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     Volume 4 Issue 4 | July 16, 2004 |

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Cover Story

The Death of
Posh Spots

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Every city has its posh residential areas. Away from the bustling city, quiet and serene, these are where the well-off dwell, and where others drive by, dreaming of buying a house there someday. Once upon a time, Dhaka too could boast of elegant, quiet residential areas where cosy or majestic houses with fragrant flower gardens lined the tranquil lanes adorned with billowing trees.

That certainly is a far cry from residential neighbourhoods of today's Dhaka. Its so-called "posh", "residential" areas have and continue to become anything but that. Dhanmondi, Gulshan, Banani, Baridhara -- places where half the city travels to every morning, to work in banks and restaurants, shops and garment factories.

Quaint independent houses have been turned to high rise apartment buildings, sacrificing the beautiful gardens. Lanes are now thoroughfares where cars honk rudely and create traffic jams. Roads are pot-holed, muddy and smell of rotting garbage left in heaps in corners. Avenues of elegance have been turned into lines of commercial establishments from banks to schools to clinics. So what happened to the best neighbourhoods of Dhaka?

Decadent Dhanmondi
Even in the early '80s, Dhanmondi was a picture perfect residential area with independent homes, lakes, and only a few corner shops. Today, people sometimes forget that Dhanmondi R/A actually stands for Dhanmondi Residential Area -- even those who live there. "It's a commercial area," insists Khurram Kabir. Offices and shops, schools and hospitals -- it is anything but residential.

"The road I live on in Dhanmondi," says Mahmood Ali Noor, a student of IUB, "is one of the most crowded, busiest and dirtiest. But it will fulfil all your needs," he says very matter-of-factly.

When giving birth to children (or for anyone ill), says Mahmood, there are two hospitals and two diagnostic centres on his street. Once the children are old enough to go to school, there are seven English medium schools to choose from -- on that very street. ("I wake up to the national anthem every morning!" he says.) There are coaching centres, colleges and two universities. And when the children grow up and are ready to get married, no problem, because there are also two community centres right there. Not to mention the variety of apartments the newly-weds can choose from. "All we need now is a cemetery here," he says simply.

There are only five independent houses on his street, says Mahmood; the rest are all apartments. Plots in which one family used to reside now house 24.

Dhanmondi has around 20 of the total of about 64 private universities. Offices of political parties also cause problems, not to mention the big markets and plazas on every main street.

"I can't go for a late-night walk on my own street without seeing several prostitutes being picked up by people in passing cars," he adds.

It is not all bad, however. The renovated Dhanmondi Lake has become a popular hangout for many. The boating club, fishing club and two sports fields also contribute to the entertainment scenario. But, this bit of Dhanmondi that has not become mercilessly commercial, has become recreational, and not only for its residents but the whole city. Which leaves little peace for the residents living around the area. Residents in fact have little say in the residential areas.

Brokedown Banani
The broken roads of Banani is the foremost grievance of resident Sameer Ahmed, visiting from the US. It takes all the powers of his digestive system to get home intact after a filling lunch on a rainy day. But he usually survives the grievous bumps and puddles and even the lidless manholes. "You would know how bad it is if you drove to my house," he complains.

While broken roads and dangling wires do not do anything to add to the beauty of the area, they also make it unsafe for people to be out on the street. Those who can help it do not even walk in front of their own homes.

"There's a huge garbage dump right in front of my house," complains Tanzila Zaman, who lives just across from the field of a festive cattle market before Eid-ul-Azha. "It's supposed to be near the bazaar, but that's close to the homes of some influential people which is why it is randomly dumped in front of mine."

"There are no street lights here," adds her sister, Tasrina, "and there used to be a big slum."

The slum dwellers had their own businesses inside the shanties, selling drugs and alcohol to elite buyers. Many of them have been evicted, though some shanties still spring up in empty plots of land while most are confined to one colony. Today, the Zamans' next-door neighbours are a private university on one side and a small shopping complex behind.

Grimy Gulshan
Forty years ago, houses in Gulshan (meaning garden) were at least half a mile apart. Thirty years ago, people used to go there to practice driving because a passing car could only be seen every five or six minutes. Today, even during hartals the roads are busy. Shops and clubs, schools and garment factories, banks, restaurants and high-rise buildings are what today's Gulshan is all about. Few independent houses remain, and even their owners are beginning to tire of the area.

