Dhaka’s paradoxical delights
Dhaka is growing right before our eyes. Every day it is birthing new projects. The shape and size of the city is constantly transforming, and many of the changes are incremental as they weave themselves into the urban fabric without much fanfare. We did not even realise when a golf course was carved, when a regimented city within a city was inserted in the city map, or when a flyover from taxpayers' money was built to access an exclusive residential area in Mirpur. The happenings of where the immortal gods and gentle folk live do not affect mere mortal civilians! Then again, there are projects that keep on announcing their presence in the loudest possible way. They disrupt our everyday thoroughfare with a dystopian reality, albeit with a tantalisingly utopian possibility.
Miles of concrete pillars are raising their heads behind the steel fences, promising us that once everything is cleared, there will be better management. The traffic will flow seamlessly. The dust, the concrete particles, the noises of a post-war landscape are but temporary. Soon, we will have giant metal snakes carrying humans inside their bellies from one side of the city to the other; soon, we will have raised platforms allowing cars and buses to fly above the rest for a few Takas more. Soon, we will have canals cleared, and the waters will run to the river without clogging the city in monsoon. Soon, we will be able to walk along the river banks to see the city grow while having peanuts and fresh air. Such flow management in a smart city will remove several blocks that nearly choked the city to death.
The city experts went for aggressive interventions when they identified the blocks in its arteries; traffic jam was one major symptom. They decided to open up the blocked regions, where they are now inserting stents in a desperate attempt to save the city from a possible thrombosis. In a live theatre, we are witnessing a "bypass" surgery of the city. We see the concrete pillars, we see the u-loops, we see the digitised traffic system, and hope that the surgical interventions will save the city. And then again, when we have time, which we have plenty of while sitting in standstill traffic, we think of all the bad decisions responsible for the near heart attack of a 400-year old city.
Was the city dying because of the bad air it has been inhaling? A recent pathological report suggests that the amount of pollutants and toxic gases such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur oxide and ozone found in Dhaka city air is second only to the joint champions: Delhi and Lahore. We are the second worst city in terms of the Air Quality Index. Don't you feel lucky now to wear that mask, enforced by the Covid-19 reality? Those masks are now protecting you from the air pollution too. Nature has its own way of coming in handy and telling you a thing or two!
Infrastructure is just one of the categories that makes a city liveable. The Economist Intelligence Unit identifies stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure as the main components of a liveable city. In 2019, the agency ranked us as the third worst city to live in, and we were placed in the cohorts of the Syrian capital Damascus and the Nigerian port city Lagos. With apologies to Jibanananda Das, I can only say, "I have seen the face of Dhaka, therefore I do not seek to face Damascus and Lagos".
What other bad decisions are there? Well, the decision to allow the cables of satellite TVs was a pretty bad one, and only now are they being decluttered. It only goes to show that we were once the crow capital of the world (I am guessing). How about the plastic bags that we littered to fill up the wetlands? Wait, wait, I have a better one: how about the fact that we allowed industries to grow inside a capital city, encouraging millions of people to come to Dhaka for work, putting pressure on its infrastructure? Or how about allowing the industries to throw their toxic waste into our natural resources? If these industries have added millions to our growth, we will now need billions to clean up the mess that they have created. How do I know all these? What credibility do I have to make such tall claims as a literature professor? Am I not better off reciting poems of better days?
Indeed. I should leave these matters to the experts who know what they are doing. Say for instance, you look at the BRTA, Bridge and SKS buildings near the Mohakhali flyover. You sit there for ages and think, who in their right sense of mind would build a building blocking the flow of traffic like that? We have seen cases against Rangs Bhaban and BGMEA Bhaban earlier. They were private organisations guilty of imposing themselves on public properties. In a landmark decision in 2008, the 22-storied Rangs Bhaban in the city's Bijoy Sarani was demolished to create the Tejgaon link road. We, Dhakaites, waited in anticipation to see the road being opened up. To our disappointments, we learnt that the road had to be narrowed to save some government residential quarters. It has been a source of perennial jam ever since.
The same thing happened when scores of government residential housings were pulled down to clear the roadside from Mohakhali to Dhaka Gate. One imagined, as common sense would have had it, that these side-roads would be expanded to compensate for the one taken up by the flyovers. Dreamer that I am, I even thought that some of the wetlands would be restored to have a roadside canal near Banani. Surely, they would not dare to destroy the wetlands under the watchful eyes of a media house that has sacrificed heavily for its investigative journalism? But it was not meant to be—the brick and mortar of the construction helped the same house to gain a parking lot; and it went mysteriously unreported. Near the same location, the recovery of an "enemy" property resulted in an imposing building for donors, making them an involved party, so that they cannot protest against such an anomaly. Now that the press and the donors are happy, the arteries can be further blocked with new indigestible buildings.
We love being bottlenecked. I wonder whether these government officers, who are responsible for creating their offices so close to their residences in the city's decent areas, thought of the others who will peek into their SUVs from public buses for hours? How do they feel, being a subject of the voyeuristic gaze of the public for hours because they are sitting in a jam of their own creation? Oh, I forgot, they are there by the side of their masters; they are public servants, after all. Thankfully, the role is reversed. Dhaka is full of such paradoxical delights.
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English (on leave), University of Dhaka and Pro Vice Chancellor, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).