By Imtiaz A. Hussain
‘Infrastructural development’ is easier said than done. Typically meaning to construct some backbone for new activity streams (outputs), infrastructural development cannot be left to frontiersmen, or represent wishful thinking. Before breeding those new streams, it must be fully immersed in ground rules. Cultural, economic, environmental, political, and social feelers shape those rules, amended by pragmatic considerations. As Dhaka embarks upon building its most ambitious township, it would profit immeasurably heeding those rules.
What are they? Dhaka’s begin with the 1953 Town Improvement Act and the 1969 Allotment of Land Rule, the former identifying development, improvement, and expansion as its broad purposes, the latter disaggregating them within residential, industrial, and commercial contexts. Dhanmondi was the foundational model under the Dhaka Improvement Trust (DIT), established in 1956, then extended to Gulshan, Banani, and Uttara, among others. Fast-forwarding to today, Rajdhani Unnayan Kattripakkha (RAJUK), the DIT successor from 1987, and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), or World Bank, have chalked out an ambitious ‘East Dhaka’ paradigm, centered upon Purbachal, to resuscitate life into a sagging, saturated city. Can a new neighborhood mean just that, something brand new, or be built upon lessons from socio-cultural/politico-economic problems of the old?
Purbachal is more overloaded with institutions than instruments. That it only just began sorting out the multiple land encroachments, both private and political illustrates how it has contracted the same sickness as Dhaka’s previous ‘new townships’ in the west and north. Intervening local and vested interests expose the governance gaps. Md Manjur Morshed’s study of Dhaka’s ‘Detailed Area Plan (DAP)’ notes how the “roots of the system,” by which he means the National Housing Policy and the DMDP (Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan) philosophical drive, “can be traced back to UK planning.” That system reduced governmental and market engagements to only “an enabling capacity,” that is, “to remake existing impediments in the supply transfer, and regulations of land for shelter” (42). Amid the ocean-threatened ground-zero country’s enormous socio-economic and socio-political transitions, as well as a gripping climate-change ghost, Dhaka
citizens demand far more.
Three hierarchical DMDP plans emerged in the 1990s: a 20-year Structure Plan (1995-2015), to lay out strategic guidelines; a 10-year Urban Area Plan (1995-2005), with interim plans; and a Detailed Area Plan at the local level to oversee zoning, infrastructure, and utility policies. These were shelved by 1995. Morshed found persisting governmental involvement “in direct violation of the planning system and the National Housing Policy.” Now the World Bank is independently forewarning us of some of the generic consequences of such irregularities: the absence of “autonomy, fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency” owing to “historical and political circumstances,” produces “an empowerment deficit, a resource deficit, and an accountability deficit.” ‘Fragmented responsibilities’, such as these, it further contends, “lowers productivity.” Purbachal encompasses 6,277 acres of land between the Balu and Sitalakhya rivers, in Naraynganj (Rupgang) and Gazipur (Kaliganj) upazillas. Envisioned as far back as 1995, the project divides this land into 30 sectors. Even though the land was not fully acquired nor prepared
for development until 2009, work began anyway in 2002 on 4,500 acres within the Naraynganj domain, then from 2013 in 1,500 acres of Gazipur’s, to create 26,000 residential plots and 62,000 apartments. These took up 38.7% of the total area. Of the remaining land, 25.9% were allocated for roads, 7.1% for lakes and canals, 6.6% for fresh air, green, and open spaces, 6.41% for administrative and commercial purposes, 6% for education, health, and social purposes, 3.2% for industrial parks and institutions, and 2.5% for sports.