"Gulshan is not a residential area anymore," is the common complaint of its inhabitants.

"It's all shopping and banking and flats and restaurants," says Naina Karim, who grew up there as a child and returns every year to visit her parents who still live there. "Which isn't all bad, because it is sort of convenient to get things done, but it's just too commercial."

"And even within Gulshan, it takes forever to get anywhere," she continues, "not to mention anywhere else in the city! It's too congested, and even rickshaws aren't allowed in many parts now when they actually helped to get around." Naina remembers being able to walk down the road in front of her house and down to the park nearby. "Now, even that's not possible," she says.

"Gulshan is highly overrated," thinks Rayan Ahmed, a resident of a flat in the area. "It's full of slums. Security guards are always loitering around annoyingly. And the dangling wires are only the visible side of the electricity problems there."

Local clubs and private schools in Gulshan contribute to the already hectic traffic with people never following any rules while driving and parking haphazardly everywhere. Guesthouses have sprung up in many parts of both Gulshan and Banani. These, along with the big markets, rent out their lucrative ground floors as reception areas and shops, having no regard for parking spaces to ease the traffic.

There is no point in barring rickshaws, says Rayan, as people who need to get anywhere just bribe their way through. According to him, the rules are not strict enough and the traffic is no better. To add to that is the new Gulshan circles-turned-signals. While people are still waiting to see how they have helped the traffic situation in the area, Rayan says it is the "worst decision anyone could have made".

The biggest tragedy of Gulshan is its disappearing lakes. Even in the '80s, there were lakes all around Gulshan and lake view houses were the most envied of locations. But over the years the lakes have been filled in with high rises indiscriminately encroaching the water bodies.

Gulshan also seems to have more than its share of Dhaka's mosquitoes, think many of its inhabitants. Residents moreover complain about sex workers lined up in front of their apartment buildings late at night. Another common Gulshan scenario, especially during the rainy season, are the flooded roads. Shanties are next-door neighbours to posh independent houses, and garbage lies around on every street. Rush hour traffic, besides school closing times, include the lunch hours of garment workers employed in large factory buildings throughout the area. So much for the "diplomatic zone"!

Soon-to-be Bustling Baridhara
And so the "diplomatic zone" gradually moves to Baridhara.

Baridhara is, so far, relatively more peaceful, cleaner, and more "residential". Now that is where many embassies are and where the affluent choose to have their homes. But even here is the common problem of traffic congestion.

"It takes a long time to get places," says Sonia Rahman, a resident of New DOHS Baridhara. "And you can't always get transport because empty rickshaws and CNG scooters aren't allowed in the area."

"There's not enough space to really do anything here either," says Sonia. "It's already congested. But even then, a big mall is being built."

And so it begins. Is history repeating itself?

A Roadmap to Nowhere

Mustafa Zaman

The Rajuk Master Plan defines the well-planned residential areas as 'development areas' and the rest as 'spontaneous growth areas'. Kamal Ahmed, a graduate from the Institute of Fine-Arts, Dhaka University, is the second youngest son of his family that had a plan to build a house of their own in a third zone 'a private development area', which is Adabor. The family inherited a small patch of land from the deceased father and managed to save some money sent by Kamal's two brothers living in the Middle East. Around the year 2000, they thought the dream to have a house of their own would soon be a reality. But it took Kamal, the sibling in charge of building the dream house, two long years to get the plan through Rajuk. The plan first got caught in the official procedural web and was later faced with regulatory barrier as by then a new rule was introduced that required a 12 foot wide entry path for any house. The house that Kamal was set to build the entry road measured only 8.33 feet in width, and it was in accordance with the rule during submission.

If Rajuk is strict in passing a plan of people's dream houses, which cost Kamal Ahmed not only two precious years but also a certain undisclosed amount of money, how come the city's residential areas are turning into concrete jungles unsuitable for living?

Adabor was a flood zone that fell in the hands of the private developers. According to one of the town planners of Rajuk, the government recognises the plans but they are chalked out by the private developers. And the Rajuk planners approve them in accordance with 'Town Improvement Act' of the 50s.

