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dhaka finalI have made it a ritual to examine Dhaka while flying above it every time I return to the capital city from abroad or, domestically, from Chittagong. Hovering over the city, before touchdown, the plane enables an omniscient aerial eye to see how the city is growing like an octopus — the tumult of an urban juggernaut, pulverising all lands within its amorphous border and neighbouring agricultural lands. To the north, Uttara used to be Dhaka’s satellite, but now it is fully incorporated. On the eastern edge, Bashundhara is another instance of the city’s ever-expanding border. With 16 million people teeming in an area of approximately 1,600 square kilometres, Dhaka is a megalopolis that many world surveys identify as the fastest growing city in the world, along with Lagos, Nigeria.

Wandering around the city on foot or in a rickshaw or a car, however, provides the real (and frightening) pulse of the city. The romantic charm of what poet Shamsur Rahman called sritir shahor (the city of memory) flashes once in a while, in some narrow streets of Old Dhaka and around the Teacher Student Centre as well as the Bangla Academy. But the visceral experience of contemporary Dhaka occurs when one gets stuck in its paralysing traffic; sees its infinite masses and the construction boom in apartment buildings, shopping malls, health clinics, and flyovers; and breathes its rancid air. It doesn’t take long for one to plunge headlong into Dhaka’s infernal modernity.

When will Dhaka have some semblance of calming down? With its real-estate market skyrocketing, is the capital city capable of stopping at all? More than 2,000 people from impoverished rural areas across the country pour into the “city of opportunity” every day in search of a better life. On the other end of the economic spectrum, nearly 200 newly registered cars enter the streets of Dhaka daily. According to one survey in 1999-2000, Dhaka’s contribution represents about 13 percent of the country’s GDP, but more than 50 percent of the nation’s industries and services are clustered in and around the capital. I suspect that this economic asymmetry has now become even more acute.

The Economist Intelligence Unit, the research wing of The Economist, surveyed 130 cities of the world on the basis of hardship faced by their respective city dwellers. Dhaka ranked 127th, barely above Lagos and Karachi. With 28,000 people per square kilometre, compounded by lawless streets, such factors are bound to spawn urban absurdities.

Dhaka has reached a tipping point. Flyovers won’t change course, nor would political sloganeering of environmental protection and a Detailed Area Plan. The city has become such a political quagmire as a result of failed urban governance that physical planning seems no longer able to rectify its urban ills. Furthermore, Dhaka has become synonymous with the corrosive culture of corruption and political insolence that diminishes the promise of Bangladesh.

All development activities perilously concentrate in Dhaka. This is a dangerous and unsustainable path to the future. Therefore, the time has come to envision a post-Dhaka Bangladesh.

Decentralisation is the call of the day. And, the best way to accomplish this is to move the capital from Dhaka (I’ll come back to the question of where later in this essay). A great many Bangladeshis would shriek at the idea. But calm down. Examples of countries moving their capitals abound in history — from the Egyptian and Greco-Roman times to as recently as 1997, when Kazakhstan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, moved its capital from Almaty to Astana. New capitals have been planned when existing ones became too congested, overpopulated, and politically unsustainable. Think about the recent BDR massacre. The government’s inaction was premised on the fact that dense urban areas surround Pilkhana. Any military action, it was argued, would result in a huge civilian casualty.

The US Congress created its new capital, Washington, D.C., in 1790, after meeting in eight cities, including Philadelphia and New York. George Washington took the oath of office as the first US president in New York City. St. Petersburg interrupted Moscow’s status as the capital of Russia since the 14th century for nearly 200 years, from 1712 to 1918, when the Russian capital was moved back to Moscow. Ottawa became Canada’s capital in 1857, after the Canadian legislature alternated between Toronto and Quebec City. Canberra was planned and designated as Australia’s capital in 1927, after neither Sydney nor Melbourne would concede to the other as the capital.

In our own backyard, Calcutta was the capital of British India until 1911, when the colonial regime moved the capital to the northern city of Delhi, which had already served as the political and financial hub of several empires of ancient and medieval India. Pakistan moved its capital from the overpopulated and politically troublesome Karachi to Islamabad in the 1960s.

