Once again Dhaka has attained the dubious distinction of being the second-worst unlivable city in the world by a survey conducted over 140 cities by the London-based Economist Intelligent unit.
The cities are measured on the basis of political and social stability, crime rates, access to quality healthcare, natural environment, education, and the standard of infrastructure including public transport. Dhaka is not livable by any standard or measurement. Traffic congestion has reached nightmarish proportions. Crimes and corruption are rampant, and the law and order situation is on the point of breakdown. The city has too few parks, and they are infested by elements who vitiate the peace, tranquility and scenic beauty.
Population growth incompatible with development of resources, lack of environmental consideration in the development process, poor management of waste, noxious emissions and toxic effluents from the industries and smoke-belching vehicles are causes of the city's environmental degradation.
The slum population has been increasing at more than double the general growth rate of urban population. It is reported that the number of slum dwellers in Dhaka city will cross 10 million in the next 5 years as the rural poor are continuously pouring into the capital city. Dhaka could become one of the top ten cities of the world in respect of population boom, but from the perspectives of services delivery system to the city dwellers, and demarcation into different zones for different purposes, it has failed miserably.
With the city's skyline thrusting up aggressively and the sprawling market places bustling with activity, people seem to be drunk with opulence. Conscious citizens have time and again voiced their concern about the way urbanisation was taking place, but the wheels of development defied reason and rational consideration.
Rivers and lakes have special significance for a city. Legend has it that if a city has a memory, then the Thames would be always a part of the London's eternal psyche. For Dhaka, there is the river Buriganga. But rarely does anyone living in Dhaka and adjoining areas realise that it has the rivers Shitalakhya, Turag and Balu, and some lakes, surrounding it. Unscrupulous people, allegedly with political backing, have encroached on the rivers, lakes and wetlands close to the city periphery.
In spite of the HC directive to clean the Buriganga and Turag, contamination remains as grave as ever. With about 300 factories throwing in toxic waste and people emptying human excreta and rubbish in the open rivers, the surface water has become extremely polluted. In consequence, 85% of the water demand is met through underground water, causing the water table to drop by about 3 to 4 metres every year.
Dhaka is now best known for urban indiscipline. Norms of organised civic life continues to be violated with impunity. Illegal encroachment and unauthorised constructions have become rampant. Land and building mafias have cropped up everywhere.
While those who ravish the city and imperil its future get away with illegal gains, the law abiding citizens suffer the consequences of traffic congestion, pot-holed roads, garbage accumulation in front of their houses, and the shortage of civic services that the illegal constructions cause.
In the teeming older part of the city and even in newly developed areas like Gulshan, Baridhara and Uttara, filthy water chokes the drains. DCC officials must admit that the city's garbage collection points are nothing more than open heaps of refuse. Most of these ills are there because development has taken place before proper planning. Moreover, only one-third of the city has the privilege of underground sewer system. In fact, Dhaka is symbolic of the ills that plague the country's unplanned urbanisation. But it is hardly possible that city corporation services like maintaining roads, sanitation, water bodies and healthcare will improve because transactions and official business in the country have been redolent with the stench of corruption as usual. It is most unfortunate that the present administration like the past ones failed to bring about any real improvement because of lack of commitment and political will. Inevitably, if things are left as they are now, Dhaka will continue to win the “worst polluted city” medal year after year.
Dhaka city roads, including the innumerable lanes and by-lanes, have turned into a veritable mess. These roads have been pulverised, cratered, and pot-holed under the constant load of traffic, and non-repair for years.
In spite of the fact that city dwellers have been paying holding taxes regularly and more so even when the tax ceiling has been increased several times in recent time, there is hardly any improvement in the civic amenities. Recently, the government split Dhaka City Corporation into two for better service -- at least that was the government's version regarding the split. Now city dwellers do not know which part of the corporation is responsible for looking after their problems. They have become resilient and inured to the sufferings they are being subjected to, because they know there is none to listen to or redress their problems.
The crisis of governance is particularly marked not only at the municipal or city corporation levels, it extends far beyond that. The constitution ensured regular mayoral elections to all urban bodies including Dhaka City Corporation, but no election was held during the last eleven years. That is the main reason that performance or civic amenities and services didn't improve. Whereas urban governance demands a coherent, coordinated and vibrant set-up, our cities have been saddled with fragmented authorities incapable of tackling core problems.
After the liberation of the country, successive governments should have evolved a clear urban vision which should have been a part of an equally clear national vision. Unfortunately, those at the helm did not show any real ingenuity. They became more imitative than creative. They failed to regenerate the people's mind. The Dickensian blight and haze that hang over Dhaka city today, is nothing but a fallout of foggy vision.
We may spell out what we mean by urban vision. If under inspiring urban leadership and vision, Buriganga water had once again been made crystal clear, if the banks could be cleared of illegal encroachments, if a green vista had been developed along the river front and if the trade and industry including Hazaribagh tannery had been relocated, Dhaka would not have only regained its glory but also emerged as a thriving and a dynamic centre of modern civic life. It would have become a symbol of resurgent Bangladesh. Now, in the absence of a vision, Dhaka has lapsed into a beehive of filth, congestion and urban blight.
The future seems daunting and grim in consideration of the fact that Dhaka city would be teeming with 20 million people by 2020 as a World Bank study and demographers in the county estimate, with most migrant people living in slums. It is not only the unclean way of life but also the utter disregard of civic obligation that make these slums extremely filthy. Myopic and blinkered policies of the past have created nightmarish conditions in most of the cities of the country. Unless we change the contours of our mindscape the urban landscape will continue to decay.
The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org