Bangladesh cannot accelerate its national growth, achieve $50 billion garment export target and realise emerging potentials of Bay of Bengal and regional connectivity without taking Chittagong along, a leading economist said yesterday.
“The development of Chittagong is important not only for the city itself, but also for the entire Bangladesh. You can't reach the national development goals without prioritising Chittagong,” Hossain Zillur Rahman, executive chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), told a discussion at the Daily Star Centre.
His views were backed by Awami League and BNP leaders present there.
Planning Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal said development of Bangladesh is unthinkable without the development Chittagong.
Inam Ahmed Chowdhury, adviser to the BNP chairperson, said national development can't be achieved without developing the port city.
They spoke at the roundtable on “Global Port, Global City: Prioritising Chittagong for Accelerating National Growth”. It was jointly organised by think-tank PPRC, Centre for Research and Information and Bengali business daily Bonik Barta.
The country's second largest city Chittagong accounts for about a quarter of the gross domestic product, 25 percent of the national revenue and 40 percent of heavy industrial activities. The Chittagong port handles more than 80 percent of the total external trade, said Zillur.
The city, however, has not lived up to its expectations, he noted.
“Chittagong is also suffering from decline of branding as many business and administrative headquarters have been transferred from the city to the capital.”
The deep seaport is a distant reality, he said. “So, the existing Chittagong port has to bear the major burden of higher growth in the medium term. It has ample opportunities for expansion and improvement to the global standards.”
The port, said the former caretaker government adviser, has seen some technical improvements in recent years, but they are disjointed. “There are also severe governance setbacks in the form of compromised operational autonomy and increased corruption allegations.”
The infrastructure of the port and the city are poorly aligned, and the port's contribution to the city's infrastructural development has been marginal, he mentioned. “If the port needs to be of the global standard, the city also has to be of the global standard.”
Mustafa Kamal said the government is seeing Chittagong as a hub and Bangladesh will reach its goal of becoming a middle-income country taking the port city along.
The government has taken up the country's largest ever single project at Matarbari, said the minister while talking about the energy hub plan involving Tk 35,000 crore.
As many as 139 projects will be implemented in Chittagong at a cost of Tk 158,000 crore in the next three years, he noted. “It's true that development of the city is taking time and we are sorry for that.”
Former governor of Bangladesh Bank Salehuddin Ahmed blamed centralisation of development and decision-making for increasingly turning Dhaka into Bangladesh, leaving other parts of the country underdeveloped.
“The whole country can be divided into several parts to drive development process. Chittagong will be preeminent in that process,” he said.
Salahuddin Kasem Khan, managing director of AK Khan & Company, said there is a serious lack of coordination among the agencies running the city. He stressed the need for introduction of city governance.
MM Nasiruddin, president of Chittagong Samity, said the infrastructure in Chittagong has not improved much since the British colonial rule. “Projects have been taken up, but their implementation has been slow. We might need a wider Dhaka-Chittagong highway by the time the four-lane road opens to traffic.”
The former energy secretary urged the government to take a time-bound step for setting up an LNG terminal to help the city ride out serious gas crisis.
Muhammad Abdul Mazid, chairman of Chittagong Stock Exchange, said even the Chittagong-based businesses don't make any attempt to develop the city. Rather, many of them have shifted their head offices to Dhaka.
Nasir Uddin Chowdhury, a former senior vice president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said the turn-around time at the port has gone up to five days from two days. “The existing facilities at the port can't handle the increasing number of containers in a timely manner.”
He feared that many factories in the city would shut in the coming years if they are not provided with adequate infrastructural support.
Sultan Hafeez Rahman, a former director general of the Asian Development Bank, said 32 government agencies are working to develop the city. There is overlapping of duties as well as a lack of coordination among the agencies, he added.
According to the development economist, urban governance is at the heart of any successful city in Asia. Transparency and accountability have to be embedded in the city governance system, he noted.
As an elected body, Chittagong City Corporation needs authority to implement decisions, said Sultan. “But it appears that the CDA [Chittagong Development Authority] has become the main functionary now as regards to planning and implementation of projects. By far, the larger part of resources is channeled through the CDA.”
Md Abdul Karim, managing director of Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation, a state-run agency funding microfinance organisations, suggested that the headquarters of the shipping and the cultural affairs ministries and Bangladesh Coast Guard should be shifted to Chittagong.
Chris Pablo, an urban specialist of World Bank, said key institutions have to be involved in city development projects. “The plan to develop a city has to be manifested in national policies. Besides, a dialogue has to be held to identify who should do what.”
Planning Commission member Prof Shamsul Alam called for decentralisation of power so local governments can make and implement decisions efficiently.
Abul Kasem Khan, a director of AK Khan & Company, said he wouldn't live in Dhaka if he could reach Chittagong in three hours.