There are other recent examples, too. The idea of a new capital for Brazil had generated political traction since 1930. Brazil relocated its capital from the overcrowded and Europe-faced coastal city of Rio de Janeiro to the brand-new city of Brasilia in the interior of the country in 1961. Brasilia spurred new growth in the impoverished Brazilian hinterland. With the same nationalist ambition, Nigeria moved its capital from the overcrowded coastal city of Lagos to the centrally located, planned city of Abuja. Although not an ideal example, Myanmar’s reclusive military junta has recently relocated its capital from the historic city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) to the northern city of Naypyidaw.

Convenient models of capital relocation span the world. Guided by a policy of administrative decentralisation, Malaysia has moved its many state functions and the prime minister’s official residence to a suburb of Kuala Lumpur called Putrajaya, even though Kuala Lumpur remains the formal capital. In addition, some countries have multi-centric capitals. Bolivia’s administrative capital is La Paz, while the legislative and judicial capital is Sucre. And, the Netherland’s formal capital is Amsterdam, but the de facto seat of the country’s legislature and Supreme Court is The Hague.

Given these examples, the idea of relocating Bangladesh’s capital from Dhaka should not be considered radical. Indeed, we should begin to incubate this idea in our political and administrative heads. Moving the capital, of course, doesn’t have to undermine the political and cultural significance of Dhaka. Its place in our nation’s historic narrative is unassailable. Salam-Barkat’s Dhaka, the glorious venue of our Language Movement, and the tragic Dhaka of the dark night of March 25th — all are forever burned in our collective memory. The relocation is guided hardly by hopeless abandonment of Dhaka, but rather by a pragmatic view of the nation’s future. A new capital could be the symbolic beginning of a corruption-free Bangladesh, a Bangladesh of political tolerance, civility, innovation, and confidence.

Now to the crucial question. What city should become the new capital? A few factors should be taken into consideration. What we want is a low-density, non-urbanised area (so that no cumbersome mass relocation is necessary), away from the flood plains, but not too far away from Dhaka; so that the new capital could still tap into Dhaka’s resources and geographic centrality. This way, in the first phase, only the executive branch of the government would be taken to the new capital, with judiciary following in the next phase. The new capital should not be too close to the border. It should not perturb an ecologically important site, nor should it be dropped on an existing urban area, for it would then be mired in the local politics of the city.

This means that the greater Chittagong, Khulna, Rajshahi, and Sylhet regions are out of contention. The new capital location that I propose is the area between Trishal and Bhaluka, to the north, between Dhaka and Mymensingh. I have personally explored the site for a future airport and am familiar with its geography and population density. (Trishal’s population is roughly around 4 lakhs, based on 2001 figures). This site could work as a new capital, provided that the government machineries fully convince the local population about the value of a new city in their midst. As an incentive, 30 percent of the construction employment and 20 percent of administrative jobs in the new capital could be allocated to the locals.

The new capital could be realised as the paragon of sustainable urbanism, with clarity in planning and ecological management of natural resources; affordable access to education, healthcare, and cultural facilities; and emphasis on mass transportation, rather than personal autos. This could be Bangladesh’s maiden planned city of zero-carbon emissions with a strong policy emphasis on biking and walking. Today’s experts on sustainable and liveable cities emphasise these same key issues.

A post-Dhaka Bangladesh will be good for the country as well as for Dhaka. This city and its inhabitants need a reprieve from wrong-headed, steroid-induced growth mantras.


Dr. Adnan Morshed teaches architecture, urban design, and spatial history and theory at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.

23 Responses to “A post-Dhaka Bangladesh”

  1. Asiful Basar

    80 percent of Dhaka’s urban and transportation problem will disappear if we just shift all the garments factories from the heart of Dhaka city. At least 3 million people will move out of Dhaka to the new industrial city where we can replace all these garments factories.

    Adamjee in Narayanganj could be a good choice for the purpose. It is already ready to use, just need some proper planning to turn it into the first garments city in Bangladesh. Replacing capital from Dhaka to other place will not solve Dhaka’s problem; it will be just misusing our resources and creating another ‘city of mess’.

