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     Volume 4 Issue 7 | August 6, 2004 |

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Holding Up Hope For Dhanmondi

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Traffic jams caused by schools on every other street; large signboards for private universities; neon signs for hospitals and diagnostic centres; glitzy shopping malls and illegal shops, stalls and vendors littering the streets. Dhanmondi barely resembles a residential area anymore. But, while most people have given up on it being a liveable place, there are still those who refuse to give up hope.

"The process can be reversed," says Dr. Sultana Alam of the Dhanmondi Poribesh Unnayon Jote.

Two years ago, when a school went up right next door to Dr. Alam, a group of Dhanmondi residents, including a number of social and environmental activists, lawyers, writers and intellectuals, got together to form the Dhanmondi Poribesh Unnayon Jote (DPUJ). Since then, the group has been lobbying for the salvage of Dhanmondi as a residential area.

"Residential areas are being destroyed because of the violation of city zoning regulations which limit non-residential uses," says Dr. Alam. She comments that schools, hospitals, etc., are shooting up all over the place with the excuse that they are providing services. Even NGOs and educational institutions like coaching centres sanctioned by international organisations are sprouting up everywhere, she adds.

With no improvement in services, the taxpayers do not know where their money goes. Even the drains are not cleaned, complain residents. Instead, the sweepers and other workers employed by the government put up roadside stalls and shops.

The mission of the DPUJ is two-fold -- social and legal. They are trying to change people's attitudes while at the same time attempting to activate the community and making them aware of their rights -- basically, the right to live in a healthy neighbourhood environment. DPUJ members believe that people are increasingly becoming aware of the fact that "environment" is not only about trees, animals and rivers, but "the surroundings in which city dwellers find themselves", and that chaotic city life is also harmful to the physical as well as mental well-being of people.

As for the legal aspect, it is one that the DPUJ thinks will be effective in bringing about change. Currently, the DPUJ has suits filed against 10 schools, which are the primary focus of the Jote at this point. Schools not only cause traffic congestion during school hours but crowding in general and ruin the neighbourhood environment. Between dropping off and picking up students, many of the cars stay on, along with the drivers, and the loitering of non-residents in the area continues from there into the evening hours. But now, along with the legal suits, parents of students are also becoming more conscious about the quality of education and facilities their children deserve where many schools lack the most basic, like adequate space, proper toilets and playing fields. Dr. Alam stresses that we do not need as many schools, but rather, bigger and better ones which go by the rules and provide proper facilities.

She also refers to the "illogical overdevelopment" of Dhanmondi Lake. The design for lakes in residential areas and for lakes meant to be national centres should obviously be different, she says. "The government spent 18 crore taka on this one area, turning it into a national centre for recreation, when they should have spent it on 18 areas," she says. She adds that the idea of an open-air theatre in Dhanmondi is "nuts" and that any open-air theatre should be in a large park able to take the sound.

But instead of sealing off our residential areas to non-residential use, we open it up, says Dr. Alam, and big roads, glossy markets and showy boat clubs are confused with the idea of "progress". People do not realise that these also mean traffic congestion, crowds and filth, she points out.

As with everything every few years, the latest craze of Bangladeshis is apartment buildings. Everyone is building them, and when they remain unused (also because people own land in many places of the city and rent out the most financially viable ones), they are rented out as offices, schools, etc. People have vested interests, and even so-called "activists" sometimes rent out their houses to commercial establishments.

While the DPUJ does not have much hope of the government upholding court orders in legal disputes over the destruction of residential areas, it does believe that international pressure will help the situation. If international awareness of the situation can be created, the wheels will start turning. NGOs and international organisations which are adding to the destruction will also be brought to task once global strategy plays in.

The DPUJ believes it has had considerable impact on people and that this can be seen in the obvious change in people's concepts.

"When we first started out," recalls Dr. Alam, "people used to seem embarrassed by our protests. Now they understand and are themselves protesting." The general people, as well as architects, city planners and engineers, have come forward to protest the building of high rises, schools, bridges, etc., and other projects which would have further destroyed those areas.

Members of the Dhanmondi Poribesh Unnayon Jote realise that change will take time, but that it will occur. They believe that there is still hope for Dhanmondi, for it is actually very organised and has much government capital invested in it. Some changes in policy and strict enforcement of the law is required. Changing attitudes towards what is true progress, increasing awareness of people's rights and what will benefit them will slowly but eventually begin to bring back a new and improved Dhanmondi -- perhaps, the Dhanmondi that once was.


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