Khairul attends to 20 people. This everyday tally takes about 3 hours.
"It is a good part-time job. I come here in the morning, and can earn Tk600 daily," said Khairul, who learned the practice from one of his friends some years back.
From the edge of the Satmosjid Road to Rabindra Sarobar, four people like Khairul sit at their makeshift tables and offer the same services to joggers and park goers. Some also stand with digital weight machines, for those who want to scale their weight.
Tens of thousands of people frequent Dhanmondi Lake every day. Be it health-conscious joggers, strollers, lovers who bare their hearts under the shade of the branchy trees (or even people visiting Dhaka for the first time from across the country) - Dhanmondi Lake is usually a scene full of city people gravitating, with vigour, toward a green space of nature.
However, the lake does not only serve a recreational and healthy lifestyle purpose, many livelihoods are centred on the Dhanmondi Lake.
Originally a dead channel of the Karwan Bazar River, connected to the Turag River, the lake is partially connected with the Begunbari Canal.
In 1956, when Dhanmondi was developed as a residential area, about 16 percent of the total area was designated for the lake. And in 1996, the renowned architect, Iqbal Habib, spearheaded the Dhanmondi Lake and Area Development project that we see now.
The economy of Dhanmondi Lake
Dhanmondi Lake's ambience changes with each hour of the day.
In the late afternoon, the lake starts to look different when people, mostly couples, come in search of a quiet area to spend some time with their loved ones. They often visit the Rabindra Sarobar area, where food shops await their patronage.
A line of four shops at the Rabindra Sarobar sells kebabs, juice, tea and several other food items. Mohammad Mannan of Kebab Bari shop owner's son, Mohammad Sabbir, said, on average, the sales of a single shop fetches Tk60,000 daily.
"But the sale doubles on Fridays when the number of visitors increases," said Sabbir, sitting inside his shop. "On government holidays, the crowd increases."
Not only food, many people who visit the lake also ride the lake boats - another part of the lake's economy. However, there are rules. For instance, the boats are not allowed to cross Road 8 bridge on the south and the Panshee restaurant on the north side of Dhanmondi.
Arif Hossain Shuvo, who is responsible for the boats on behalf of the lease owner, said that a total of 15 boats ply on the lake. And the rent of the couple boats for half an hour is Tk150, while the rent of a family boat for half an hour is Tk200. For one hour, the fare is double.
"On a normal day, more or less 500 people ride the boats and most of them are couples. And on Fridays and government holidays, the number reaches 1,000," said Arif. That is, the daily ticket sales from the boat stand are worth around Tk30,000.
Lease and responsibility
In March this year, the Dhaka South City Corporation leased the lake and its area for a year to seven people by dividing the area into seven sectors.
The city corporation floated a lease tender at the price of Tk3 crore and 8 lakh for leasing two restaurants Sampan and Panshee, seven food courts including Bajra, Dingi and Tori and five public toilets and parking spaces for 128 vehicles including the Sheikh Russel Shishu Park and a skating club in the lake area, as mentioned in the lease document.
The City Corporation leased out five sectors of the lake area for Tk2 crore and 67 lakh and 70 thousand and one 1 hundred, respectively. However, the City Corporation did not lease out Sector 2 yet because the bidding has not been satisfactory. Still, it plans to float tender for this sector again soon.
On the other hand, the City Corporation stopped leasing sector 6 for security reasons as it is close to Bangabandhu Memorial Museum and its surrounding area. Meanwhile, all the leaseholders are members of the ruling party.
This is the first time Dhanmondi Thana Awami League office secretary Golam Rabbani Hiru could lease out any space in the lake area. The stage of Rabindra Sarobar and the fishing area of the lake have fallen under his sector.
"From now on I will rent the Rabindra Sarobar stage. The amount will depend on the type of programme and the date. The rent may be between Tk50,000 to 5 lakh," said Golam Rabbani Hiru.
Hiru will also earn money by selling tickets to anglers who come to the lake for fishing. One will have to fish in the lake by buying a ticket for a single day for Tk3,000. Fishing is allowed only on Fridays and Saturdays.
"Now anglers will also have to buy a ticket from me for fishing in the lake," reconfirmed Hiru.