    Another solution could be introducing ‘Dhaka Pass’, which will only allow a limited numbers of citizens to reside and work in Dhaka. A person who was born in Dhaka, or has close family tie, or has certain amount of property or has a valid tax paying job or business will only be allowed to live in the city. Otherwise, the rest will have to be relocated. All ‘valid’ Dhaka citizens will have a machine readable ID card and only those ID card holders will enjoy certain government facilities, such as job, education, medical, business license, renting a house or buying a piece of land etc. I believe only these kind of policies could change Dhaka’s future, otherwise we have to see the death of the Dhaka city most likely in our lifetime.

  2. Sabrina

    Good Proposal. We need to take some harsh decisions.

  3. Sayed A. Huq

    Dear Sir,
    How about building an alternative capital that will consist of Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Old Airport, Cantonment, BGB (former-BDR headquarter) and Airport area (after a new international airport is built somewhere else)?

    Cantonment and BGB headquarter could be shifted to Trishal and Bhaluka.

    The new capital city may be called New Mujib Nagar and Trishal/Bhaluka that will house the defence headquarters can be called Zia Nagar.


  4. XIKKO

    Excellent article, Mr. Morshed. In other countries, almost every major cities are well developed. I mean they have some common facilities; however capital could be unique.

    But in Bangladesh, Dhaka is developing without any proper planning and the other cities are far behind! So, everyone is heading towards Dhaka for a better life! The main thing is, the government should take some proper decisions to cope with this problem! For example, decentralise the headquarters from the capital. Is it really necessary to keep Bangladesh Navy Headquarter at Banani? It should be moved to Chittagong!

    There are millions of things which could be moved/modified from Dhaka! I think, we need solidarity (better understanding) among the ruling party, opposition party and the other authorities to turn Dhaka into a liveable city.

  5. Ezajur Rahman

    An excellent, timely, important and engaging piece. Thank you very much. I would only add that aggressive population control and a radical restructuring of our politcial parties are prerequsites to any positive expectations of our future.

  6. Ishtiaq Hossain

    It is an interesting article. But moving the capital form Dhaka is easily said than done. Lagos is no longer Nigeria’s capital, Abudja is. But Lagos’ problems still persist. Dhaka suffered because its needs have been neglected for such a long period of time.

    Incredibly, the idea of flyovers, elevated highways and highways are still considered novelty in the country. How about a metro system? If construction of all these were given attention to in the past, we would not be in such a deep hole.

    Just to point out having lived in cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur since 1984, in spite of highways and first-world metro systems, certain roads and highways in these two great cities are clogged up. Heavy rains still inundate certain roads in these cities. Recently some shopping centres in Singapore were flooded. In Kuala Lumpur, we have storm drains which are used as roads during normal period. And, when heavy rains affect the city, this is used as storm drains. But still some roads are flooded.

    The point is whatever we do such problems will never leave us. And, that is the reality.

  7. A A

    I would recommend that Bangladesh’s capital be shifted to the Hill Tracts. We have land aplenty there with not many people. We can build a very picturesque capital in Rangamati or Khagrachari or Bandarban. Think about it.

  8. M.K.Aaref

    In an increasingly digital world, I don’t see the point of all the ministries to be in Dhaka. Can’t the council of ministers meet via the web? Other than the crucial Home, Foreign, Finance, Defence, and Establishment, all other ministries can and should be dispersed to other cities, which can then spur growth and be a catalyst for further economic activity, including creating demands for quality education, health-care, leisure, and housing.

    I am not sure we are in a position to just move the capital, bag and baggage, to a new location without investing heavily in infrastructure.

    Another scheme may incorporate imposing an additional urban tax on all businesses based in the cities of Bangladesh, with Dhaka being the highest, and the cities and townships on the outer rims of the country with the lowest. Many of the state owned service enterprises can be relocated outside the capital.

