Can we arrest the decline of Dhaka city? | The Daily Star
11:00 PM, September 11, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:00 PM, September 11, 2009

Can we arrest the decline of Dhaka city?

Overburdened by a burgeoning population and attendant civic problems, the city of Dhaka has become unwieldy and hard to live in. Between1980 and 2009, the population of Dhaka has swelled from 3 million to more than 10 million. From a somewhat laidback, sober city in the past, this capital has turned into a thriving, bustling business centre and a crowded metropolis as well.
But despite the importance the city has received, its basic amenities have not kept up with the changes. The citizens of Dhaka are tired and weary. They are tired of passing through a city in which there are stewing, festering garbage dumped on the road side, along the footpaths. And they are weary of traveling on the pitted roads. The city is now a hell-hole. Its avenues are so full of pollution, and so distressed by the chaos of traffic that they are like arteries clogged with cholesterol, suffering from respiratory failure. Overcrowding, disease, litter, power outages, water shortages, and contaminated water have all played a part in turning this once beautiful and pleasant city into a teeming urban jungle.
Some sixty per cent of the populace in Dhaka live in either illegally built or sub-standard housing with no clean drinking water. Water from the river Buriganga and Shitalakhya that would have supplemented the need for drinking water and other purposes such as cooking and washing has been fouled as much by raw sewage as by a number of industrial and chemical units and even pesticides. Environmentalists have expressed concern that the encroachment on the river Buriganga, the life line of Dhaka city, traffic congestion, pollution and diseases are turning this once majestic capital city into a choking hell. About fifty per cent of the river's pollution load comes from the industrial sources while sewage and domestic wastes contribute the remaining fifty per cent. A water body receiving such a high pollution is unable to carry out its ecological function.
Both the rivers Buriganga and Shitalakhya are dying despite some hectic efforts by the concerned agencies of the government to the free waterways of all hazards through eviction of illegal encroachers.
Dhaka city has become one of the world's truly hopeless urban cases. Fleeing droughts, floods, and starvation, people poured in Dhaka city from the countryside making it distressingly sick. Dhaka is now bursting with people of all categories looking for jobs. In recent times agitation by garment workers, street fights among rival groups of students on tender dropping, and traffic congestion at every road intersection have brought the city to a standstill.
Apart from people living on jobs in government and private agencies, at least 20 lakh people working in different garment factories and other industries in and around the city find it extremely hard to get a shelter in the confines of the city. The way people living in some slum areas near Kamarpara in the close proximity of Ashulia, Sinnir tek, Amin bazaar, Diabari near Mirpur beggars description.
While visiting these places last month, I saw to my horror the most unhygienic and primitive way people are living there. With no facilities of drinking water, electricity and fuel needed for cooking, some five to six persons of the same family are living in one-room shanty covered by C.I. sheet roof in a submerged land. The women folk walk about a mile from their so called houses to fetch water that costs Tk 2.00 per pitcher. With no works and no facilities for schooling, the grown up boys of age range 12-18 are moving aimlessly in the slum area and I saw some of these boys taking drugs in broad daylight.
The situation in Dhaka city is highly alarming. Joblessness, oversized population, noxious emissions and toxic effluents from smoke belching vehicles have made city life choking. Conscious citizenry focused on human factors responsible for deterioration of environmental quality in the city life. These are: population growth incompatible with development of resources, lack of adequate environmental considerations, poor management of waste generated through the production-generation process.
Environmentalists have expressed concern about the environmental degradation of Dhaka city that evidently manifests its decline. Land grabbers and politically influential people are vying with each other to encroach on the rivers and every available vacant space.
The very qualities that lured millions to Dhaka some thirty years ago are threatening to disappear. The city is under assault on many fronts -- land, water and air. The most critical threat comes from smoke belching vehicles. Dhaka's air pollution scenario through vehicle emission, despite changeover to CNG driven vehicles, is still the worst. Dhaka's sky is no longer blue, it is grey. Health experts claim that the air in this rapidly growing city will soon become impossible to breathe.
Dhaka city dwellers are subjected to slow murder. The city's vehicle population has almost increased ten times since 1992 as a result of our failure to introduce mass transport. Some 80 per cent of the vehicles are three wheelers, small buses of the old days and cars which spew more than half the major pollutants.
Garbage in the Dhaka city has posed a major threat to health and sanitation. In most cases, garbage is not picked up for days together. In the teeming city suburbs, filthy water and human excreta along with other human wastes in choked drains stagnate throughout the year till the rainy season washes a part of them out to the river Buriganga. The city's garbage collection points in the old areas are nothing more than rotting open heaps of refuse.
Shockingly, as opportunities of sort unfold, population pressure increases, and industrial concerns both domestic and larger ones expand and the society as a whole prospers, its trash -- mainly hazardous plastics and packaging -- is growing exponentially. And no measure was taken till now to utilize this trash into any productive purpose.
Unfortunately, there is a sense of resigned acceptance about Dhaka's demise. People don't have faith in the DCC's ability to combat the city's problems. Unless the public take a stand, Dhaka's decline will continue. The Mayor of the city cannot proclaim that he has been able to bring about any reform in any sector during the last seven years, be it carpeting the pot-holed roads or creating parking lots or cleaning the streets.
Without political commitment, reform of any kind is virtually impossible to achieve. To arrest the 'decline of Dhaka,' we need political will, public advocacy and civic pressure and we need to create sustained awareness through the media.
Md. Asadullah Khan is a former teacher of physics and Controller of Examinations, BUET. e-mail:

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