A dying lake and no caretaker
While leaseholders get excited at the prospect of earning from the reorganised Lake area, the environmental aspect of the lake and its surrounding area remains completely neglected with no plan in sight to address it.
The colour of the Lake water is mossy green (or worse, a tar-like black in some areas) due to pollution, the roots of many trees lay bare because of erosion, with a few trees already falling into the lake water. Waste, mostly used plastic bottles and teacups, can be found scattered around in the lake area as well as in the lake's water body.
Abdul Matin, the executive vice president of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), a civic movement to protect Bangladesh's environment, said the once scenic beauty of Dhanmondi Lake is long gone. And nobody seems to take care of the water now. Although in the rainy season the water improves, throughout the rest of the year it remains in an abysmal state.
"The water of the Dhanmondi Lake travels to Hatirjheel, and the water there is also becoming contaminated with this water," he added.
"The water cannot move out of the lake due to a faulty drainage system. The amount of water that moves out is not adequate. The City Corporation is responsible for damaging the Dhanmondi Lake," Matin further added.
Rafiqul Islam Badal, the councillor of ward 15 of the Dhaka South City Corporation, who is also the general secretary of the ruling Dhanmondi Thana Awami League unit, visited the lake and its area Saturday afternoon. He spotted a house that has connected its sewerage line to the lake, transporting human faeces directly into the lake.
"The water of the lake stinks. The tea sellers are selling lots of cups of tea daily, and people are throwing the used cups either into the lake or in the lake area," said Badal.
"There is a condition in the lease agreement that the lease owners of the seven sectors will keep their areas clean. However, they are not keeping the area clean. I have conveyed this to the City Corporation authorities but I have not gotten any solution," said Badal.
This correspondent texted Dhaka South City Corporation Mayor Barrister Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh for his comments on Dhanmondi Lake. However, he texted back saying the City Corporation's public relations officer Abu Naser should be contacted.
When asked, Abu Naser claimed that the lake water was more polluted in the past and the City Corporation had cleaned the lake water extensively by taking out the waste and used bottles from the lake.
"We have also released ducks and tilapia fish in the lake to improve the ecosystem," said Abu Naser.
On the matter of the uprooted trees that are falling into the lake, Abu Naser said they will take steps to ensure that trees do not fall into the lake any longer.
"We will ask the leaseholders to keep the lake area clean and put the used bottles and cups in the designated waste bins," he added.
New project plans with questionable strategies
The Dhaka South City Corporation has taken up a project at a cost of Tk14 crore 62 lakh and 47 thousand for renovation and development works in the lake and its area. The work began in May this year and is supposed to end in two months, this December.
The project includes building a new food court on the fifth island, close to Bajra and Sudha Sadan and the renovation of Sampan, Dingi and Panshee restaurants and food courts and its area. The construction of a new 450-metre walkway and renovation of other walkways and development of the shore of the lake has also been included in the project.
Mithun Chandra Shil, executive engineer at Dhaka South City Corporation said this project is intended to revitalise the lake and its surrounding areas.
When asked, architect Iqbal Habib said that he did the design 25 years ago for the first time. In the past, the Dhanmondi Lake was run by two committees: one was a management committee and the other was an advisory committee.
Iqbal Habib was an honorary member of the committees until they were dissolved, and the lake is now entirely overseen by the City Corporation. Moreover, he said, no one had contacted him about the renovation and development work.
Habib also explained that the Dhaka South City Corporation should not build any new infrastructure in the lake area to keep the green ratio intact.
Dhanmondi Lake, after all, is not for commercial purposes. Rather, it is one of the parts of urban utility service. If necessary, the City Corporation should spend more money and take steps to revitalise the lake. He said that the City Corporation should not make a single taka by sacrificing the greenery.
According to the architect, the monthly management and maintenance of the Dhanmondi Lake amounts to around Tk12 lakh. Therefore, the yearly management and maintenance cost stands at around Tk1 crore and 44 lakh. For additional repair and renovation, one can add another Tk1 crore to the cost of Dhanmondi Lake upkeep. Ultimately, Tk2.5 crore is the operational budget.
"You are earning Tk3 crore. What is the point of earning additional money if you do not want to spend money on improving the lake?" said Iqbal Habib.