Must Dhaka commit suicide?

Dhaka,  Sun,  04 December 2016
Published : 25 Nov 2016, 21:22:31

Must Dhaka commit suicide?

Must Dhaka commit suicide?
Moinul Ahsan
Yes, as an ordinary citizen I am convinced that Dhaka is on a suicidal course, owing to our fatal collective apathy. My view may appear outrageous to many, and others may have accepted it with resigned fatalism. However, I still see a radical fighting chance to reverse this course. Before delving deep into my suggestions, let us first have a commonsense reality check on Dhaka's predicaments.

Dhaka has recently been ranked 4th most unliveable city  in the world out of 140 cities. Just a deep reflection on our daily commuting experiences and a few vital facts would make it quite obvious to anyone that in the near future Dhaka's traffic will approach a near standstill, when:

* it will get harder and harder to meet its 18m people with food and other essentials - shops and markets will empty out with sky rocketing prices;

* hospitals, clinics and other health services will become inaccessible;

* essential electricity, gas, water and drainage services will rapidly deteriorate as maintenance crew will be unable to attend those; and

* Police and fire service will gradually become lax, with increasing anarchy.

This is arithmetic plain and simple. While Dhaka's road infrastructure has remained almost static since the late 1960s, its population has increased astronomically by about 18-fold (1-18m), with the highest population density in the world. The United Nations Population Fund estimated that Dhaka's population was growing by about 3.8 per cent per year, and would reach 27 million by 2030. In order to meet the increasing transportation needs of its growing population, the number of different kinds of vehicles in Dhaka is growing by about 8.3 per cent p.a. Paradoxically, the more congested the roads get, the more vehicles are needed to meet the city's transportation needs, which leads to addition of more vehicles and further congestions - a negative feedback loop has taken hold.

While the total surface area occupied by streets and lanes of Dhaka metropolitan area is only about 9.0 per cent, the actual available paved area is only a meagre 6.0 per cent. Even this meagre road network is highly irregular, narrow and twisted, further reducing their traffic carrying capacities. In general, it is said that a city should have 25 per cent road surface area. However, with Dhaka's high population density, even 25 per cent road surface area may be barely enough for an efficient transport network.

More ominously, Dhaka is considered one of the most earthquake-prone cities in the world. Apart from the great Himalayan fault, it also faces major earthquake risks from five adjacent tectonic fault lines , all of which are permanent features of our geology that we cannot escape. Absence of major earthquakes has given us a false sense of security. The increasing frequency of minor earthquakes in the recent years is alarming. The following table and maps provide key information on those earthquake sources, three of which are world's only mega thrusts  found on land.

Complacent ones may say that we are already taking so many initiatives like building flyovers in busy intersections, progressing metro rail project, planning for underground rail and other projects; and earthquake disaster management initiatives. But if we analyse those with a bit of common sense, it will be pretty clear that those piecemeal bandaid efforts will not sustainably improve Dhaka's situation. With the existing road transport network remaining saturated, new short flyovers will become choked very soon; and the planned metro and underground stations will create additional choke points in the existing road networks with incoming and outgoing commuter traffic. And, a major earthquake will instantly obliterate those grossly inadequate infrastructures.

Yet, why are we in denial? Don't we realise the scale of the looming catastrophe? Or, are we reacting like that frog in a scientific experiment: A frog was put in a big vat of water, and then the water was very gradually heated up. As the water temperature rose slowly, the frog kept on adjusting to the slowly rising temperature. And, it kept on adjusting to the rising temperature until it died, without even trying to escape the vat. By all indications, we appear to be acting like that apathetic frog.

I am proposing a two-stage comprehensive policy outline of sweeping measures, which I think, if fully developed and acted on quickly, will rapidly improve Dhaka's traffic situation and better prepare Dhaka against the looming earthquake risks.

STAGE 1: Immediately arrest the decline of Dhaka, and improve

1. Immediately prohibit all residential and commercial construction within greater Dhaka, until a comprehensive city redevelopment plan is in place, banning all piecemeal small plot developments.

