The government is again contemplating building the nation's largest airport somewhere in the southwest part of the country. The second Padma Bridge near Paturia-Goalanda is on the agenda too. While these projects portray the government's good intention to build robust infrastructure for the country, they also show how we are forgetting the priorities that can sustain or stimulate our current GDP growth rate (seven-plus percent). We cannot think of high growth by keeping Dhaka increasingly dysfunctional. It is a megacity with multiple pains and tribulations which torment ordinary people every day, without troubling the minds of people in power for various reasons.
Dhaka alone provides more than one third of the whole nation's output and the ratio will keep on rising since the share of the service sector in GDP is now 55 percent. It is inevitable for the service sector's share in GDP to keep on expanding with the pace of development, and thus Dhaka's importance will increase even further day by day no matter the kind of decentralisation plan our government has in mind. Patal Rail or an underground metro train system for Dhaka deserves to be the number one mega project for the next phase after the first Padma Bridge. Nothing else can be more crucial than to bring mobility to this difficult city—one of the worst on various counts.
There is a mysterious silence about Patal Rail at the government policy level mainly because we have a similar construction project of the surface metro train (in progress). The following questions arise: 1) Do we really need Patal Rail when a surface metro is under construction? 2) Is flood-prone Dhaka good for Patal Rail? Can our government afford such an expensive project? All these questions originate from false myths. In response to question number one, we can guarantee that only the surface metro (if ever built) will never be able to handle the growing population of Dhaka. Many megacities have both systems—surface and underground—but the underground is the dominant mode of transportation. Dhaka's traffic jam will remain stubbornly unresolved without Patal Rail even if we crisscross the surface with hundreds of flyovers or metros.
New York planners began to build its underground when the city did not have any traffic issues. First, they built the surface monorail. Soon the planners realised that New York will be hard to live in if its underground is not expanded. Hence at the end of the nineteenth century, the planners started constructing the subway and began its first operation in the early 1900s. Since then New York Metro has been a lifeline for the city (for more than a century). It is the most migrant-friendly city in the world where 60 percent residents were born outside the US. Its underground train gives constant mobility to the struggling migrants round the clock and hence the saying goes: New York never sleeps.
Dhaka almost never sleeps, not for activity, but for inactivity and noise, for being stuck in never-ending traffic gridlock; one would consider himself lucky if he gets back home by ten o'clock after which the whole city is taken over by a brigade of trucks, choking all the roads. The “melodious” horns of outdated buses and trucks keep us awake the whole night, worsening noise pollution. But once Patal Rail is built, there would be no need to control trucks. It would be possible to send half of Dhaka's commuters underground.
Kolkata's metro which is just around 300km away should make us feel ashamed. The example of Kolkata should nullify all excuses which some talk show commentators have raised in the case of Dhaka. The issues of wet soil, flood zones, and earthquakes are all equally applicable for Kolkata. But Dr Bidhan Chandra, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, made the dream a reality in the early 1980s—30 years after his initial idea. It is the decision of the leadership that can make Patal Rail happen for Dhaka too.
Only USD 4 billion will be needed to build the basic route from Uttara via the airport and Farmgate to Motijheel—a group of experts estimated the cost while visiting Bangladesh Bank during the governorship of Atiur Rahman. And that money can be collected by gradually drawing from the foreign reserves and forming a separate sovereign wealth fund. Long-term international bonds can leverage the goal too. Alternatively, international private agencies can be deployed to build, own, operate, and finally transfer the project. India has started building subways under private management and international tenders.
The reason why Kolkata got the first metro in India is that the city has the least amount of space for roads. While space for roads in Kolkata is only five percent, that in Delhi is 25 percent of the total land. Dhaka's space for roads is claimed to be seven percent, although it is practically less than five percent once we take hawkers, vendors, garbage, drains, illegal parking, and unruly construction works into account. More flyovers are engulfing free spaces quite rapidly.
If Delhi's metro can ensure profit from day one, there is sufficient reason to believe that Dhaka's will also scoop profit given the increasing number of dwellers. A study on megacities shows that Dhaka will experience a population growth of 53 percent between 2015 and 2025—the fastest in the world. And the limited elevated train service (if ever built) will be a drop in the ocean. The pace of its progress, as we have seen so far, makes us happy that at least our grandchildren will experience it. In contrast, Patal Rail can be built in less than eight years through technology that will not mess up regular movement on the surface. Kolkata's Patal Rail took 14 years from 1971 to 1984 only because India encountered political instability, fuel shocks, low growth, and a fund crisis over that period. When other megacities in India are installing subways one after another, Dhaka's lack of progress is bewildering. Simply put, there is no alternative to Patal Rail for Dhaka.
Biru Paksha Paul is associate professor of economics at the State University of New York at Cortland.