Dhaka is one of the 15 largest cities in the world with approximately 20 million people living in an area of 150 square miles. It is possibly the only city in the world with the highest density of population per square mile. It has also the dubious distinction of being a highly polluted and most unlivable city in the world. In terms of quality of life, Dhaka is rated the second worst mega city.
As for the levels of different kinds of pollution, Dhaka exceeds several times the acceptable recommended levels of WHO as well as that of our DOE (Department of Environment). For example, the air pollution mainly consisting of dust, construction works and vehicular and industrial fumes in Dhaka is the worst in the world; the density of airborne particulate matter (PM) reaches 463 micrograms per cubic metre (mcm) in the city during the dry season. WHO guidelines recommend a maximum acceptable level of 20 (mcm) and a level of 70 (mcm) is considered highly polluted. Further, all other sources of pollution such as water, sewerage and sanitation system, sound, garbage, etc., also exceed the WHO standard by several times the recommended levels. Human lives lost every year due to pollution run into several lakhs. Poor quality of air alone directly causes premature deaths of 15,000 every year.
According to WHO, the traffic gridlock of the city is the worst offender to quality of life. Gridlock alone every year costs the national economy an estimated 12 to 20 billion US dollars. This accounts for nearly seven to 10 per cent of national GDP. Man hours lost in Dhaka is the worst in the world.
Unbeknownst to many, one of the worst off-shoots of the long continued gridlock has perhaps nearly resulted in a lost generation in terms of human and social values. In the past 20 odd years young fathers have left their homes early in the morning for their work places and returned home, late in the evening, after about 12 hours. Male guardians have thus literally lost all meaningful day-to-day contacts with their growing offspring. Mothers, if they are not working women, are effectively the only guardians. They are essentially loving in nature and can hardly be expected to be strict and stern with their children’s activities and behavior.
The consequent lack of adequate fatherly love, attention and guidance to this young generation is far too obvious, in the forms of school dropouts and unusual behavioral patterns, i.e., violence, mugging, drug issues. Every day the local newspapers are replete with plenty of such horrendous stories to the chagrin of the elders of the communities. The discerning public and the intellectuals appear to be at a loss properly to appreciate the tragedy facing the society.
Water bodies and greenery
Most of the water bodies in the city have been filled up either by the owners or the grabbers. The greeneries in the city have been systematically denuded, turning the city into a near desert. The WASA authorities have been recklessly withdrawing water from below the city, reducing the water table to a near dangerous level. Since the city happens to be in an earthquake zone, there is a likelihood of serious subsidence of houses in the event of even a mild quake. A major shake-up will cause the collapse of an estimated 150,000 plus houses, mainly in the old city. Large scale fires may also be triggered simultaneously. Narrow lanes and collapsed houses may make any rescue operations ineffective. Massive looting and arson may follow.
All the water bodies around the city have been totally poisoned by effluents from the industries located on their banks, to the extent that no fish could survive in them. Besides, most of these water bodies have been filled up substantially by the grabbers. In another decade or so they may totally disappear from the map.
The city as it exists has turned into a concrete slum pure and simple. The entire city is devoid of any exclusive residential area as was originally designated. Educational institutions, medical clinics and hospitals, restaurants and hotels, factories and industrial establishments, banks, official establishments, shopping centres and all other kinds of non-residential establishments have encroached upon these residential areas. These non-residential establishments have no parking space of their own, prompting huge gridlocks literally all through the day. The whole city has about nine per cent of land area under roads and lanes as against a minimum requirement of 25%.
Cynics in society consider Dhaka a totally unlivable city and the more uncharitable ones amongst them call it a dead city. You may or may not agree with such comments but the reality is that you need more of the proper residential accommodation, schools, playgrounds, colleges, universities, public libraries, cultural centres, shopping centres, office blocks, clinics, hospitals, eateries, hotels, greeneries, water bodies and wide-bodied roads on a planned basis. What, however, is not practical is to spread the city sideways since land is the most scarce of resources of the nation. As gridlock is the most visible and irritating of all problems, the relevant authorities have, in recent years, concentrated their attention on reducing traffic problems, mainly in the new city area. All the solutions prescribed or implemented in recent years have had very limited effects. None of the specialists in the field of urban development has so far come up with a comprehensive program for dealing with all the problems that have made life in the city so miserable. The piecemeal program of flyovers in some of the VIP areas, or an elevated flyover, or an overhead railway will impress the general public but will perhaps solve very few of the problems causing gridlock.
The government has already spent huge sums of money on some big fly-over projects. They are also financing some more expensive on-going projects. And some more costly proposals are in the pipe line. It is strongly suggested that these huge expenditures will prove “good money after bad propositions”. These will mainly act as mere sop to the public and good money to the builders and other interested parties. It may be suggested that before the authorities proceed any further with these projects, they should undertake an in-depth study by a “Body of Expert Professionals” to evaluate the efficiency levels actually achieved by the projects that have been executed in the past decade. Each of these projects must have on record their proposed costs and possible benefits to be derived. If the evaluation studies indicate that the benefits derived are even better than 50% of the projected targets, and the sum total of these benefits have also reduced the overall grid-lock problem of the city to a “reasonable extent”, then only it may be worthwhile to spend huge funds on the on-going and proposed projects. Incidentally, most of the projects that have so far been finished or are proposed for future years ahead are literally to the exclusion of the old Dhaka which account for more than 30% of the population.
A comprehensive plan
One may still insist that a much wiser approach would be to begin with a comprehensive city plan that will solve all problems the city faces once and for all. This plan will provide the necessary master plan and confidence to the authorities and enable them to go ahead with projects that ought to be implemented in phases. Then only will a Dhaka fit to be lived in emerge from the ruins of existing Dhaka. This comprehensive plan will hopefully solve city problems for at least the next 100 plus years.