2. In order to reduce population pressure on Dhaka:

a. immediately initiate regulatory policies to affect a balanced dispersal of health services and higher educational institutions across the country;

b. immediately initiate policies to disincentivise big businesses to remain in Dhaka unnecessarily;

c. within one year decentralise all government offices, judicial courts, banks and other organisations out of Dhaka that have no compelling functional reason to be there; and

d. within one year remove garments and all other industries out of Dhaka;

3. In order to reduce the number of vehicles in Dhaka:

a. immediately allow duty-free import of public transport vehicles having more than the certain level of passenger carrying capacity,

b. immediately ban import and sale of all kinds of private cars, (private cars, with their lower passenger capacity compared to the road area occupied, and poor manoeuvrability in the narrow roads have become the biggest contributor to Dhaka's traffic congestions);

c. immediately de-register all motor vehicles older than 10 years, and impound all unregistered ones - to be re-exported or scrapped;

d. within one year remove all unregistered non-motorised vehicles; and

e. Within one year, gradually turn busy local narrow streets and lanes into pedestrian-only roads during most of the busy hours.

STAGE 2: "Demolish 30 per cent of Dhaka to salvage the remaining 70 per cent or lose the entire city"

The Stage 2 is based on the above premise, with the objective to:

a) Demolish 16%(±) of the total city area to redevelop planned road networks, including widening and straightening of the existing roads and lanes to achieve 25% road surface area; and

b) Demolish additional 14% (±) of the total city area to redevelop parks, fields and open plazas, which will also provide essential evacuation and rescue spaces in the event of major earthquakes, fires and other disasters.

Development of the detailed demolition and redevelopment plan for Dhaka is the domain of expert city planners. I am suggesting few ideas for the decision makers.

1. Replace Rajuk with a new agency to have a clean break from its ineffective work culture. The new authority will be adequately empowered to undertake the planning and implementation of sweeping Dhaka redevelopment on a war footing, adopting a city development model like that in Singapore or similar.

2. Begin with demolition of the most buildings vulnerable to earthquake already identified by various studies. Demolition costs of those are to be recovered from the complicit building owners and Rajuk officials in order to send a strong and clear message against unlawful developments.

3. Acquire additional 100-200m of land on both sides of the existing and new main avenues (North-South & East-West) to turn those into tree-lined public parks. Those parks will not only improve Dhaka environment, but also could be used for sheltering and evacuating the citizens during earthquakes, fires and other disasters.

Many people may argue against the proposed destruction of so many assets. However, thinking clearly, are those assets really assets, or monstrous liabilities? How, any unsafe building can be considered an asset? And, how the cars that cannot move faster than a rickshaw, and remain stuck in traffic most of the time are assets? Complacent people as well as doubters and fatalists are likely to argue that such sweeping redevelopments are never possible in Bangladesh. They may ask how such sweeping redevelopments could be funded and legally implemented.

If 2,200 years back, primitive Chinese states could conceive and begin implementing the world's greatest mega project "The Great Wall of China" with their primitive resources and sheer muscle power, we can surely undertake sweeping Dhaka redevelopment projects with all available modern technology and funding mechanisms of the 21st century for our survival. The proposed Dhaka redevelopment could be funded through a mix of general revenue, special levy, long-term domestic and international bonds, international grants and aid, all based on future user repayment model. Moreover, the proposed redevelopments will be staggered over several decades. In order to overcome any potential legal barriers, we may invoke the doctrine of "Supreme Public Necessity" to enact necessary new laws or, even to make changes to the constitution. Sure we can do it, if we are determined to fight for our survival, instead of collectively adjusting like that apathetic frog.

I am particularly appealing to those in positions of power, influence and wealth to mobilise public opinions and catalyse the decision makers into sweeping actions to save Dhaka. After all, the city elite and their offspring have the most to lose, including their existence, from a collapse of Dhaka.

Moinul Ahsan is former Senior Policy Adviser at the Department of Finance, Australian Federal Government. Email:ahsan.moinul@gmail.com
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