    However, the readers have to admit that, we have heard of decentralization, local government empowerment and other non-Dhaka based initiatives over the decades since independence. Any such initiative requires a desire to give up some power (both political and economic) and a strong political will of all parties concerned. Sadly, that is a compromise we shall not see our politicians make unless it is too late. We, as a nation, are notorious for crisis management and not for long term planning.

    According to various studies and web-sites, Bangladesh will host approximately 250 million souls by the middle of this century. How realistic or fatalistic this projection is, I have no clue, but from 75 million only 40 years ago, we have almost doubled. Should decentralization in a planned and gradual way do not happen soon, I am not sure Dhaka will be liveable by the time our children grow up to be adults. Relocating the capital is not the solution in my opinion. Making the other cities attractive as a destination for business, industry, leisure, and living would not only alleviate the pressure on Dhaka, but spread the wealth of the country concentrated in the capital nationwide.


    • Adnan Morshed

      Thank you for your considered observations. Tax- or market-based incentives for decentralizing industries and businesses have been recommended before. They don’t seem to work or get much political traction because business owners are always ready to pay high taxes and stay on at the political center, no matter how congested that center maybe. Besides, high taxes are never high enough to deter any business owners to move. Dhaka’s industrialists are often too politically connected or themselves politicians to manipulate the bureaucracy in their favor.

      So, decentralization must begin at the top.
      Thank you.

  9. Syed M.Hussain

    The most encouraging aspect of such opinions is that we are coming of age and have started thinking out of the box.

    Dr. A. Morshed’s write-up on a possible scenario to develop an alternate site for our capital is indeed thought provoking. I am all for developing the concept to a more rigorous and rational level. It is time the Jatiyo Sangshad urged the government to set-up a multi-disciplinary, high-level in terms of expertise, experience and energy, Task Force) examine the concept (of relieving the fast gathering of stresses and strains on our capital city) and the options that we do have still now) develop dynamic expositions of the alternative paradigms. The decisive factors are the long-term feasibility of such moves/measures, taking into serious account the fast-paced demographic, technological and resource-endowments of the country.

    Far-reaching changes are set in motion in our natural resources (gas, water, forests, environments, even land use, factories’ productivity and so on) management. All such perimeters are relevant for getting even a glimpse of the realistic policy formulation and decision.

    Such a crucial theme shall be given the appropriate treatment over an adequate timeframe and through the knowledge and wisdom of a competent band of people.

    Meanwhile, the authorities could invite all relevant sources to come forward with their thoughts, views, opinions and intellectual contributions. And a National Platform for Action could be formed.

    In my view, despite the several instances quoted by Dr. Morshed of shifting physically the capitals, the vast majority of nations continue with their capitals over centuries, for the sheer reason of a capital city becoming the soul of a nation. And I believe the monstrous problems that lead us to away from the capital are certainly going to follow us there perhaps sooner than later than we might think.

    There is a parallel suggestion that has always been in the shadow is that AA. We shift the Dhaka Cantonment way outside the greater Dhaka mega city limits along with the old BDR at Peelkhana. The justification of such moves is too well-known to require elaboration here. The sizeable land vacated as a result should be made into a green belt.

    It will be better, if possible, to add some more land to this belt, BB. Then we go on a search of suitable locations all around at a logical distance from greater Dhaka to create in a planned manner a string of satellite towns and design special incentives and infrastructural support (and even legal imperatives, if necessary) for new agro-industrial plants and all other kinds of activities to generate employment along with, of course, ensuring the production, manufacturing, and supplies/service sectors development.

    And there needs to be fast, efficient, cost-effective transport systems and network for these growing townships and the capital. These thoughts obviously need far more research and refinement before this can become a realistic proposition.

    I trust all of us would join their thoughts as we all love Dhaka, and we do love Bangladesh so much more.

    — Syed Muhammad Hussain
    Harrow, UK

  10. Syed Shamsuddoha

    Nice article, Dr Morshed. Keep it up.


    D, Welly, NZ

  11. Mahmood Mamun

    Totally agree with u. I live in Dubai and have visited around 40 countries in the world but never have I seen such a mess like that in Dhaka.

