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     Volume 5 Issue 107 | August 11, 2006 |

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Cover Story

Uttara's Undesirable Metamorphosis

Mohammad Polash Khan

The name 'Uttara Model Town' conjures up a picture of a well-planned residential area - a serene zone free from the typical problems of the claustrophobic city. But, to Nazrul Islam, who has been an Uttara dweller for years, Uttara is way behind from being 'model'. He calls it a green field impaired by societal bugs.

This is how he puts it-- “I have seen model towns around the world. As a regular concept, it is supposed to have all the facilities of a complete community life. There should be a playground for children, a green park where people can walk around, a library where senior citizens can read newspapers or youngsters can read books and most of all, there should be a fixed area for grocery or essential things. Would you find that here? Hardly.”

Oddities are apparent among all the fourteen sectors. Take the locations for grocery shops. In a model town, the departmental stores or groceries are supposed to be located in specific area. But in many cases, the garage or front space of the houses becomes a departmental store. This is of course the aftermath of the landlord's 'extra cash motive'.

There are separate Kollyan Shomities (Welfare Societies) for each of the sectors. These are supposed to function as local disciplinary bodies. The law is there but is seldom enforced. While talking to some residents, a 'koshai' was seen taking a cow to the community playground for slaughtering. “The officials of this sector's 'Kollyan Shomiti' say that this will help us get fresh meat,” comments one fuming resident.

Mohammad Katebi, another resident had a lot to say about Uttara's transformation from a residential area to a commercial one. “The developers are increasingly becoming a pain in the neck. The terrible noise of construction, dust, piled road blockage make things intolerable at times. When my son was driving his way home through the usual entrance, the construction workers told him to take an alternative path around,” he comments.

Locals express frustration at the increase of commercial establishments. Residents bemoan the fact that in some sectors playgrounds or open spaces are being occupied by the commercial establishments. There is apprehension among locals that Rajuk is being manipulated successfully in favour of the commercial motives.

Some residents think that Rajuk provides these lands for commercial establishments at the rate fixed for non-commercial usage. Unplanned penetration of commercial establishment in a residential area is bound to have adverse effects on the peace and quiet of residential areas. “Scholastica offers good schooling. But the crowd of cars at the end of school hours causes painful nuisance” remarks a resident living near the school's Uttara premises.

The drainage system along most areas is another eyesore and is a potential health hazard. Almost along all the streets of Uttara, there are open drains. Whenever there is heavy rainfall, the filthy discarded polythene bags overflow into the open streets. In some areas, after dark, the coverless manholes are death traps. Talking of the security issues, a local of Uttara says, “There are night guards deployed in my area. But I found no trace of them when I shouted at a thief climbing up my neighbour's boundary wall one night.”

Speed breakers are another contentious issue, as they are not marked catching vehicles off-guard. “I call them car breakers! Regardless of the authority's optimism that those will help stop the hijackers from making a fast get away,” comments an elderly resident. Most of the residents believe that Uttara's speed breakers do not comply with widely accepted measurements.

“We have patients and babies in our home. The high volume music from my neighbour makes life difficult every so often” was one complaint. Not to mention the continuous blaring of horns all day long. Astonishingly though, 'no horn' signposts or traffic signs that state speed limits are rare pictures at Uttara.

Being constructed along a busy highway where thousands of vehicles speed by every second, road safety is a big worry for residents. Accidents due to jaywalking and overspeeding of vehicles are common. "Eveytime members of my family goes through this highway I cannot relax until they are safe at home," says Shaila Rashid, a dress designer and mother of a nine-year-old daughter. "There are no zebra crossings and pedestrians have no clue how to cross the wide roads leading to many accidents."

Dr Mohammed Abdus Samad, a former diplomat and resident of Uttara is now the president of the Uttara Association, the welfare society for the 14 sectors of the area. He has been a central figure in the residents' movement to improve Uttara. He sheds more light on the scenario- “In the 21st century, the thrust of change is everywhere and Uttara is no exception to that. Though in the original plan Uttara was purely meant to be a residential city, we cannot deny that the large population here needs more community service, which some of the commercial set-ups are now providing.”

As a 'spokesman' for Uttara's residents he agrees to almost all the problems stated by the locals mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, his views vary a bit -- “Yes of course the speed breakers do not give you the most pleasant when you drive over them. But the municipality hardly took steps after we informed them about it.” He gives the account of the community services regarding cleanliness and security. Dr. Samad also describes how the welfare society has continually been negotiating with Rajuk for a better drainage system and other local facilities Rajuk owes to Uttara.

