Rural Bangladesh needs next-generation village roads
The road network of rural Bangladesh offers fascinating insights into the state of rural economy and social life. I recently had a very helpful experience of visiting several villages in the Jashore-Kushtia region and seeing the roads that connect them to what have been dubbed "growth centres," zila, upazila, and union headquarters, as well as national and regional highways.
Bangladesh's total road network covers nearly 3,80,000 km, of which a whopping 94 percent are rural roads. Out of the country's 87,223 villages, more than 70,000 villages are considered well connected through a web of rural roads. According to a 2018 survey, the Rural Access Indicator (RAI)– the percentage of the rural populace living within 2 km of all-weather roads– was estimated at 83.5 percent. Nobody would dispute that rural connectivity is central to not only rural advancement but also the nation's progressive agenda. The quality and improvement of rural roads determine the quality of economic and social life of over 60 percent of the country's total population that reside in rural areas.
My observation during the recent trip was that the first-generation of rural roads played a crucial role in what I would like to call Rural Transformation 1.0 in Bangladesh during the decades of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. But those roads have become inadequate during what could be called Rural Transformation 2.0, taking place between 2000 and 2020, during which economic, social, and cultural lives in rural Bangladesh changed dramatically due to a diverse range of catalysts.
I would like to argue that, for the next generation of rural transformation, we need the next generation of "smart" rural roads to be in sync with the imagination of and strategy for an equitable Bangladesh built on the twin foundations of social justice and environmental adaptability. Social justice in road construction includes road safety for all users, including rural pedestrians, bicyclists, and livestock. Environmental adaptability in this case implies that rural roads should be able to withstand the vagaries of climate change, flooding, disasters, and seasonal impacts.
But, first, let us explore a brief history of rural roads in Bangladesh. The early 1960s rural development programmes – broadly known as the "Comilla Model" – emphasised the construction of rural roads as part of a modernisation philosophy. The Comilla Model was conceived by the Government during the Pakistan-era "decade of development" (1958-1968) as a policy tool for providing support for increased agricultural productivity. Then, in 1984, the Government of Bangladesh initiated a strategy for Rural Development Projects seeking to improve the quality of life in rural areas.
The first of these projects was building physical infrastructures including roads, storage, and markets. Established in 1992, the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), under the Local Government Division of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives, was responsible for the construction and maintenance of the upazila roads, union roads, and village roads. The legendary role of Engineer Quamrul Islam Siddique (a BUET alumnus) in establishing LGED and spearheading the construction of rural roads during the 1990s has become an essential narrative of Bangladesh's development trajectory.
Later, in 1996, the Government of Bangladesh and the World Bank developed the Bangladesh Rural Infrastructure Strategy Study, reemphasising the integration of zila, upazila, and union headquarters and growth centres into a comprehensive rural communication network. Well-connected villages began to yield an expanding rural economy, comprising both farm and non-farm activities.
Yet, the prevailing idea of rural roads fell short of a sustainable (and socially just) notion of infrastructure that would both be sympathetic to the traditional ways of rural life and meet the needs of rural modernisation. For example, LGED's overarching consideration for rural roads has been motorised mobility, while the traditional practice of the walking peasant, fisherman, and other village entrepreneurs has been ignored. Even today, inter-village and intra-village movements in Bangladesh occur predominantly by walking and, more recently, biking. When a leguna or a truck passes by on the village road, the pedestrian villager must stop and step aside precariously since there is almost no space between the road and the adjacent agricultural fields three or four feet below.
During Rural Transformation 2.0, the rural pedestrian and other non-motorised locomotion continued to be ignored in road construction and improvement. The 2004 Gazette of the Government did not determine the width of village roads. The 2010 Gazette set it at 10 feet at a 5 percent increased cost. Under the Seventh Five Year Plan (7FYP, 2016-2020), LGED's exclusive focus on motorised mobility, road width, and improvement failed to acknowledge how pedestrian villagers traditionally move around in their daily lives and their road safety.
The strategic priorities for the rural road network in the Eighth Five Year Plan (8FYP, 2020-2025) state: "LGED will upgrade and maintain the rural road network in the master plan. The road network will be developed in a way to withstand floods and disasters, which will connect the growth centre/markets, villages and upazila roads. The upazila road network will connect with the economic zones, special economic zones, export processing zones, industries, land ports, river ports, seaports, and railway stations." Here, motorised mobility and economic connectivity take precedence over rural liveability. Pedestrian road safety is overlooked, giving rise to a policy question on social inclusivity. While inter-village and intra-village connectivity has been emphasised, the quality of movement on village roads remains uncertain.
What I noticed during my visit to villages in the Jashore-Kushtia region, Narsingdi district, and Anwara Upazila in southern Chattogram, was a wide range of motorised vehicles plying on village roads. From bhotbhoti and nosimon to private cars and construction trucks whiz by at an ever-increasing frequency, a stark contrast to our entrenched mental image of the tranquil Bengal village.
I saw school children walking inches away from speeding poultry-feed trucks. The sight of school children walking to their schools in groups is one of the most uplifting scenes in rural areas. But how concerned are we about their safety on village roads? Understanding the new reality of rural Bangladesh must be freed from a singular focus on economic progress. The humanistic rurality of Pather Panchali does not exist anymore. There is a New Rural, inspiring, complex, and contradictory all at the same time. Researching the New Rural would require a multidisciplinary approach.
While vehicular movement at a higher frequency certainly means a burgeoning rural economy, village roads also reveal that our rural road master planning, unfortunately, replicates the same lack of concern for pedestrian safety that plagues our city streets. The magnitude of fatal and non-fatal road traffic injuries (RTI) among the country's rural communities has been on a sharp rise. Rural Bangladesh needs the next generation of streets that value the safety and wellbeing of all those who use rural roads, while facilitating efficient connectivity between different administrative headquarters and growth centres.
Adnan Zillur Morshed is a professor of architecture and planning at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and Executive Director of the Centre for Inclusive Architecture and Urbanism at BRAC University.