The population of Dhaka has grown alarmingly, especially after the 90s when the growth rate sharply increased. There was also a pressure of migrants to Dhaka from different areas of the country immediately after independence. But the problem is that we could not make proper plans to accommodate these people as most of the areas in Dhaka began to expand abruptly.
In many parts of the world, when people come to a city, there are plans to accommodate them. But only 30% of the area in Dhaka is planned, while the rest has been expanded without any foresight. We may be building housing, but the roads are unplanned. We have not been able to meet the planning standards.
For this reason, we have not been able to coordinate the urban services and the civic amenities alongside it in line with a plan. Due to the lack of coordination, the population is increasing without meeting the indicators of liveability. Infrastructure, urban services like playgrounds, parks, quality of housing, water, safe environment, healthcare etc -- these are indicators of liveability. Dhaka lags behind other major cities in the world in terms of overall liveability.
The liveability crisis that Dhaka is facing is also prevalent in other major cities of the country. One of the main reasons for this is the building construction rules. The rules, made in 1996 and amended in 2008, have created opportunities for the construction of large buildings adjacent to small roads. The big disadvantage of this is that in other small towns like Cumilla, huge buildings are being constructed on the two sides of small lanes. This trend is ruining these cities.
Rajshahi city, however, has set a good example in terms of planning and implementation. There are wide roads and sidewalks. The authorities also control auto- or battery-powered rickshaws as per their carrying capacity. They are also constructing adequate walking spaces in the city. Some good works have been done in Barishal too.
Apart from this, construction work is going on haphazardly in most of the secondary towns, district towns and divisional cities. There is no standard in these works. Community facilities are not being created as per the rate of population growth. There is even no design considering the population density in these places. In many cities, unplanned flyovers are being constructed without any reason.
Even the people and policymakers of Chattogram are now saying that some of the flyovers are unnecessary. The effect observed in Dhaka has been seen in other cities like environmental destruction and filling of water bodies. You can see environmental pollution in most cities outside Dhaka.
We have destroyed the environment in the name of development. The rivers and canals of Dhaka are almost destroyed due to industrial pollution. But these reservoirs and canals are one of the aspects of an urban lifeline. Once there was navigability in these waterways, but now it has stopped. The industries are creating jobs, but we have not evaluated the economic cost of environmental pollution from the perspective of development philosophy.
We are still far behind implementing the concept of development while protecting the environment. The main reason is that we did not have the rule of law in any case. We could not set examples by punishing those responsible through the Environmental Protection Act. We have to suffer in the long run for this.
In the last 25-30 years, there have been many beautiful buildings in Dhaka, but the liveability has decreased. liveability cannot be attained with some isolated development. In terms of air quality indicators, we are in the worst condition. This describes the worst condition of our environmental carrying capacity. The reason for this is that we have not been able to take development to the standardisation of planning.
Development has to be controlled and managed for ensuring liveability that is absent in Dhaka. The reality is that those who have the responsibility of controlling development have not been able to do it properly. The Dhaka Master Plan was formulated in 1995 and the Detailed Area Plan (DAP) in 2010. According to the DAP, if we build industries in a public area, the effect will be directly on our livelihood as ordinary people will be victims of environmental pollution. Around 80% of the industries in Dhaka have been established without following any law. If only the setting up of factories could be planned, environmental pollution would be greatly reduced.
This means that Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) and other authorities in charge of development have been reluctant in these issues. On the contrary, the main focus of Rajuk in the last 25-30 years has been constructing the Purbachal project in the outskirts of Dhaka and a satellite city in Uttara. But this is not their main task. The main task of Rajuk is to control development. According to Rajuk, around 80% of the buildings constructed with their permission have also violated rules.
The main responsibility of Rajuk was to control the development, which they have failed miserably. Not just Rajuk, it is the failure of the whole state. Because if someone occupies a wetland and sets up an illegal installation, other organs of the state are involved with it, including the police, the DC office, Wasa, the Water Development Board, the Haor Development Board etc. The state system has collapsed here. We have failed in the case of urban governance and development management which has been affecting different areas of our life from environment to traffic control.