    There are laws aplenty but no implementation. Dhaka is one of the most crowded cities in the world. Any one can build anything anywhere they want.

    Imagine if we have a disaster like that recently took place in Japan, what will happen? In most areas in Dhaka, if a fire occurs, there’s no access to fire extinguisher. There is no separate zone for residential and commercial or industrial areas. On the top of that there is a booming population? Haven’t seen any kind of campaign from the government to control the population that is fast becoming unmanagable. Neither is there any sufficient programme to turn this population into an asset.

    Canada is the second largest city in the world and its population is only 30 million, Australia only 20 million. Political leaders appear to be useless, they are more into fighting each other with loggi boitha, than to urge people to plant trees, keep the environment unpolluted.

    Imagine where we would have been if our population was utilised properly.

    All we need is proper planning and timely implementation of those. I wish those who run the country had sufficient education and experience. When the go abroad all they do is shop. Don’t they see how other cities are built? Can’t they learn anything from there?

    • Syed Imtiaz Ali

      No matter what is planned, even in the building stage a BIG chunk will be eaten away. Contract will be given to dubious and inexperienced builders, and so on! But done what may, if the population is not managed, taken care of or made into a RESOURCE, then everything will go down the drain.

      What we need now is EDUCATION, INFRASTRUCTURE, honest people at the apt places who are ready to deliver, and immediate population control. Only then will we see some difference. Many social evils will gradually wither away, if above measures are taken.

      We need three things very badly: 1) Education, 2) Education and 3) Education and passionate policymakers to run the country.

      Even a relatively CLEANER Dhaka will have a positive impact in our minds and deeds. What is the Solid Waste Dept of DCC doing? Please wake up and learn from other neighbouring countries.

  12. Mohammed Biswas

    I understand the spirit with which Dr. Morshed presents his arguments in favour of moving the capital city and I agree that the details are not so important as much as the bigger picture aerial view at a conceptual level. However, I am sure I am not the only one to get lost somewhere in between a dream and a nightmare when discussing the past, present and the future of Bangladesh.

    From a distance and in an aerial view, it all seems so possible and achievable but soon after you touch the ground reality hits like a rock. It doesn’t take long to find out that the government of Bangladesh is not in the business of soliciting ideas for the good of the people and the country. Ideas suggesting or requiring to act against or beyond its limited inherent interests, are presumed to have no shelf life to a government that behaves more like a political party with enhanced power, indifferent to upholding the institutional values of a functioning government.

    Considering the political history of Bangladesh, decentralisation is just the opposite of what the government in power may want. I wouldn’t be surprised if the government finds the writer’s idea scary, even to the point of silliness to think that if they move to a new capital then the opposition will take control over the old capital. If the head i.e. the government has to move then the body i.e. the military and the cantonment has to move along with related power hubs like airports, TV stations, universities, central bank and so forth. One may even argue that this is a recipe for a divided country with two capitals each claimed and controlled by the party in power and by the opposition. It is not likely that the political party in power will leave a hot spot like Dhaka for its rival to claim anytime soon.

    Besides economics and opportunities, there is also a huge cultural issue with the city vs. suburbs. People are generally not so thrilled with the prospect of moving to the suburbs even with a secured job, for it immediately affects lifestyle, children’s education, contacts and secondary earning opportunities. Transfer of a government staff from a city to a suburb is considered a demotion and looked down by the society. Living and working in Dhaka city does not bear the same social status of working in other areas of the country which will take years to build at a relocated capital. A matter of debate could be if it is more feasible in terms of logistics and cost for the government to stay in Dhaka as it is and move the industries and academic institutions to the suburbs instead.

    Amidst all hopelessness and frustrations with the government in Bangladesh, I like the writer’s take on it simply because I believe, even when nothing matters as one, everything still matters as a whole and it still feels good to breathe inspiration.

    • Adnan Morshed

      Thank you for your insights. I am particularly intrigued by your observation: “I wouldn’t be surprised if the government finds the writer’s idea scary, even to the point of silliness to think that if they move to a new capital then the opposition will take control over the old capital.”

      I think that this is a very real reason why the government would not even go near the idea of capital relocation.

