"Soon to be shadowed"—read the caption of an image on The Daily Star's front page last week. It featured the iconic Shontrash Birodhi Raju Bhashkarja, and looming over it, the towering structures of Bangladesh's first-ever metro rail, the MRT 6, still under construction. The image brought into focus an issue that has been a point of contention for the students of the University of Dhaka (DU) for four years now.
On the face of it, it might feel like there shouldn't be much to complain about. MRT 6 is a long-awaited project for the people of Dhaka, the beginning of long-term public transport infrastructure which is vital if this city were to remain functional going forward. Public transport that traverses a university should, in theory, help the students who study there by providing them with a fast option of getting in and out of the campus. But there's more to this issue than meets the eye.
The metro rail is being constructed along the edges of a large number of important academic and cultural centres of the university. The current alignment of MRT 6 takes it past the Faculty of Fine Arts, two libraries (Central and Science), research centres in CARS (Centre for Advanced Research in Sciences) and CARASS (Centre for Advanced Research in Arts and Social Sciences), the Atomic Energy Centre, Bangla Academy, the Institute of Nutrition and Food Sciences, Mokarram Bhaban, and Curzon Hall, all of which include critical research labs and of course classrooms.
It's not hard to imagine the disruption that will be caused by trains going past all of these buildings every four minutes. The overall detriment to the academic environment and the inevitable drop in quality of education that this will bring is what makes it so hard to get behind this project.
Then there's the "small" problem of the MRT 6 straddling some notable landmarks inside the DU campus. Other than Raju Bhashkarja, Dhaka Gate, a Mughal-era landmark, will find itself placed directly under the viaducts taking the metro from Doyel Chattar towards the High Court area. Tin Netar Mazar and Ramna Kali Mandir will also be within earshot and eyeshot of the rapid trains which are going to produce noise and vibrations, the intensity of which is still unclear.
Additionally, the decision to place a station inside the campus, in the area adjoining Bangla Academy and TSC, is particularly vexing. Trains at this station are expected to arrive with passengers headed for the major destinations of Dhaka New Market and Dhaka Medical College Hospital, which will increase foot traffic and exacerbate the already pressing problem of outsiders crowding the DU campus.
A 2018 interview with the late National Professor Dr Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, published by The Daily Star, paints a clear picture of how the current alignment for the MRT 6 came to be.
"The other change was the construction of Mayor Hanif Flyover, previously not in the plan. It was originally selected as the route for MRT 6, terminating at Jatrabari. The revised alignment necessitated a route passing through east of TSC, University of Dhaka, towards Curzon Hall and then turning towards Topkhana Road and terminating in front of Bangladesh Bank," said the veteran professor.
This plan that he referred to is the Strategic Transport Plan (STP), the initial version of which covered the period of 2005-2025. A Revised Strategic Transport Plan (RSTP) was drawn up in 2015. Why the city failed to adhere to a long-term plan that was already in place when the flyover's construction began in 2010 is hard to comprehend. This eventually led to the current alignment, and for the students who are opposed to the MRT 6 going through DU, it leaves us in a place where not much could be done to divert it.
The MRT 6 going through DU has been Plan B all along. The lack of a Plan C and the improbability of dedicating more funds and time to come up with one has hamstrung any and all protests against the current alignment.
There have been grumblings against the metro rail's construction among students right from the beginning. In 2016, students took to the streets to protest it, but the student body was split in their actions.
I spoke to Meem Arafat Manab, a student at the time, to learn about the protests four years ago. "Students were angered when the first signs of work were visible. We gathered in front of Raju Bhashkarja, but the students were split into different groups with different ideas of what they wanted. The protests were disorganised, the leadership was confused, we contacted the VC, but in hindsight, I don't think there was much he could do," he recalls.
Yet, the protests never stopped. Most notably, earlier this year, students protested the felling of trees near TSC for a metro rail station, but to no avail. The coronavirus restrictions have not been ideal in gathering large crowds to voice any substantial opposition. Protests have been largely limited to social media, and failed to gather any momentum.
The first time I walked into the University of Dhaka campus as a student was a cold January morning in 2018. I had class at half past eight, so I got there with 20 minutes in hand and sat down on a broken bench outside TSC and got myself a cup of malta cha. I remember sitting down facing Raju Bhashkarja, and looking at Suhrawardy Udyan beyond it and really thinking about the significance of the history this venue had witnessed. The cup of tea in my hand was not the sole source of the warmth I felt at that moment, and I'm sure there had been many before me standing on the same spot, having the exact same feelings.
The fact that this view and the inspiration it provides will no longer be available for future generations may not seem worthy of consternation within the bounds of the cut-throat objectivity that drives development in our country. But if there's one place where subjective thinking and deliberation can be expected, it should be a university. The fact that such thinking never seems to materialise is, more than anything, disappointing.
Azmin Azran is a subeditor at SHOUT, The Daily Star, and a student of computer science and engineering at the University of Dhaka.