Another major reason for the decline of liveability in Dhaka is that it is an overfocused city. Every urban area has a carrying capacity. Even before the 90's, the difference between other cities and Dhaka was not so huge. Maybe Dhaka was not so focused then. However, after the 90s, Dhaka became the centre of everything. At the same time, economic activities and administrative concentration in and around Dhaka were emphasised in such a way that it created a big difference with other regions. The pull factor in Dhaka and the push factor in other regions continued to grow.
If a city in a country has more than twice the population and economy than its second largest city, we call it a primate city. At present, Dhaka is three to four times bigger in terms of population, economy than Chattogram. A large gap has also been created with Rajshahi, Khulna, Rangpur and other regions too. The distribution pattern of the Dhaka centric development budget is the major reason for this gap. Other cities have not been given the same focus to create employment opportunities and other factors.
The main document of our development plan is the five-year plan which suggests the need to decentralise the development activities. However, that has not been implemented in any way. The government has recently planned to set up economic zones across the country. But sadly, the concentration is higher in Dhaka and surrounding areas in that respect too. Currently, some mega projects like metrorail are being done in Dhaka. There is also a plan to set up a subway system in Dhaka with more allocation.
Once the Jamuna Bridge brought the possibility for greater connectivity across the country. Now, the Padma Bridge is being constructed. We should avoid Dhaka-centric plans and create economic and industrial opportunities in other regions as well. But the plan to implement this is still not visible. Rather, there is a tendency to extend Dhaka City to Mawa without limiting its size. Many billboards of different housing projects can be seen beside the highway from Dhaka to Mawa. Initiatives are needed to control this sort of development.
The detailed area plan has some suggestions on how to control development. But the government is not promoting those. Sustainable development will not be guaranteed if we cannot focus on other regions by avoiding Dhaka-centricity. Dhaka has already exceeded its carrier capacity and has come to a position of negative economic return. Now if one taka is invested here, the return would not be one taka.
Why have so many people come to the Savar and Ashulia areas near Dhaka? The industrialisation that has taken place in these areas has fallen outside any industrial zone. Many people have illegally set up industries in the vicinity of Dhaka. These would not have happened if the government had intervened and had taken the initiative to build industries in other parts of the country with policy incentives. In that case, people would not go to Dhaka in this way. People from Bangladesh are also going to Europe and Africa by sea in search of work. If the environment and infrastructure for their employment could be provided in other parts of the country, Dhaka would not be under extra pressure. No more industries can be allowed to be built in the vicinity of Dhaka without permission.
One of the reasons for Dhaka's pull factor is that there is a huge potential for an informal economy here. Anyone can stand on the streets of Dhaka as a hawker. There are no rules in this case. If it is kept open, the liveability of Dhaka will be further reduced. If we can bring these into the system, then the employment opportunities in Dhaka will be reduced. But we have to create these opportunities in other parts of the country.
It is not possible to change much in the central area of Dhaka now even if we want to. But we have to make sure that no building or factory is built illegally. However, there is still a possibility of planned development outside the urban areas following strict environmental rules. There are many large business groups that have an influence on regulators like Rajuk. Two or three decades ago, there was no strong business group in the country that could change the government's plans. These groups try to influence government plans to fulfil their self-interest. When the DAP was first formulated, a review committee was formed which added many changes to the plan violating the rules.
We are far from the planning standards that are followed in foreign countries in terms of population density and civic facilities. We formulated land development rules in 2004 which had some errors regarding the number of playgrounds, public facilities, educational institutions and hospitals that are needed to build a city. The new DAP proposed for 200 people per acre, whereas in developed cities it is 70-80 people. So, we have to admit these flaws. If you set up a plan without a good standard, it will not succeed. We need to get as close to the global standards as possible.
The government needs a political consensus to address the housing crisis in Dhaka. It should take a zero tolerance policy to protect the wetlands. Then maybe it will be possible to bring back the liveability of Dhaka gradually. If there is political will, then it is possible to achieve success with a concerted effort led by the mayors. In this case, the standards of planning cannot be abandoned in any way.
Dr Adil Mohammed Khan is a professor of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Jahangirnagar University. He is also executive president of Institute for Planning and Development, and fellow and former general secretary of Bangladesh Institute of Planners.