<%-- Page Title--%> Perceptions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 129 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

November 7, 2003

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Arriving at the Colonial Gates

Jackie Kabir

It was already nine thirty and as Rima's car approached the rail crossing at Maghbazar, the shaft was once again down with twinkling red lights. Rima thought to herself, "I will be late today as well, it happened twice this week once more and I will have one day's salary slashed."

Day in and day out, Dhaka-dwellers have been losing precious time and money at these gates where railroads run across the heart of the city. These trains running through the city intensify the frustration of traffic jams. We hurl abusive words at those who don't do anything about the traffic in the city. Then again, life goes on. It's one of those things one has to bear while living in Dhaka. Why? Why should we settle for discomfort when the authorities can do some thing about it?

I have counted at least 15 level crossings in Dhaka and apparantly there are more. Traffic compels you to do start hours before the scheduled time if you want to reach your destination on time. And if one has to wait some extra time in front of a railway crossing then it becomes a kind of torture. A lot of accidents take place near the rail or rail lines where many people live in the shanties.

Located everywhere in Dhaka, these crossings are remnants of the colonial rule. There is no doubt that at the time, these crossings were the carriers of civilisation because railroads were an integral part of business and movement. However as time passed, almost every civilised city in the world has taken its railroads underground because they realised, well in time, that the necessity of trains would change. This realisation influenced the need to find alternative ways to keep railroads in the city.

Even Kolkata's Metro Rail makes a significant contribution to the city's mass transit system ferrying at least three lakh passengers a day on its 16.45-km-stretch with 17 stations about one km apart. The idea of Kolkata Metro, running between Tollygunj and Dum Dum, was formulated in 1949 and introduced in 1995.

Bangladesh Railway also has a strong network across the country with its 2786 routes in kilometres. It required sustained efforts for over a century to build this network. Back in 1862, the first section of 53.11 kilometres of board gauge rail line was opened for traffic between Darsana and Jagati in the Kushtia district. In 1885, the next railway connection opened between Dhaka and Narayanganj, a distance of 14.98 kilometres.

Gradually, these rail lines were extended and new sections constructed to cover more areas. In 1891, the construction of then Assam-Bengal Railway was taken up with British government assistance and later on, taken over by the Assam-Bengal Railway Company. Railway Companies formed in England took up the construction and operation of these sections in the middle and late 19th century. Their primary objective was to operate these sections for purely commercial purposes. However, when various sections were linked up, the British government of India found them important from strategic, political and economic standpoints. Therefore, they came in the picture with statutory control and regulations for operation and management of the railway.

Although the population of Bangladesh has increased, the land has not expanded and therefore railways remain the most common mode of transport, running through residential areas and having rail crossing in densely populated areas. These lines should have been moved long ago to different places where there is less traffic, such as the outskirts of the city. Who is going to do that? We are thinking of introducing magnetic trains in Dhaka but this simple matter, which needs immediate attention doesn't seem to bother anyone. The rail crossings in Dhaka make people lose a lot of time -- no one knows how many hours are lost per day. These crossings have become one of the nuisances of the city that one has to bear while commuting.

It is pretty amazing that an independent country can carry the symbol of colonial ruling so distinctly. More than half a century later, we are still using these rail lines, but we are not aware of the fact that the British had created the rail stations and routes to suit their own purposes. We should have adjusted them to suit our own needs, but it has not been thought of. Measures to make the life of the city dwellers may take time, but it is needless to say that moving the rail lines from city centres requires proper and immediate attention.

A news story in a daily reported that recently one of our honourable ministers was 30 minutes late for a meeting and as a result he had raised the point of creating a bypass road from ZIA and Kamlapur and it was identified as one of the high priority projects. This definitely gives us a ray of hope that may be there is still time for this city to become a habitable place for its dwellers.

Jackie Kabir teaches English at the Tairunnessa Memorial Medical College



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