Safe as Houses
ZARINA HOSSAIN underlines the importance of local planning
to build a safer Dhaka
Photo: AMDADUL HUQ/DRIKNEWS
The two recent incidents, one of a building collapse in Begunbaria, central Dhaka, and the other of fire damage in Neemtali, old Dhaka, leading to deaths and injuries to hundreds, have become the lead news in national and international media. The two man-made disasters are yet another sad demonstration of our weak and ineffective building control and safety administration. One wonders why an ineffective system is allowed to continue for years together.
Urban policies and planning, construction and safety, and use of lands and buildings are all part of urban governance, which in turn is a reflection of the national policy. Unfortunately, the two urban disasters and an impending third one, within a span of some 24 hours, speak volumes of our slack urban governance. The recent disasters are not the first, nor unfortunately will they be the last.
Forty years is a long time for attaining a degree of maturity in urban governance. Listed below are the items that control the construction and use of buildings:
Master/Development plans: The essential purpose is to guide development to ensure economic growth and efficiency, protect the natural and cultural environment, and ensure social justice and economic opportunity. In other words its purpose is to make cities livable for all.
After partition, Dhaka has had formal Master Plans/Development Plans in 1959, 1965, 1983 and 1995. None have been administered in the prescribed manner (selected projects have been undertaken in a limited capacity). For the past few years we have been hearing of preparation of Detailed Area Plans (DAP), and the shifting of completion deadlines.
Now we hear that Rajuk is preparing a plot-by-plot detailed land use plan. It is wishful thinking to assume adherence to plot-by-plot plans done unilaterally by an organisation like Rajuk, which has minimal local participation, limited capacity, lacks national policies and future directions and covers extensive areas. Plans are only intent of doing things. In a rapidly growing city, such restrictive plans become obsolete with inaction, as uncontrollable market forces take over.
Building codes: Essentially, buildings codes are technical specifications meant to make buildings safe during and after construction from fire, earthquakes and other hazards, ensure building amenities, ensure habitability for the intended use and ensure ease of maintenance. Bangladesh has had a national building code since 1993, formulated by a large panel of experts. It was revised in 1996. Without ever being administered, it is now being revised again, in an extensive manner.
Building rules: Primarily, building rules are statutory allowances for construction, permitted use of buildings and administration of design and construction. They cater to building safety, construction monitoring and surveillance and compliance to rules. The purpose is to make construction safe, and buildings habitable. A number of planning restrictions (Dhaka does not have comprehensive planning rules) have been incorporated in the building rules to cater to the impact of the building on the surrounding environment so as to control openness, parking, use, etc. Dhaka has had building rules since 1953. It has undergone several revisions, the latest in 2006.
Institution 1: Rajuk is the government appointed body to authorise building construction. In other words, it is the licensing body. In principle, any body that issues a license also ensures compliance and takes punitive action if deviations are made.
In the case of Rajuk, it issues the permit, but has little or no desire to check compliance or punish violators. Why this should be the case and why they are not made accountable is a big question.
Is it because Rajuk benefits from such a chaotic situation, or are the perpetrators simply too powerful? Or is it because responsibilities are not institutionalised for owners and professionals, as they should be?
It is likely that all these factors play a role towards the deepening urban crisis. Again when violation becomes the rule, one can evade responsibility and blame others and society. This is what Rajuk does instead of making constructive suggestions for change.
Rajuk is also the master planning authority, implying it has the power to promote and coordinate development. However, both its powers to promote and coordinate development are grossly inadequate.
Thus, though Dhaka has building codes, rules, and plans, its institutional capacity to determine needs of the city, exercise forward planning, regenerate and renew areas, control and coordinate development are severely handicapped. Plans, codes, and rules are all intent of a government, recorded in reports. Effectiveness depends on the institutions and the procedures. This is no small task and not to be taken lightly. Clearly the current system needs to be revisited.
Making Rajuk powerful and increasing skilled manpower can be a partial measure. Rajuk may remain the planning body but building control and inspection has to be taken closer to the field of action. It has to be in numerous locations as part of local governance. Every ward can become the lowest focal point for building control and inspection. This will be linked to the next unit, which is the thana. The apex body may be the city corporation for local governance and possibly a reconstituted Rajuk for need assessment, research and formulation of national and citywide planning and policies.
Photo: AMDADUL HUQ/DRIKNEWS
Institution 2: Strange as it may seem, Dhaka City Corporation has no planning role. It is supposed to provide urban amenities and social infrastructure but has limited planning role. It issues trade licences for carrying out any business. However it makes no reference to approved plans. There is no requirement to check for compliance of building code rules, so a building for residential use may be turned into a factory, a building approved for offices can be turned into a hospital! It may seem shocking but this is the practice not only in Dhaka, but also in Chittagong and elsewhere in Bangladesh.
Registration of architects and engineers: Bangladesh has yet to enact laws for registration of architects and engineers. Architects have been rallying for enactment of such laws for years. Rajuk has introduced a system of enlisting architects, but is no substitution for professional registration. All registered professionals undertake to comply by building rules thereby reducing the need for huge surveillance mechanism by the government authority.
Laws for building promoters and developers: Though construction industry is huge in Bangladesh it is yet to enact laws for their operations. Selected developers have formed Rehab as their organisation. Again this cannot be a substitute for enacting a law for promoters and developers.
Building inspection: Currently the minimal site inspection that exists is riddled with corruption. Inspection is non-existent to ensure compliance and continued conformity of use. A mechanism for building inspection has to be introduced which is accountable and which makes compliance mandatory.
In an urban municipality, it is customary to permit sewage and water connections only when compliance report is submitted. A transparent and professional system needs to be introduced so that building inspection is not limited only to the construction and completion phase but continues throughout the lifetime of a building.
Building approval and inspection should be taken to the local level, which is the ward level. Political will must be present and the mindset must change from self-seeking interests to a transparent, participatory and skilled procedure of decision-making.
Application should be assessed on its merit by professionals, both within the government and outside, such as professional bodies, residents, members of civic society and independent academicians. All decisions must be publicised on the web and through other means. Residents should have a chance to seek redress or comment on proposals.
Renewal and redevelopment of Old Dhaka: Old Dhaka can be given a new lease of life by designating conservation and renewal areas. Instead of tearing down old buildings and rebuilding at higher densities piecemeal, and within the existing haphazard plot subdivisions with narrow roads, techniques such as plot boundary readjustment may be applied to provide adequate roads, allocate green space and build for economic gains and residential accommodation. Legislative provisions should be made to make this implementable. A transparent, participatory and professional process is likely to ensure public confidence and identify effective solutions.
If we are to make Dhaka livable, the city corporations have to be strengthened and empowered to undertake local planning and control functions in a transparent and accountable manner. Ample studies have to be conducted on what the city needs in terms of spaces, functions, infrastructure, and amenities.
For example, if flammable products need to be stored, designated spaces have to be identified. It is impractical to say residential areas will have no other uses when local needs demand other uses and when cities have grown with mixed use tradition. This is why a continual decisions making is required in the framework of citywide and local plans.
Zarina Hossain is an architect and urban planner.