Pedestrian is a nobody in Dhaka

Morshed Ali Khan

Six years ago, when a house owner of Road-12 in Dhanmondi decided to convert his two-story house into an apartment bloc, the first thing he did was block the pavement in front of his one-bigha plot with piles of construction materials. Day after day the footpath remained inaccessible to everyone, including hundreds of children and parents in this locality, which has over 200 schools and colleges.

Three years later, the man completed the construction of the six-story apartment bloc, which covered nearly every inch of the plot to accommodate twenty families. To the relief of the neighborhood, one fine morning the developer started removing the piles of blasts from the footpath. But the locals' joy did not last long. As soon as the materials were removed, the developer dug up the entire length of the pavement in front of his plot and started converting it into a guest's car park area. Now that the apartment bloc is fully occupied, to the utter disappointment of the road users, the footpath in front of it is under the grip of the house owner, with vehicles of all sizes parked day and night.

It was not long before the man got into his second real estate venture. He bought up the adjacent plot, and with startling similarity to his first venture, blocked the footpath for nearly three years while constructing a six-story 'concrete match box'. Then he removed the rubbish from the footpath, dug it up and converted it into a car park.

The pedestrians now have to tread between vehicles and rickshaws on the main road.

The story is typical of our urban living. None of the residential or mixed-use areas (the entire city is now of mixed-use anyway) in the city offers any definite respite for pedestrians. According to a survey made public last year, over 60 percent of our road users are pedestrians. And most of these people are commuters who are forced to walk to their workplace, often risking their lives.

Some posh residential areas in the city do, however, have well-maintained parks and lake side areas where residents of all ages crowd. But in inner city areas, where block after block of residential-cum-commercial areas are accommodating most of the city dwellers, the scenario for pedestrians or health-conscious walkers is deplorable.

Many residents, especially elderly men and women unable to take a walk in their respective neighbourhood, are resorting to “walk machines” in their own bedrooms. Thanks to developers like the man we are talking about, sales of these machines have soared over the last ten years.

Worse still, physicians at different hospitals and clinics warn that the number of patients suffering from heart diseases, diabetics and other ailments is rising due to unhealthy living conditions in urban areas. They said most middle class residents in the urban areas are forced to live in congested areas, deprived of a basic right of movement.

Dhaka City Corporation officials claim that the city footpath network spreads over an area of 163 kilometres, which is already inadequate compared with 2,290 kilometres of main roads, lanes and by-lanes. The DCC does not, however, have any figures to show how much of this network can be used by an ordinary citizen.

Throughout the fast growing city, tampering with public footpaths is so common that one is forced to believe there is no law regarding their use. Almost everywhere in the city, developers are openly taking up works to modify public pavements in front of their premises to serve their own interests.

Some large commercial houses on Satmasjid Road, Road-2 and 27 in Dhanmondi have even set up shops on a part of the pavement. The owners have converted the remaining footpath in front of the premises into their own car park, where uniformed guards are posted to shove off anyone trying to use the footpath for purposes others than shopping in the particular shopping centre.

A famous diagnostic centre at Road-2 of Dhanmondi has converted the entire stretch of the footpath in front of its facility into its car park. It has replaced the non-slippery slabs with tiles of the their own choice and posted several security men to direct customers to use the 'self-made car park' on the public footpath. The six-story modern diagnostic centre, however, has an in-built car park. But it is grossly inadequate and therefore reserved only for the top officials of the business house.

Less than 200 yards away on Road-3, it is a story of blatant defiance to the existing law of the country. At any time of the day, the situation on Road-3 equals traffic mayhem. A leading diagnostic-centre-cum-hospital is operating on one entire stretch of the road without any parking facility whatsoever. The 100-bed, recently built hospital and the diagnostic centre have taken over the footpath, the hard shoulder and the road for use as a visitors' car park. Outsiders or anyone trying to use the same road for reaching Green Road or Mirpur Road is sure to get stuck there for sometime. Interestingly, the same company is building another facility on the same road, obstructing a large area with construction materials.

According to a magistrate of the Dhaka City Corporation (DCC), the DCC Ordinance 1983 (amended in 2003) strictly forbids encroachment of footpaths. The law prescribes a fine of Tk 10,000 for the first time offender and up to six months rigorous or simple imprisonment for the second time offender.

“Some developers, who do not have any space within their premises to store construction materials, must obtain permission from the DCC's Estate Department specifying the duration, exact area of occupation, and pay a fee,” Ahmed said.

“It is even a greater offence to alter any pavement,” he added. The DCC magistrate, however, said the offence of tempering with footpaths and encroaching them is becoming alarmingly rampant.

“The DCC needs a special court to deal with the situation,” he said.

The author is Special Correspondent of The Daily Star.

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