      I appreciated your input.

  13. Golam Arshad

    Prpfessor: You are thinking RIGHT! As ROME is to ITALY. DHAKA is to BANGLADESH. We can come up with positive solution if we try! What do you say Professor!

    By the way, I love Catholic University! Good for you to teach there!

    • Syed Imtiaz Ali

      Please don’t throw cold water on this masterly opinion, that looks into the future very realistically.

      I understand that articles are supposed to be printed only, and read by some, appreciated by a few, understood by a tiny bit and implemented by NONE!

      Unless there is political mileage and financial gains to be made, there will perhaps be no step taken. It is high time to plan our cities and how we should handle our population.

      I wish to invite Dr. Adnan’s opinion on population planning in his future article, please.

      Thanks a million for your ideas and opinions for the ‘unplanned’ lot.

      • Adnan Morshed

        Thank you, Mr. Ali, for your thoughtful comments.

  14. Nirmal L Gomes

    It is a very interesting, informative and analytical article. Seeing the over crowded Dhaka city, I always wonder what would happen if any natural disaster occurred in Dhaka city.

    I like your idea of a post-Dhaka Bangladesh. The most interesting was when you said, “A new capital could be the symbolic beginning of a corruption-free Bangladesh, a Bangladesh of political tolerance, civility, innovation, and confidence.”

    I enjoyed reading your opinion.

  15. muhammad

    Sir, we need people like you to come back and teach here in Bangladesh. The students here miss guidance of someone like you.

    As part of a project on developing Bangladesh through research, innovation and industry-university partnership, we tried to contact a couple of Bangladeshi intellectuals teaching in two famous universities in USA, but they didn’t even bother to reply. While Indians are returning home after higher studies abroad, Bangladesh intellectuals are staying back.

    Mumbai is India’s financial capital, Bangalore is IT capital, then why can’t we turn Chittagong, the financial capital; Khulna, the IT capital and accordingly raise the status of other divisions and take the burden off of Dhaka?

    • afsan chowdhury

      I don’t think it would make much of a difference if Dr. Morshed came back. Unless the system of decision making changes, what difference can he make?

      One forgets that India’s economic growth is a major factor in drawing people back home, not blind patriotism, which is bad anyway. The opportunities that the Indians and the Chinese get back home are usually more than what they get abroad.

      Good ideas also come through interaction with colleagues who are also innovation minded. Sadly, in Bangladesh the only innovation that interests people is party politics and irrational support to one group or the other.

      I think there was an exchange programme with expatriate teachers -UNDP funded- which was running for a while but due to lack of interest and cooperation from the universities it was suspended. I may be misinformed.

      If the teachers didn’t respond to your mail, that’s bloody rude and stupid of them.

    • Adnan Morshed

      Dear Mr. Muhammad:

      Thank you for your kind note. As Mr. Afsan Chowdhury has rightly pointed out in response to your suggestion, returning home is not the grand answer to our myriad problems. As Edward Said has always said, sometimes being away from home affords more useful perspectives. Besides, in our globalized culture physical presence has somewhat become less urgent. What we the common citizen need is creative interaction and our dogged determination to improve the situation of our country. Given the enormity of our problems, it is very easy to get disheartened and disillusioned. But we have to be relentlessly hopeful and proactive, and generate ideas. If we can’t imagine the solution to a problem, we can never solve that problem.

      As for Bangladeshi academics in the US who didn’t respond to your email, I find their attitude utterly selfish for they have no interest in anything beyond their comfort zone. But, please, their selfish behavior should not deter you from pursuing creative partnerships with other universities. I can assure you that if you reach out to the right people (they don’t necessarily have to be Bangladeshis always), meaningful partnerships are very much possible (provided there are good proposals). Over the years, I have known many American academics eager to partner with academics/students from our country, because they also want to learn from the particular types of social or urban problems we deal with in Bangladesh. The relationship is, and should be, mutual.

      Thanks for your interest.

      • muhammad

        Thanks sir for your enlightened thoughts. Investment on R&D is the best way to develop the country.

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