Mustafizur Rahman provides interesting solutions to Dhaka's burgeoning problems
Up to 1971, Dhaka was a provincial capital with a relatively low population and limited infrastructure. After the independence of Bangladesh, it was catapulted to the position of a national capital and, very soon, the existing infrastructure proved to be woefully inadequate in coping with the additional demands of an exponentially increasing population and the rapid growth of institutions and establishments, both public and private. In the absence of a coordinated and long-term plan designed to cater to the needs of a future mega-city with a population of 15-18 million, it grew on an ad-hoc basis employing “band-aid” solutions to emerging problems. The result, today, is a dirty, water-logged, traffic-jammed Dhaka with insufficient and unplanned housing, extremely inadequate infrastructures for water, power and sewerage, no mass rail transit system, and no public transport network to speak of.
If these problems are not addressed now, Dhaka may soon become unlivable.
Past governments have lacked the political will to adopt a strong visionary approach towards solving the above problems. It is, therefore, gratifying to note that the present government is at least expressing its concern. However, mere concern is not enough; the right initiatives need to be taken immediately as further delay might make the realization of the desired objectives more expensive or even impossible. A step in the right direction could be the creation of innovative and functional institutions.
A new Ministry of National Development & Policy Planning, headed by the Prime Minister, may be formed to integrate and coordinate policies for the development of physical infrastructure of the nation as a whole with special focus on the major cities. This will guard against the implementation of unsuitable projects which may later prove to be roadblocks to desired development.
New institutions like Public Utilities Service Corporation and Urban Redevelopment Authority may be established under the above Ministry of National Development & Policy Planning. Dhaka Transport Coordination Board (DTCB) was created at the insistence of the World Bank (WB) which financed DTCB for the preparation of a Strategic Transport Plan (STP) for Dhaka by their (WB) consultants. To oversee the STP, DTCB formed a steering committe(later renamed” Advisory Committee”) chaired by Dr. Jamilur Reza Choudhury and composed of more than twenty local multi-disciplinary experts (including this writer) who worked voluntarily for about two years. The WB consultants, instead of conducting a detailed study, merely patched together some old Government studies to produce a sketchy plan, where the only new feature was the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Pragati Sharani and a few other existing bus routes. They cited references to some thinly-populated cities like Bogota (Colombia) which were largely irrelevant in the context of Dhaka's high population density. The STP basically included a list of about 74 projects comprising of roads (arterial and link), elevated expressways, BRT lines, metro lines, subways, etc. We, the members of the advisory committee, totally discarded the idea of BRT because of the lack of 5 or 6 by-two roads in Dhaka, but the WB consultants still kept it as an option. We also rejected their suggestion to relocate Kamalapur rail station to Tongi.
The consultants also proposed that BRTA should ban vehicles which are more than 20-years old thus indirectly promoting the interests of automobile exporting countries. Such a step would also have resulted in the loss of jobs and drainage of a huge amount of foreign exchange for the import of new vehicles, which a resource-strapped country like Bangladesh can ill-afford. This proposal may be implemented sometime in future after the development of a sufficiently large and viable vehicle manufacturing industry in Bangladesh. For the present, automobile fitness standards can be tested at well-equipped government-certified workshops which would be entrusted with the responsibility of issuing fitness certificates. Such a system can easily guarantee emission control and vehicle and road safety.
The DTCB did not succeed in effecting necessary coordination apparently because of dispute between the Dhaka City Corporation, (DCC) and the Ministry of Communication over its control.
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Except for building a few east-west roads and immediate land acquisitions for as many new roads as possible before it was too late, the Advisory Committee did not accept any of the consultants' suggestions. Since then, the STP has been controlled by the Ministry of Communications.
The lure of $5.2 billion World Bank support over a period of 20 years probably led to the formation of a secretarial committee during the fag end of the caretaker government to get the STP approved by the cabinet without seeking any technical guidance from the Advisory Committee. Meanwhile, in the absence of a pragmatic and comprehensive plan, vested interested groups are trying to push through many unsolicited and potentially harmful projects. Nowadays, we hear of the Gulistan-Jatrabari flyover, the Dhaka-Chittagong expressway and many other flyover and elevated expressway projects which are being targeted for investment. There is also the government's recent declaration to build eight or so flyovers over railway crossings in the city which is a ridiculous idea; however, this may merely be a political response to the recent accident at the Moghbazar railway crossing. The government appears to be encouraging Thai and Malaysian investment in flyovers and highways despite their relatively short experience in these fields. Many interested quarters including international lending agencies are trying to hoodwink our government into approving such projects on BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) terms on the plea that the government will not have to invest any money. Since Bangladeshi companies are still not technically or financially capable of undertaking large infrastructural projects, the door is wide open for the foreign companies and sovereign fund managers who are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to invest in government-guaranteed infrastructure projects enjoying virtual monopoly, profitable financial institutions or lucrative real estate or other service sectors in third-world countries. Our policy-makers must realize that such foreign investment is restricted in many countries which are conscious of protecting their national interest. I would strongly urge that the present Public Private Partnership(PPP) scheme(which has received hefty allocation under the present budget) guard against unconditional inclusion of FDI. We must not forget that the profits from such investments will be repatriated in foreign exchange thus imposing a heavy burden on our scant foreign exchange reserves. It is hoped that the “FDI euphoria” will not tempt our government into making hasty decisions which will prove to be detrimental in the long run. We are already bleeding from the huge drainage on our economy by the mobile phone companies. Domestic infrastructure building is a long-term job generator which, if properly managed using indigenous resources, will also help build local capacity in management and technology which is essential for economic take-off. All these must be relevant to the final plan of vision.