Aimed at easing west Dhaka congestion, Purbachal also inherits other township ailments: violating residential and construction codes, while neglecting feeder-roads and sewage disposal. Only with the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery terrorist attack did the Housing and Public Works Ministry begin issuing violation notices to residents, in this case, 1,636 of them to Gulshan building-owners. Although similar statutory ‘holes’ in other posh neighborhoods, such as Banani, Dhanmondi, and Uttara, were exposed, nothing tangible has eased the ‘sardine’, over-congested Dhaka living. Urban migration from the 1990s bred an apartment culture with tall buildings protruding onto public sidewalks, denuding the city’s greenery, and obscuring a view. They simply went unregulated, exacerbating claustrophobic conditions. Infrastructural arterial lines were established in the various plans (for example, Gulshan Avenue, Kamal Attaturk Avenue, Uttara stretch of Dhaka-Mymensingh Highway), but secondary roads were left to haphazard, whimsical growth. Neighborhoods became ‘unlivable’: by-lane traffic congestion; pollutants replacing greenery; the emergence of illegal tea-stalls or ‘dalals’ to cater to the bold drivers hoping, wishing, and praying for a parking space; pedestrian unfriendliness; and lack of parking space. No wonder the city’s average driving speed fell from 21 to 7 km/hour. Conceived in 1988 and designed as an escape, Bashundhara, “the largest private real estate project in Greater Dhaka,” began to mirror those very ailments. Claims attributed to it include: a “modern town with its own rules,” a “prime location [with] . . . good connection to access roads . . . . its own regulatory framework, focusing on security and
traffic controls . . . [and] modern amenities . . . a tertiary hospital . . . major universities . . . major schools . . . [t]he largest shopping mall in the country . . . major banks . . . [and] large economic groups [establishing] their headquarters . . . .” Yet, Bashundhara’s neglected structures, almost all on wet lowland, may be sinking it: lesser roads get inundated several times every Monsoon season, as evident on Sayem Sobhan Anvir Road, right across the Bashundhara International Convention Center on Purbachal Express Highway: light-hearted repairs are constantly done, generating countless lost hours every day, for commuters, student’s class time, business transactions, and the flows of emergency/ordinary services. By purchasing Purbachal land as their main future campus, Bashundhara-based universities may be signaling a premature desire to migrate farther east.
Illegal construction is following them. As of September 2017, Purbachal officials had already issued 130 notices to illegal building-holders. This was the first eviction campaign since 2013-4 because “some dishonest officials . . . tried to turn into the saviors of such unapproved companies.” Among the housing companies indicted: Basumoti and Trust developers; Haji M.Gafur Land Developers, Innovative Holdings, Welfare Consortium, Titanic Holdings, Sabuj Chhaya Abason Project, New Dhaka Alliances, Inspired Development, and Atlantic Properties and Development.
With 65% of all bridges (16 of 34) completed within Naraynganj upazilla, and 6 on the Purbachal Expressway, where we find such authoritative construction supervisors as the Bangladesh Navy, there we see tangible results. These are far and few in between.
At least 5 sector-specific agencies have authority, but function too independently to create the desperately needed ‘comprehensive’ cultivation: Development Design Consultants; Engineering and Planning Consultants; GBL Group, Sheltech; BETs Consulting Services; with KPC Group given the task for building the world’s tallest edifice, 142-storeys in all, on 100 acres. Electricity lines and grids have also been fitted, with a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) station earmarked in each of the 30 sectors. Together with feasibility studies on water supply and sewage disposal, the 142-story skyscraper will also include a new stadium, lakes, and a 13.5-kilometer canal streamlining Purbachal Expressway. Laudable though they may be, sector-specific agencies still need a comprehensive anchor under RAJUK aegis. Strategic-level communications, controls, and coordination must begin, as the 1990s DMDP plan originally sought, at the roots: beginning with land-purchase, continuing with land allocation and sale, then culminating with approval of some prescribed end-use (whether an apartment, factory, house, lake, park, road, or service), and with it,
instruments to knit project parts into the whole. Only a single comprehensive oversight body can arrest misuses, maladies, and mismanagement like congestion, pollution, and decaying ‘west’ Dhaka symptoms.
Beyond Purbachal, Bangladesh cannot fulfill the 17 targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030 without such oversight. As a necessary successor to the 8 Millennium Development Goals of 2000 (stemming from the UN Millennium Declaration that same year), those 17 targets broadly seek to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity. Requiring much more grassroots inclusion than previous development-driven urban renewal/extension plans, they need Purbachal-type local-comprehensive governance lines. An even more relevant ecology-centric scheme, the Bangladesh Delta Plan 100, not just relates urbanization plans to ‘good governance’, but also underscores the ‘comprehensive’ level policy-making vitality. Preventing Purbachal development from following the failed experiences of Dhanmondi, Gulshan, Banani, and Uttara, among others, requires prioritizing water management to pre-empt flooding, soil erosion, sewage spillovers, and climate-change damages.
