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     Volume 5 Issue 95 | May 19, 2006 |

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And so this is Buriganga!

Syed Maqsud Jamil

My enthusiasm for the pleasures of a daylong river cruise crashed into deep despair on being buffeted by an overpowering foul odour. It was coming from the greasy black water of the river Buriganga. The obnoxiously foul smelling ghoulish black grease spread as far as I could see. I was making the visit after quite a long time. My heart sank to come to terms, and so, this is Buriganga!

The motor launches packed the riverbank. Garbage of all sorts, from empty green coconuts to the leftovers of wholesale fruit market littered the unwholesome water. Big drainage pipes gouged the Buckland bund. It was quite visible that the pipes were gushing out effluents and sewage from factories and establishments. I was struck by wholesale desecration of the Bund. It was a medley congestion of the din and bustle of wholesale fruit market and the rush of the waterways traffic. I looked in vain for the calm corner of 'Shakar Cabin' on the Buckland Bund.

The bund is the legacy of the British. And the one in Shanghai on the bank of the river Huang Po is still an important tourist attraction in China. Dhaka is not Shanghai. But the contempt for order of the least kind on the bund is lamentable. Later I found out that the contempt reigns as far as the bund rings the city. And what has happened to the ring road? To be honest, it will need a resolve with civic interest at heart, not the perfunctory plans for public consumption.

I left the bund behind to board the steamer. It was the river cruise of the 1969 batch of Dhaka University and the group contained ministers in office and out of office, bureaucrats and a central bank official. The steamer was soon in the midstream. Yet, the stench carried on. And all around, the river was greasy black. It followed us till we left Keraniganj behind. The river banks are now dotted with clusters of mills, factories and warehouses. I could see a greedy river grabbing in piled up construction materials, bricks, sands and cement bags.

It was not much of a cruise in terms of recreation but an on the spot melancholy observation of the plight of a river. Had it not been for the ritual of river dredging it would have fared even worse? It is evident that the rights of the river are suffering flagrant violation. This is taking place in a climate of apathy living with greed that thrives on lax social and political standards. We are living in a time of drift. The Buriganga is everybody's river but nobody's cause. It has the name of a river but exists as a stretch of repugnantly foul smelling blackish water body. Dhaka grew up because a river was flowing by to support it. From a trading settlement, it has become a bustling city of a free country. But while the city it helped to found grew leaps and bounds, the Buriganga declined into a blackish fate with a hellish stench. Time has added two bridges to Buriganga. Sadly, most of its canals branching out into Keraniganj are lost to encroachment. A Daily Star photo report laid bare the ugliness of the greed.

The Postogola Bridge is more a part of the highway network than an infrastructure support for the development of Keraniganj. The Badamtali Bridge is a pitiable sight. It begins from the approach road at Babu Bazar. As it climbs, to span the river, the entire stretch underneath is occupied. Piled up rickshaws, parked trucks and stacked materials of all sorts make the bridge look like an abused civil structure. The darkness and the dirt have driven away elegance from the place. There is a general picture of contempt. The contempt abuses the Buriganga, the bund on the bank and the bridge over the river.

Dhaka as a city ends on the northern bank of Buriganga in spite of the reach of a bridge. It is spreading northward and today even Gazipur has become a suburb of Dhaka. A surging population is taking a great toll of the water bodies. In most cases, it is creating 'bustees' (slum) of concrete. Every heavy downpour submerges large parts of the city. If it goes on like this, Dhaka will fester in unplanned growth. However, there can be a cause for hope once Dhaka starts returning the rights of Buriganga. It has to be treated as a gift adding elegance to the city.

Dhaka never looked to Keraniganj for southward extension. Had it been so, Buriganga would have become an integral part of town planning. Keraniganj was left to languish as a backyard and remains so. It could have been developed as a satellite town or as a business district to the benefit of the city. It was not - on the ground that the cost of developing Keraniganj would be prohibitive. Indeed the Japanese experts spoke of developing Keraniganj before building a bridge over the Buriganga. So, the bridge was shelved and there never was any need of developing Keraniganj. The Postogola Bridge was not built for Keraniganj. And the one at Badamtali was built on emotional ground. It did not bring the development gains of planned town planning. Nor is it serving it as an outlet for southward traffic. The traffic takes the Postogola Bridge for the Mawa route.

Keraniganj today is neither fully urban, nor it is rural. Unplanned mills and factories, rapacious trade and commerce have instead made it a 'rurban' malaise. They serve a Dhaka that now has over 12 million people. The suffering of Buriganga is remorselessly wilful. Can we sensibly believe that Dhaka naturally ends on the bank of Buriganga? When the town grew out of a symbiotic relationship with the river! Or that a city is handicapped to have a river so close to it? Then how the cities of the developed world with rivers have fared over the centuries? London has Thames, Paris has Seine and New York has three rivers, the Hudson, the Harlem and the East river. The growth of these cities has not ended on the banks of these rivers. London has over 8 million people and it has about 106 bridges over the Thames. Paris also has more than 10 million people and there are equally large number of bridges over the Seine. And to speak of New York it is a river bound deltaic city with only Bronx as a part of the mainland. Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island are the river bound boroughs of New York. The bridges over the Seine have heightened the elegance of Paris. Almost every notable city of the world has a river by its side. Let us look at our neighbour Kolkata. It has two bridges, one a landmark of the British time and the new one a state of the art bridge. And the waters of Bhagirathi have not suffered the fate of Buriganga.

This is all to say how badly we have treated a friend of the city, the Buriganga. Time is not yet over. The city can start in earnest what it did not do over the last so many years. The Buriganga, the Buckland Bund and Keraniganj can turn Dhaka into a city that manages its problems well. Indeed an effort of this proportion would need money, and lots of them. We can begin with what we can do. By making Buriganga our cause.

The key points to begin with are awareness and a firm stand against the abusers. Say no to anyone who treats Buriganga like an open drain. The no has to have a clout. This is something, which the administration has to do firmly and by rising above political or partisan condescension. And the waters of Buriganga have to be returned to its pristine rights. The landing station or the terminal will do well to relocate far downstream at Paglaghat. It will be better if the packed water vessels use other docking points. The Buckland Bund will have to be cleared, if necessary broadened and paved all the way to make the ring road truly operational. And Dhaka would do well to have two more North-South Roads with connecting bridges over Buriganga. It already has one at Badamtali and another in the future at Sadarghat will enable Dhaka to cope with the growing demands on it. Naturally the North-South roads will have to run across Keraniganj up to Dhaleswari and if necessary beyond it. At the centre of it, if the plan is to succeed, Keraniganj has to come under town planning.

This will need lot of money. An assuring development of the last few years has been the rise of our private sector. It has comparable wealth for entrepreneurial ventures. Besides the emerging economies of Asia has made the corporations of the developed countries keen and flexible about participation in infrastructure and technical developments in other parts of the world. We are living in a time of private sector initiative. Our private sector has already shown their entrepreneurial competence and connections. The government can gradually return to the basics of 'business of the government is business' (President Calvin Coolidge) by acting as a regulator for the private sector to do the job.

Unfortunately, development decisions in our country often have an undeserving counsel in political considerations and ties. The constraints outweigh the will. The plight of Buriganga in a way sums up the ills and frailties of our politics. It is a test case for the politicians to rise above partisan interest. Now the question is, will they rise up to SAVE BURIGANGA? In an election season, it can be an issue of public demand. Can the civil society make it an issue? They can, if they will. God save the Buriganga.

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