World Bank ready to help transform Dhaka
If the government comes up with a clear vision and a new comprehensive plan, the World Bank is ready to support and finance the transformation of Dhaka, said Martin Rama, the WB chief economist for South Asia.
“If there is request or interest from the government, I am sure there will be willingness from us,” he said during an exclusive interview with The Daily Star at the Dhaka Sonargaon Hotel.
“If you think about good opportunities and the availability of resources, this is a very good time. Now, we have the resources to help [Bangladesh],” he said, adding that the WB had “relatively abandoned resources” for Bangladesh in the last six years.
Martin, who came to Dhaka to attend an international conference on development options for Dhaka towards 2035, said they could provide technical inputs to transform Dhaka.
“The vision is there. If it involves a few critical and important projects, we want to express our willingness to support them. Let's have a new comprehensive plan,” he said.
“There have been many plans. If you are strategic, if you [government] think about Dhaka, there are three or four things that are needed to be done, and we will be happy to help.
“Dhaka is an unplanned city not because it does not have any plans. There are many plans,” he said mentioning Rajuk's plans, strategic transport plan, and water management plan.
He said those plans look great and was very ambitious. But the problem was that those were not followed up or implemented, Rama said, adding that in order to implement those plans, the authorities must coordinate with many agencies and ministries.
“… This will be a good time to be strategic and select plans -- what the real priorities are. To go ahead with them [plans], a vision is required and that vision has to come from Bangladesh,” said the economist.
He said they suggest making investments before it was too late, before everything was encroached upon. “If you [government] wait five years or 10 years, it will be too late. But, now it is feasible,” he added.
Dhaka with almost 20 million people suffers from severe congestion, poor liveability, and vulnerability to floods and earthquakes. Average traffic speed has dropped to 7kmph. Congestion in Dhaka eats up 3.2 million working hours every day.
Based on current trends, Dhaka would have more than 35 million people by 2035. Between 1995 and 2005, road surface in Dhaka increased only 5 percent, while population increased 50 percent and traffic 134 percent.
Fixing the existing problems of Dhaka is one solution and thinking about the growth of Dhaka in the next 20 years is the other solution, Martin Rama said.
There are a few critical steps that could really transform Dhaka, he said.
Rama said if the eastern embankment was built, there would be an enormous tract of land which is now flooded. Roads were needed to be built in that direction, like the 300 Feet Road, because people have not moved there. A lot of the activities of the city dwellers would be in that direction, he added.
The economist said it would be cheap to do so as the authorities would not have to move people and rehabilitate them because the area was relatively empty.
For west Dhaka, he suggested widening the roads and building more flyovers and pushing people and traffic elsewhere.
About the WB's role, he said they recently approved projects in the city regarding water and sanitation. He said they provided a lot of technical help and supported projects related to transport, water, and slum upgrade, among others.
WEAKNESSES AND STRENGTHS
“Dhaka is quite unique in several ways. It is a very big city and very dense city in terms of population. It is a very fast growing city,” he said, adding that Dhaka's geographical location was a major advantage.
Big cities like New York or Shanghai have big rivers and Dhaka has it too, he said.
Rama said density itself was a blessing for a big city as it connected people, and increased efficiency by making markets bigger and thicker. But for Dhaka it has become a disadvantage because Dhaka has grown mainly in an unplanned manner.
When the western embankment in Dhaka was built near the Buriganga to get rid of floodwater, infrastructure and roads were not built at the same pace as houses.
So widening a road in the dense area has become a challenge. It would have been easy to build roads when there was nobody there. Now widening roads and building a metro rail in the area have become costly, Rama said.
Unplanned growth eats a bit of the efficiency that Dhaka gained by having so many people, Rama said, adding that remarkable people still were coming to Dhaka despite congestion and difficulties of life in the city.
“That shows it is an attractive city. In another way, it is productive enough to pay better than in other places. But it could be much more productive.”
Replying to a query, the WB economist said Dhaka was important for Bangladesh as it covered one percent of its landmass, had 10 percent of the total population, and delivered 20 to 36 percent of the country's GDP.
“So in a way, whatever happens to Dhaka, happens to Bangladesh. If one has to think about the growth of Bangladesh, and Dhaka does not succeed, then it would be very difficult for Bangladesh to have strong growth,” the economist said, adding that the next decade or two was crucial.
He said media, public opinion, and social media have strong roles to play in prioritising plans to transform Dhaka.
Rama said transforming the frustration of traffic congestion needed a clear vision.
He said having so much land so close to the city was an opportunity for Dhaka.