The first Master Plan for Dhaka was put on paper in 1957, when the population was 1,025,000, of which 100,000 lived in Naraynganj. The only congested area was what the planners referred to as 'Old central area' meaning Old Dhaka. After 39 years, in 1992 another plan that set the strategies for the years 1995 to 2015 came into being. Grappling with two sets of policy issues, one of 'rapid urbanisation' and the other of 'effective management of large metropolitan centres', it provided a map for development of urban areas. "A huge amount has been spent to create this plan which is a difficult read, you cannot get a clearly defined set of rules from the text," opines Saif-ul-Haque, an architect who believes that when planning for a city one should also take into account the context of the whole country, as did the planners of the city of Berlin. "If the Bank authorities could hire experitise of the MIT consulting team to plan their city, why did we have to go for a private company that we never even heard of having any experience in planning cities?" argues Haque.

The Dhaka Metropolitan Development plan (1995-2015), approved on 3-8-1997 and published in the Bangladesh Gazette on August 4, 1997, was the work of an American company -- Mott Mac Donald Ltd. They were awarded the subcontract in 1992, and the plan saw its completion in 1996. Although the plan includes a Master Plan and even Detailed Area Plans and Structure Plan, the issue of 'density control' remains a blurry area. The bulk of construction, according to the plan, has to be consistent with the demand that the area will place on its infrastructure including roads and utility supplies. Even if this phrase were taken into account the residential areas of Dhaka would look different today.

"The plan is an incomplete one and a poorly detailed-out project, many things are open to different interpretations," says Haque. "If you plan for one crore people, you have to decide where they will reside. Residences of the rich, the middle class and the other classes have to be located. The areas they will go to work and how they will even travel to their respective work places, these things are addressed in a master plan for any city," adds Haque. He believes that one cannot expect a residential area to remain untouched by other developments and can include conveniences such as schools and market places provided that they do not encroach upon the residential ambience of the localities.

He looks back to the early days of Dhanmondi, when it was acquired by the Pakistan government, he remembers, "The entire area was a stretch of land for cultivation-- dhan (Paddy) and mondi, the two words stand proof of that." And Haque is emphatic about one thing, which has to do with purity of a residential area.

Dhanmondi now has too many schools, colleges and even universities, all of them are private, and they cater to the recruits that come from a much wider radius. And one of the unusual features of this vast development area is that there were no allocated zones for community centres and market areas in the real plan. At present they are sprouting like mushrooms. As for the residential buildings, since Rajuk had withdrawn the restriction on vertical growth, (which was regulated to three stories before the time when six stories were declared as the limit) residential areas like Dhanmondi and Gulshan saw a rapid growth in large apartment buildings courtesy of the private developers. "It was in the late '80s, during the Ershad regime that the limit was set to six stories," explains Haque.

Gulshan Lake

At last the fate of Gulshan Lake seems a bit on the brighter side. As Gulshan Society, comprising of representatives of Gulshan residents, recently met the Rajuk Chairman M Shahid Alam, he promised to take all-out measures to save the lake from deteriorating any further. Rajuk Chief Engineer Emdadul Islam said a project is being planned to remove all the link roads across the lake and construct six bridges in their place. Although there was a Supreme Court ruling that urged Rajuk to take immediate steps to protect the lake both from encroachment and waste dumping the implementation of the plans that Rajuk chalked out in 2000, did not receive the nod of the Planning Commission. The Rajuk concept paper includes reconstruction of bridges and culverts, drainage systems and relocation of electric poles, which is estimated to cost TK 33.68 crore, an amount, a recent newspaper report claims, will go to save the lake. The 200 acres of total lake area became a centre of attention when private encroachers threatened to fill out the lake bed. It is alleged by many that even Rajuk has developed several plots by filling parts of the lake that occupies a vast region. In the meeting with the Rajuk Chairman, civil bodies stressed the need to stick to the Dhaka Master Plan that clearly defines water bodies in and around the city as essential to its eco-system. It is a pity that even after promulgation of the Wetland Protection Act in 2000, the lake still runs the risk of being reduced. However, recently, Rajuk has taken steps to remove all the poles marking the areas encroachers were intent on grabbing. It is a positive sign to save the planned residential enclave.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004