The tragicomic destiny of Dhaka | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 01, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 01, 2011

The tragicomic destiny of Dhaka

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Is a city only about providing services to its people? What about the city as an historic entity that forms a continuous narrative across hundreds of years? The mechanistic argument that Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) has been unable to provide adequate services to the people because the city has become too large is actually a farcical denial of the ground reality of the Corporation, a crawling institution long plagued by poor governance, incompetence, lack of resources and, alas, leadership.
Instead of splitting Dhaka into two cities, the government should have invested in legislating urbanisation policies to stop the megalomaniacal growth of the city. Under the aegis of one governing body, a city should be cohesive -- not only in the urban services it provides, but also in the management of its urban character, natural resources, and future growth.
The destiny of Dhaka was decided "in one of the shortest sittings of the parliament." The speed with which the City Corporation Amendment Bill 2011 was passed at the Parliament, without any debate whatsoever, reveals four things: arrogance on the part of the government; a lackluster opposition party with little interest in fulfilling its parliamentary obligations; increasing political isolation of the government; and, broadly, the state of our democracy defined by a wailing and ignored civil society.
What are the long-term consequences of slicing Dhaka? Imagine this scenario with two Dhaka City Corporations: The two elected mayors of North and South Dhaka are from the incumbent government and the opposition party, respectively. One is empowered with all of the development resources, while the other languishes with too few administrative tools to be effective. One audaciously flexes political and financial muscles, while the other whines about not having any power. The electoral politics that will steer this asymmetric arrangement will most likely create a schizophrenic city, politically, economically, socially, and urbanistically. The historic character of Dhaka -- puran Dhaka and Dhaka -- will degenerate into a permanently fragile and divisive urban system.
Even if both of the mayors are affiliated with the same political party, the likely scenario would be that the city's management and growth strategies would be driven by two different, if not antagonistic, visions. We already know that the lack of coordination among the 40-plus city agencies that provide civic amenities in Dhaka has been a nagging problem in the city's governance. With two City Corporations and the differing bureaucratic cultures that they would foster, the lack of coordination could only deteriorate further.
The Dhaka metropolitan area has 92 wards. DCC North will get wards 1-55, while DCC South will comprise 56-92. Under this arrangement, Uttara, Gulshan, Badda, Mohakhali, East Rampura, Tejgaon, Mohammadpur, Mirpur, Pallabi, and Kafrul are in the North, while Dhanmondi, Ramna, Motijheel, Sabujbagh, Demra, Khilgaon, Sutrapur, Kotwali, and Lalbagh are in the South. A govern-ment spokesperson explained what prompted this sudden slicing of the capital: "It has not been possible for only one City Corporation to provide the desired services to 1.2 crore people." In other words, one mayor is just too inadequate to govern a megalopolis like Dhaka. With two mayors, efficiency in administration will multiply.
Administrative fragmentation of Dhaka runs counter to the common urban policies of good cities. A good city is not just about providing services. As history shows, great metropolises often materialise through the holistic vision of a dynamic and empowered urban administrator. A livable city that provides efficient urban services, quality educational institutions and hospitals, affordable housing, a healthy environment, and adequate recreational areas is less about dividing or sharing governance responsibilities and more about developing a comprehensive urban strategy and then implementing it.
Such a comprehensive strategy is most likely to come from the vision, passion, and skills of one administrator. Consider Enrique Penalosa, mayor of Bogota, Colombia, who, in the late 1990s, masterminded the city's transformation from a crime-ridden city into a livable, mass-transit-based metropolis. And, of course, there was Jaime Lerner, the legendary mayor of the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, who, in the late 1980s, implemented a host of urban reforms that made Curitiba a shining example of sustainable urbanism.
Great ideas hardly come from having more government organisations. Consider this innovation by Lerner. Municipal waste removal trucks could not enter the narrow, crooked streets of Curitiba's poorer sections. Hence, kitchen wastes would pile up on the street, compromising public health. Lerner introduced a programme in which residents of these impoverished areas would trade trash bags for bus passes. As a result, slums got cleaner, and the bus rapid-transit system served more people, making it cost effective.
Mumbai and New York City are no less complex and daunting than Dhaka is. Or, think about Tokyo, Beijing, Sao Paulo, Delhi, London, and Istanbul. All of these giant cities have one administrator, the mayor who is empowered through due electoral process to sit at the apex of a governance pyramid and spearhead a holistic model of urban management and planned growth. The mayor is given all the tools and manpower to mobilise an efficient administrative machine.
New York City represents a good prototype of urban governance and is considered one of most sustainable cities in the world. But it has only one Michael Bloomberg to keep it that way. Kanwar Sain runs the show in Delhi, which recently inaugurated a world-class underground train system. Beijing, with its stupendous ambition to be a global city, is governed by one mayor, Guo Jinlong.
Instead of creating two City Corpo-rations that are likely to exacerbate Bangladesh's political divisiveness, the government should invest in empowering and enlarging the administrative capacity of the mayoral office. Provide the mayor with more tools and manpower and bring Rajuk under the jurisdiction of the City Corporation. Reform the electoral process to attract the best and most capable candidates with an urban vision and a knack for innovation.
The defeatist argument that Dhaka has become too big to manage will yield flawed urbanisation policies for Bangladesh, a country projected to become an urban majority by 2030. The government must develop strategies to stop the monstrous growth of the city in all directions, devouring floodplains, rivers, and agricultural lands. The country's constitution even mandates the provision of a legal boundary for the capital.
Bangladesh is a land-scarce country. Every square inch of its landmass must be valued. In a country where urbanisation is inevitable, like in other developing countries of the world, instituting flawed urban policies would be a roadblock to the country's economic, social, and political progress. The sooner the culture of proposing knee-jerk policies with short-term goals is replaced with a habit of seeing the larger picture, the better it would be for the country. Reverse the decision to split Dhaka.

The writer is an architect, urbanist, and associate professor at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC., and currently visiting professor at Brac University.

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