Delivering RAJUK’s ‘comprehensive development’ cannot but involve ‘transformative adaptation’. This notion intertwines ecological change with appropriate social reforms. Eliminating inequalities, be these gender, income, political, or social, is one that Visiting ICCAD Researcher, Zachary Lamb has been highlighting for years. As applied in his MIT doctoral dissertation (successfully defended in Summer 2018), Lamb compares Dhaka with New Orleans over reclaiming land from water-based crises. Reducing adaptation to “the politics of land development,” he discourages the ‘one-size-fits-all’ formulas, as tried by upwardly-mobile metropolitans like Dubai, New York, and Singapore since they “bury rivers” and “build embankments” to ensure “a uniform spread of speculative urban development.” Every stakeholder, “from local activists, community leaders, and journalists to designers, scientists, and academic experts,” quenches some pet interest.
To free ‘East Dhaka’ from land speculators, politics-peddling land-grabbers, environment-blind factory builders, soil-sensitive farmers, community leaders, and others, a Purbachal-type ‘comprehensive adaptation’ plan meshing ‘outcome’ and ‘input’ infrastructure-development assessments would fit the bill. They would speak well to administrative, ecological, political, recreational, social audiences, and appeal to ‘clean’ and ‘green’ campaigners. Fitting this ‘comprehensive adaptation’ framework to the World Bank’s incremental 4-scenario ‘strategic’ ‘East Dhaka’ proposal might expand those benefits. That first scenario promotes the same ‘business-as-usual’ approach typifying Dhaka’s town-building pursuits from the 1950s: resultant land-speculation and land-abuse converted Dhaka into an inevitably failed city. Governance begins here, not just by sifting buyers (exposing all land-grabbers), but also graduating to the second World Bank scenario: building river embankments ecologically, that is, by draining the hinterland subsoil to both prevent future road-flooding and installing water-supply and sewage disposal infrastructures for factories, houses, offices, and stores.
Proceeding to the World Bank’s third scenario, of infrastructure-building, two fundamental governance considerations impose themselves upon upwardly-climbing middle-income Bangladesh: sustaining ecological friendliness structurally, and thwarting unequal social/political fallouts. Those infrastructures cannot become the instruments of land-owners, property-holders, or residents in general since they belong to the same larger public that is being mobilized to deliver SDG and Delta 2100 goals. Only by fulfilling the above three scenarios can the World Bank’s fourth resonate: ‘East Dhaka’ to reduce west Dhaka’s population density, from 69,000 per square kilometer to 59,000 by 2025, even as Greater Dhaka’s population climbs to 25 million from the current 19 million. Dhaka would then become a proud part and parcel of highways effectively interlinking it with the rest of the country, and thereby, through all sorts of merchandise flows, to the rest of the world, and more efficaciously too.
RAJUK, Dhaka Structure Plan, 2016-2035 (Dhaka: RAJUK, 2015).
Julia Bird, Yue Li, Hossain Zillur Rahman, Martin Rama, and Anthony J. Venebables, Toward
Great Dhaka: A New Urban Development Paradigm Eastward (Washington, DC: World Bank
Md. Manjur Morshed, “Detailed Area Plan [DAP]: Why it does not work?” World Town Planning
Day 2013, p. 46, but see pp. 42-7; from http://www.bip.org.bd/SharingFiles/journal_-
book/20140427150129.pdf, last consulted August 8, 2018.
Toufiq M. Seraj & Md. Ariful Islam, “Detailed Area Plan: Proposals to meet housing demand in
Dhaka,” ibid., 2014, from http://www.bip.org.bd/SharingFiles/journal_-
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Toward Great Dhaka, 31.
Shohel Mamun, “Will Purbachal become another mess?” Dhaka Tribune, September 26, 2017,
2017/09/26/purbachal-become-another-mess, last consulted August 8, 2018.
“Paradigm eastward,” The Daily Star, July 6, 2018, p. 8.
Toward Greater Dhaka, p. 66.
Kamrun Nahar, “Name-only realtors: Rajuk wakes up after five years,” The Financial Express,
August 5, 2018, p. 20.
Ainul Haque Pramanik, “Purbachal New Town ‘to be ready by 2018’,” The Daily Star, May 14,
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new-town-be-ready-2018-1404832, last consulted August 8, 2018.
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“Embanked: Climate vulnerability and the paradoxes of flood protection in Dhaka,” Department
of Urban Studies and Planning (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2014).
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