A large, densely populated metropolitan city like Dhaka cannot function without a well-developed system linking all population centers by fast, safe and cheap means of transport. Ad-hoc measures will not suffice; without a well-planned Mass Rail Transit (MRT) system and other public transport systems, traffic jam in Dhaka simply cannot be mitigated. Also, elevated expressway and subway projects must not be taken up before the mass transit is finalized as the expressways normally cross over the elevated train route. We must not repeat the mistake of Mohakhali flyover; had it been 4-6 meters higher, the train line below could easily have been elevated and, in some places, pedestrian over-bridges could have been built to pass below. For the MRT, we may make best use of our existing right-of-way and other infrastructure. Outlines of some probable solutions (absent in the sketchy STP) which should be taken up on a priority basis are given below for urgent government consideration.
Tongi-Tejgaon -Kamalapur-Shyampur section for commuter Service: Ideally, this section shall be a 4-line elevated railway for commuter and long-distance trains. 20 to 25 stations may be built at intervals of about 0.70 to 1.5 km. (Fig. 1).
Kamalapur - Narayanganj and Tongi-Gazipur railroad with stations at intervals of 0.70 to 1.5 km: The Laksam-Dhaka line that is planned for shortening Chittagong Dhaka distance by about 80 km may make Dhaka-Narayanganj route more important, needing further development.
Tejgaon Railway Station as a transport hub with Long-term Vision: This is an excellent and convenient location for a junction linking existing railway, future light train, city bus transport or future subway and other transport network. Provision for subway and mass rail transit stations in at least 3 grade separation must be arranged. Even if this is not immediately possible, no short-sighted or hasty plan should be allowed to damage the long-term potential of this venue. Adjoining vacant railway land should be conserved for future implementation of this plan and any unplanned development therein must be stopped immediately.
Elevated Light train passing through population centers: In addition to a light train line planned (as per RAJUK map) from Kaliganj to Gazipur via north of Uttara, Savar and other points, a light train or elevated light train service may start from Tongi connecting Pallabi, Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Dhanmodi, New Market, Azimpur, and proceeding further to Saidabad, Jatrabari and Demra.
Circular railway, elevated light train: As in most densely-populated cities with land constraint, a circular railway touching major population centers of the city, whence long distance railway and roads move out tangentially or radially to link satellite cities, may be built in Dhaka and Chittagong. Many new roads or railway lines may have to be elevated to save wetland, canals and rivers.
Train stations: In the initial phase, train stations need not be costly structures. In addition to the standard facilities, these stations must be easily accessible with entrance level platforms, sufficient parking space, and spacious bus stops and should have provision for taxis to wait in line to pick up passengers.
Public Bus service shall be an essential mode of transport, but it must be systematic and planned.
Buses and their operation must be standardized. A single route should not be operated by multiple bus companies. Buses should be spacious and well-equipped in order to cater to passengers of all age groups. Ad hoc measures should be avoided.
Local manufacture of railway coaches and equipment: The railway workshops which already undertook some manufacturing works may be revamped and given technological input for local manufacture of various rail line equipments.
Railway Test Track: To maintain or improve the quality of railway service, rail authorities could build a 7- to 15- km test track for testing and experimentation.
Development of Water way: We may fully develop and utilize our river and water transport system by utilizing part of the existing infrastructure. This scheme is already under government consideration.
Subway: Subway may not be an immediate choice because of the risk of inundation of major areas of the city every year. In future, when we have managed to overcome this problem, it may be installed to connect the missing links. Footpaths (about 15 feet wide) will be necessary for subway entrances and exits.
Improvement of traffic management and existing road infrastructure:Automation of traffic regulation especially at major intersections, increasing the efficiency of on-duty traffic personnel and establishment of continuous, safe foot path will ease much of the existing traffic congestion within the city in the short term but, as mentioned before, a permanent solution is not possible without mass transit systems(rail and bus).
It is heartening to note that railway which was largely neglected since the 1880s is now drawing government attention. However, our policymakers must resist the lure of FDI in key infrastructures such as railway, MRT and expressways. If the government has the will and courage, major work may be started immediately with little or no foreign involvement. Dhaka is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and, therefore, operation of MRT cannot fail to be profitable. If inner city centers are connected to far-flung relatively sparsely-populated suburban areas by elevated rail lines running even above wet lands and fast inter-city trains are introduced, large segments of population, specially the low-income groups, may be able to live in their own village homes and educate their children there with their own social identity while commuting to cities for work. The city slums with their sub-human standard of living must be eradicated as soon as possible, preferably within the next 15 years. The task of materializing the dream of a middle-income poverty-free Bangladesh cannot be entrusted to foreign consultants. Foreign engineering firms may be temporarily engaged for technical solutions of engineering problems but, in the long run, we must develop our own capability and learn to trust our own people to build our infrastructures, mainly with our own resources, experience and wisdom. Let us start acting wisely, deploying relevant development policy instruments before it is too late.
[The views expressed here are the author's own, and not necessarily those of the organization he represents.
Dr Mustafizur Rahman, Chairman, Institute of Development Strategy (IDS), Dhaka.