<%-- Page Title--%> Musings <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 156 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 28, 2004

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The Jam

Sanchita Islam

When I first came to Bangladesh in 1978 I was five years old. My memories remain vivid and I recall wide streets scattered with a few cars, military vehicles and buses. I don't remember jams; only the supersonic rickshaw pullers that carried me like the wind to my next destination. The only crowd was the one on the launch that took me to Pathuakali to see my Nanu and Nana. Perhaps these memories are tinged with Romanticism and they can easily be dismissed. When I came again in 1994, I was twenty. Although the traffic was dense at times, it was never as clogged as it is today. Only a few years ago in 2002, I was filming in Mohakali, standing in the street with my camera; the overhead flyover was still a concept then. That footage now rests comfortably in one of my films. It would not be possible to get the same shot today. The flyover has invaded the sky and wrestles with the horizon. Neon lights set against a canvas of pink, crows cruising over head, a giant Singer sign flashing through the night--this is what my lens captured back then. Now when I travel through that same part of Dhaka city, it is of course a different picture.

The flyover, I assume, is designed to ease the flow of traffic. It looms above the people, cluttered down below in a weave of makeshift stalls. The traffic twists and turns like a giant slug only inching a few metres at a time. It is as if we are stuck in time, we look helplessly out of our car windows, beggars seize the opportunity to tap on the glass for a few paltry takas and sitting trapped a fatigue sets in from simply doing nothing.

People cross the road, the traffic edges forward and other folk poke their heads out of battered buses wondering when they will get home. The flyover casts a shadow over us all like a giant limb that has invaded the city held up with scaffolding that ripples through the air like a mass of red veins. Each time I travel under that concrete monster I shudder a little. I look above and see tiny figures scurrying overhead, their skin blackened from the glare of the sun. They will work late into the night. As the sun sets the light is smothered with a grey shadow and a few lone trees wave their leafy heads, dwarfed next to its new giant companion.

Is the flyover a great symbol of modernisation and development? Will it mark the beginning of a great infrastructure overhaul? Will it solve the ubiquitous jams that choke the city day by day? In terms of design it has little beauty. The grey stone seems the cheapest sort; it is already stained and the design is clumsy and far from elegant. If I am honest I prefer the multi-colour mayhem of the billboards and tiny stalls that litter the streets. They are part of the pulse of Dhaka city. Locals complain, 'the flyover should have been finished ages ago, the government is just prolonging the process to get more money.' Another says 'They could have used a local company but they chose a Chinese one instead, they charge more you see.' Naively I reply 'That doesn't make sense why didn't the government use a local firm if it is more cost effective? ' 'You fool.' The same person interjects. 'If the government uses a foreign firm they can pocket more money.' What do I know? I live in London, my parents are both Bangladeshi but when I come to Dhaka I am a mere observer. I have no right to criticise or judge, I just watch and listen to what the people have to say.

I have noticed that it is very easy to criticise whatever a government tries to do and it seems that a lot has been done in a very short space of time. Those yellow baby taxis that use to chug along leaving thick snakes of black smoke have been banished from the streets. The CNG taxis are more environmentally friendly although less colouful. The flyover is supposed to diminish the traffic, it might not work but at least it is an inroad, albeit a physically ugly one.

When I am in London if I ever hear a bad word uttered about Dhaka I am the first one to defend the country. Bangladesh has a poor self-image, it might be impoverished, it might suffer from demographic problems, it might be perennially flooded but its people are a proud and resilient one. They are a fiercely creative one; they bring colour, music and liveliness to any street corner. I have been to Brussels, Paris, Stockholm, Kuala Lumpur, New York, Cologne, Barcelona and many other great cities. But they all seem dull compared with Dhaka because Dhaka city might be struggling and creaking with its masses but it is alive. It is easy to look to the West and aspire to emulate their way forward in terms of modernisation. Kuala Lumpur, the capital of a Muslim country, is living proof that it is possible to have aesthetic and virulent development without it impinging on the Muslim way of life.

Bangladesh is staunchly Muslim but it's society, consisting of a large middle class, is also liberal and curious. It is very plain to see that Bangladesh has adopted the neo liberal model wholeheartedly and signs of Capitalist development are evident in the booming construction trade and the erection of even more shopping malls.

My observation is that the current development is not structured and seems very haphazard. Space is being gobbled up at an alarming rate with little thought about the social impact in terms of diminished living space and quality of life. When driving through Cantonement the streets are wide and clean, the buildings almost gleam because they seem polished, the houses have gardens and the space that surrounds them lets them breathe. Similarly, near the Parliament building the streets stretch wide and far, the trees are abundant and the air seems cleaner in these parts. It is clearly possible to create space and order in Dhaka city. The question is have parts of the city become too dense and complex to even attempt to think about any form of restructuring. In short has the task become too daunting to entertain?

I have noticed in Gulshan that something is going on although I am not quite sure what it is. The roundabout has gone and a few lone workmen lay stones in concrete. What is this thing they have constructed? 'It's supposed to ease the traffic problem but it's just created more mess', someone tells me. I wonder if something like the London congestion charge would be an idea to create revenue and encourage people to take the bus. Although sitting on a bus seems like a claustrophobic and sweaty experience in Dhaka city. Clearly, there are no easy solutions but something has to be done, the question is will these grand concrete gestures diminish the jams or just create more? Will they scar the country in their ugliness or mark the beginning of the creation of a new infrastructure. Will these measures make Dhaka more functional or only create more dysfunction? Only time will tell.

The writer is a film maker based in London and Brassels



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