Every time I go to a family dinner I am struck by a bout of Rip Van Winklism—the realisation that life has moved on much faster than I had realised. Those little cherubic, diaper-clad babies I used to cuddle now sport beards, or worse, are going to university. Some of them are even engaged or about to have a baby. People have changed their jobs and no they no longer work for that lovely bank (it closed down in 1992) and Beauty Bhabi is no longer in the picture—having divorced Rocky Bhai, married a Middle Eastern tycoon and moved to Ontario, Canada! This bizarre feeling of cluelessness is ample proof of: a) the delightful fact that I have acquired a few decades in years and been totally oblivious of it; and b) I really need to get out more and meet folks. Being mired in the drudgery of work and finding one's cosy blanket and mindless TV to be far more attractive options than making actual contact with other human beings and pretending to be interesting, it is easy to miss out on the finer details of life that tend to pick up speed while passing by. Hence the Rip Van Winkle syndrome.
For those uninitiated in this morbid fairy tale Rip Van Winkle was a kind hearted but lazy Dutch Villager who has a drink from a stranger on top of a hill and falls asleep for twenty years. He wakes up to find, not surprisingly, everything has changed, the government, the people, his youthful face, the kids . . .
Coming back to the present time, it's not just me who has been infected by this affliction. Governments tend to be just as vulnerable, manifested in their surprisingly lethargic responses to various natural and manmade crises. From time immemorial we have known—you can even ask a two-year-old resident of this country—that during the monsoon season the incessant rains cause water to accumulate very fast in enclosed areas. Of course it will stagnate if there is no drainage. Do we need feasibility studies to know that unless you have proper, functioning drains, the water will just stay put and keep rising turning the busiest roads into dirty, muddy, swimming pools? No we don't. But the latest statements by none other than the Mayor of Chittagong certainly makes one think whether he and his colleagues have been struck by a strain of Rip Van Winklism. While ordinary Chittagonians are wading through the mini rivers that were once the city streets, trying to go to school, work or home in waist deep water, the city father says that water logging cannot be solved by doing just 'one thing' and that “the major problem of the city is that there is no sewerage and drainage system”. Say what? You may wonder, did he really say there is no sewerage or drainage system in a mega city like Chittagong? So how long has this water logging been going on? Oh says the stoical ordinary Chittagonian, this is old news—around twenty odd years or so. And every mayoral election year the weary residents of this beautiful city must hear the refrain: “this time I will solve the water logging problem of Chittagong city”. The current mayor, it seems has suddenly awoken to the fact that every monsoon season the story of water logging repeats itself like a recurring nightmare in which you are drowning in grimy water (oh wait that's a real situation). He has stated that Wasa (Water and Sewerage Authority) has recently done a feasibility study with support of the World Bank and sent a master plan to the concerned ministry. The Wasa folks are saying that the plan is expected to be approved by the ministry in a matter of two months. Oh, and meanwhile says the mayor, there are ongoing projects that promise to clear the canals and drains. But one cannot help but ask: What have the authorities been waiting for the last twenty years? Were they asleep like RVW?
Actually it seems that they were. In fact, while they were in a perpetual somnambulist state, the seventeen canals that would have handled all the drainage, were being continuously encroached upon, making them thinner and thinner and thinner. On top of that the Chaktai canal, the main canal that connects to the Karnaphuli river and generally catches all the extra water brought by the rainy season and sends it to the river, has gone through the strangest process ever. Instead of deeper dredging which would have made the canal a better reservoir, someone of influence had the bright idea of carpeting the canal bed with a concrete floor. This has served to make the ever narrowing canal shallow, thus retarding the process of holding the flood water and interfering with the natural flow of the canal. The result: a watery Venice-like situation without the romance of gondolas and curly-haired, rugged Italian boatmen.
While Chittagong's city fathers may be waking up to a reality that has been true for the last twenty years the 'authorities' of Dhaka city—apparently there are seven of them—managing its storm-water drainage system are yet to come out of their slumber as year after year the monsoon season brings total misery to the residents. As they were basking in a semi-conscious state, so much has happened. Most of the canals have disappeared and the remaining ones have become clogged with solid waste. Greed has taken over all the wetlands, ponds, canals in the form of concrete, leaving no space for the rainwater to go, throwing the city into paralysis every time there is a heavy shower. Hence the quirky sight of a man in a purple hooded raincoat sitting in the middle of a watery street in front of an open manhole that will miraculously drain out all the water—presumably so no one falls in while wading through the muddy pool. Residents of this city, in fact, have become resigned to their watery urban existence—used to the flood level pants, the frequent abstention from work, school, social activities, the worsening of traffic, the stench of sewerage and rainwater mingling and flowing through the streets.
During these times I find myself vindicated for all the times I cannot recall the name of a nephew or how in fact he is related to me. This is a city where even the most important people fall victim of the Rip Van Winkle syndrome. They lie in the blissful sleep of negligence and apathy while their city's vitality, strength and resilience are washed away in the dirty waters.
The writer is Deputy Editor, Editorial and Op-ed, The Daily Star.