Prioritizing Chittagong for accelerating national growth is a cry of the moment
By Hossain Zillur Rahman
As the commercial capital of the country, Chittagong’s prospects as Bangladesh’s primary seaport are immense. Not all the port cities around the world are major trading hubs but our second largest city is. Although, over time, it has emerged as one of the country’s key trading centres, it still remains a treasure trove of untapped potential. Being such a massive commercial hub, the growth and development of Chittagong must be one of the country’s top priorities if we are to accelerate growth above current rate.
The $25+ billion economy’s port has weathered the test of time, having been around since the 9th century and currently handles 80% of Bangladesh’s exports and imports and contributes to 25% of the government’s revenues. 40% of heavy industrial activities from dry docks, shipyard activities, oil refineries, steel manufacturers, cement producers, textiles, pharmaceuticals, power plants, etc are all conducted in Chittagong. What further outlines the importance of the port city is that it is also the 2nd RMG hub in the country and it has an internationally competitive Export Processing Zone. With the proper policy implementation and the right guidance, emerging industries like ship-building, steel and tourism can also use Chittagong as a platform for growth and development.
In the age of regional connectivity, Chittagong is one unique city that is blessed with four-directional growth corridors. In the north-west, we have Dhaka-Chittagong growth corridor. The highway channels all land vehicles towards the port city for the sake of export and tourism. On the north, we have the gateway that connects the city with Indian seven-sister states. East and South-east, on the other hand, can open doors to regional connectivity to Southern China and ASEAN countries. Last but not least, the maritime corridor to the Bay of Bengal connects Bangladesh to the global economy.
Since Bangladesh’s independence, Chittagong has remained the 2nd largest city in the country but its gap with Dhaka has risen over time despite its enormous potential. Chittagong’s pre-independence population was half of Dhaka’s, now it is less than one-third. Port efficiency has stagnated vis-à-vis the rising demand whereas the opposite case should have been observed. Improper branding of the port city has also meant that many businesses have shifted their headquarters to Dhaka and one can hardly blame them due to the gradually intensifying urban chaos and disjointed infrastructural initiatives that are gaining prominence.
Having to bear the principal burden of higher growth in the medium term, the Chittagong port has ample opportunities for expansion and improvement to reach global standards but policy blind spots have meant that its growth has been way off the mark. Recent attempts at bringing technical improvements have been disjointed due to severe governance setbacks such as compromised operational autonomy and increased corruption allegations. This has lead to further stagnation through worsened handling time efficiencies, underutilization of port capacities and equipment deficiencies. Furthermore, the port and city’s infrastructures are poorly aligned which hampers the port’s ability to contribute to the city’s infrastructural development. To overcome these problems port development agendas and the policies surrounding it need to be properly scrutinized and then rectified.
Apart from its own development hiccups, the city’s policy problems also contribute to the port’s slow growth. As the 2nd largest city, Chittagong has the potential to offer Bangladesh alternative lessons in sustainable urbanization distinct from Dhaka’s urban chaos ‘model’ and its binding constraints but this time window is closing fast as Chittagong is slowly starting to emulate that same model. There is also a policy propensity for ‘white elephant’ projects with questionable civic and economic outcomes at the cost of demand-driven priorities of business communities and urban residents. This negligence of development priorities is slowly becoming a major crisis.
Policy makers and business stakeholders need to start learning from our neighbours whom have contributed to Asia’s rise to prominence on the global stage. In this regard it has to be understood that economic competitiveness is the key to faster growth. Bangladesh requires more ‘middle tier’ strategic cities as they can act as key drivers for global growth which further outlines the importance and need for the refinement of Chittagong’s growth process. Infrastructural investments are essential while still keeping in mind that the city’s attractiveness in terms of education, culture and quality of life must also be improved in the process. Efficient urban density is better than an inefficient urban sprawl.
The Government has set its targets for 2030 but for them to be viable, some economic priorities must be set straight in Chittagong. Reversing of policy marginalization of Chittagong port capacity and efficiency development agenda is required. The RMG sector’s expansion support initiative must be bolstered and a dedicated garments village must be set up. Breakthrough initiatives must be set up which will help people hone skills that can transcend the social stigma regarding Bangladesh’s poor skill development standards. The state will also need to address the needs of the EPZs, emerging industries and overseas markets. Beyond that, a 10-year region-wise integrated action plan on tourism is essential to leverage Chittagong’s unique geography, heritage and ethnic diversity.
Apart from the economic precedence, parallel action needs to be taken regarding Chittagong’s urban development. Holistic waste management initiatives need to be set up which combine the focus on sewage systems, civic drives on cleanliness, efficient sequencing of waste collection, separation and disposal, and waste-to-energy projects. Water-logging is still a major issue for city dwellers thus an action plan involving city-wide drainage infrastructure development and civic campaigns can help with this conundrum. Multi-agency dialogue (City Corporation, CDA, railway, port and army cantonment) is essential if these goals are to be met especially for optimal land utilization that prioritizes zoning opportunities, green spaces, hill protection, river front development and low cost housing. The establishment of a civic platform to promote the global city ambitions of Chittagong and lessons for sustainable urbanization in Bangladesh will also greatly ameliorate the achievement of these objectives.