Dhaka, for all intents and purposes, is dead
In Dhaka, we don't live anymore, we merely survive.
To me, this distinction is important because a capital city is supposed to be not just the administrative or financial hub of a country, but also a symbol of the best living experience it can offer. To be clear, when I say "live" as opposed to "survive"—or jibon udjapon as opposed to jibon japon—I don't mean a joyride with all the fun and none of the troubles. But living comes with a certain degree of stability, security, and satisfaction. It comes with the chance to pursue a higher purpose. Surviving, on the other hand, is about having the worst thrown at you and being able to continue on despite that. But just that.
This is what we do in Dhaka—day in, day out. We scrape through with a Zen-like attitude in helpless submission to the rigours of this city, making the "citizen" in us bizarrely meaningful.
Dhaka is trapped in an ironic twist as it grows and falls apart at the same time. Its aggressive development is rivalled only by the progressive decline in almost all other parameters of urban life. Long gone are the mysteries of the 70s, the quaint, small-town charm of the 80s, the romantic appeal of the 90s, or the thrills and spills of the 00s. Today's Dhaka, for all its expansion and infrastructural development, is a city that has hit the saturation point, and is now feeding on itself.
What does Dhaka offer to its residents? Any list will invariably include toxic air, loud noise, unsafe drinking water, traffic gridlocks, high population density, high cost of living, inadequate road, transport and recreational facilities, general lack of security, etc. There are also seasonal and governance-related issues like waterlogging, mosquito infestation and "ghost" utility bills. To single out one of them would be an injustice to the others—all being equally painful and persisting—which highlights the futility of any effort by the city managers and planners to make Dhaka liveable again.
Not to be outdone by other struggling global cities, the city authorities of late have been busy collecting medals for the extraordinary nature of its problems. Consider the following "laurels":
Dhaka's air, according to the recently published 2021 World Air Quality Report by IQAir, is now the world's second-most polluted, with the average PM2.5 concentration in the air found to be 15 times higher than the limit set by the World Health Organization (WHO). The city has been hovering around the top spot for some time now, thanks to unchecked fumes from vehicles and brick kilns, dust from construction sites, etc. Dhaka, according to the latest report of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), is also the world's noisiest city now. Its average noise level stands at a stupefying 119 decibels.
In another ironic twist, Dhaka is regularly cited as one of the most expensive yet least liveable cities in the world. This apparent dualism can be explained by global statistics from not too long ago, when the city ranked seventh among the most stressful cities, the worst in terms of density, one of the worst in terms of traffic congestion, and the second-worst in terms of physical health and family purchasing power. The city's status in these rankings is unlikely to have changed now. Its water quality also remains a constant source of worries, with the ongoing cholera outbreak blamed on Dhaka Wasa's poor supply system.
The true costs of all these problems are immeasurable. To give just one example: air pollution in Dhaka, according to a study last year, is taking 7.7 years off a resident's life. Imagine the cumulative effect of all of its chronic problems and pollutions on the physical, mental, financial and intergenerational health of its residents. It really boggles the mind.
The reasons for the problems are well-known and many solutions for each have already been suggested, only to be ignored in most cases while some implemented to little or no effect. The trouble is, Dhaka's afflictions are mostly interlinked, feeding off each other. With no central oversight, and with none of the agencies responsible for the city working in conjunction, we've reached a point where targeting one problem at a time no longer stands a chance of improving our living and breathing experience. What Dhaka needs is a hard reset, a complete overhaul of how it functions as a capital city and as the residential hub of 20 million people. Clearly, Dhaka's ambition as the former is no longer compatible with the expectations of the latter.
The idea of a hard reset, therefore, should no longer sound radical. "The much-valorised policy of decentralisation has not worked in Bangladesh. The question of why it hasn't worked is less useful than to explore what other options are available to save Dhaka, as well as Bangladesh," said Adnan Zillur Morshed, an architect and urbanist, in a column for The Daily Star. Morshed contrasts Dhaka's aggressive development with the "mofussilisation" of other cities in the country to show how the former is "bursting at the urban seams," before suggesting that the only way we can resolve this crisis is by splitting the administrative functions of the capital into two cities.
He adds: "We should begin to incubate this idea in our political and administrative heads. Given the historic significance of the parliament building, the legislative arm of the government may stay in Dhaka. The executive and judicial branches, along with the cantonment, can move to the new city to initiate a culture of decentralisation. This model of decentralised government would be a great fit for Digital Bangladesh. Physical proximity as a prerequisite for governance is an outdated idea of the yore."
This is not to suggest a complete relocation of the capital away from Dhaka, which would be an impractical move. But taking some of the administrative burden off it means a chance to reduce its urban footprint as well as dependence on its resources. How does the split plan sit with the expectations of the residents? Well, this is still just a means to an end. A hard reset should ideally see a "Save Dhaka" principle govern all the decisions and activities of the agencies and departments responsible for the city (DNCC, DSCC, RAJUK, WASA, DESA, Titas, DMP, Traffic Division, etc.), guided by a strong political will and a central vision of sustainable urbanism.
Dhaka's residents deserve a chance to live and breathe without having to worry about their city dying or, worse, causing their deaths.
Badiuzzaman Bay is an assistant editor at The Daily Star.