Noise and dust pollution caused by construction is a perennial problem

Improvements are apparent though. The lake of Uttara at Sector 13 is a good example. 'Save the lake' is a part of the community campaign at Uttara. A large amount of waste is being dumped into this lake and pushing the lake towards death. Based on the idea of connecting Uttara's drainage system to the river, some steps towards resolution are also on the move.

Rajuk is taking steps like constructing pavements around Uttara Lake, which many residents believe will be effective in preventing the developers' encroachment into the lake area. “We are doing our best to make sure that what has happened to Banani lake doesn't happen to our Uttara Lake,” says the president of the Welfare Society. “We have managed to get Rajuk endorse us a reasonable space for a new community graveyard at sector 12 and successfully deterred the entities who tried to have a bite of the graveyard space” he says.

While some 'influences' are out there to push Uttara towards turning into a residential area less suited to ideal living conditions, there are high hopes making headway. “It is a disappointment that for its 'Katcha bazaar' open market, Uttara relies on a private organisation. Till now this is the only decent Katcha Bazaar in Uttara Model Town. But we are working on that too. We also have plans to create a good system for community library and recreation. E-Governance may not be a far off picture to look forward to,” says Samad.

Adaptability is believed to be genetically embedded in the Bangali race. Perhaps it is high time to make the best use of it. While there is disappointment among many locals about Uttara's transforming into a residential to a semi-commercial town, the major commercial set ups have their own justification of this change.

Aly Imam, the general manager of Grameen Phone's (GP) Uttara Customer Care Centre believes the GP has set up a customer care service in Uttara because the company wants to provide service to the door of the customers.

Speaking about the construction menace, he comments “Nuisance can be lessened if the construction firms are more caring. You cannot deny the demand of time. This kind of essential service facilities is needed now at the residential areas. But there is always room for positive approaches. The parking facility of this customer care centre is good. An underground parking lot is under construction as well.”

Uttara is also the location of Scholastica School, one of the most well reputed educational institutions of Bangladesh. While this is happy news for those Uttara kids who go to this school, for other residents the tremendous traffic congestion during rush hours is a living nightmare. “A possible solution using 'one way traffic' and 'traffic court' is on the way. We are looking forward to better scenario soon” comments an Scholastica official.

Like most cities of the developing world, Dhaka is a poorly managed city, which leads to the deterioration of urban living conditions. Urban poverty results because in many countries, national and local governments cannot plan for the population increases, and fail to provide the required infrastructure, services and jobs.

There are hardly any road signs for speed limits in Uttara

The master plan of this satellite town was completed in 1965 and had some foresight with regard to growth of the Dhaka city. The area is now an integral part of Dhaka city, and as it seems apparent, it is no longer considered as satellite town. The Dhaka Mymensingh road passing through the town is the highway to northern part of the country. In doing so the area is divided into two segments.

The people on east segment have to cross the highway to avail themselves the facilities on the West. The commercial areas are located linearly on the north and south, near the highway. The expansions in the 90s have been done mostly towards the west. This includes the sectors 12, 11 and 10, which are quite far from the commercial area.

The lack of open spaces in the neighbourhoods may be a severe problem in the near future. The absence or misuse of pedestrian walkways is also another issue. The original planning was merely concerned with accommodating the plots or vehicular accessibility. The shortcomings of the design remains in the notion that it failed to perceive the social activities of people like walking to market, meeting neighbours, children playing and so forth.

Uttara still needs a lot of cleaning up to do

According to a research report conducted by BUET, the rules imposed by RAJUK, allows around 70 per cent of construction in a plot. The common practice has been to maximise construction due to high land price.

Due to lack of any detailed plan, almost all residential buildings of the city have the same form that derives from the shape of the plot and the setback rules. The same is apparent for Uttara as the form and open area relationship is same as the other areas of Dhaka city. Some experts believe that a better design idea should try to address this issue of variation that will not only have different form of housing but also be affordable to all groups. This includes providing affordable housing to the 'less well off'. Implementing the concept of having a unit shared with others in a building could do this.

According to BUET report the project design was inherently flawed, with over-concentration on the physical development of the residential estate and no meaningful attempt to integrate social activities that corresponded to project objectives on the development and institutionalisation of housing policies and strategies. The consequence is not hard to predict. As it appears, the project has hardly had any positive impact on national or Dhaka housing development strategies or policies which is greatly focused on high-rise developments or on high income group housing that are not accessible to the lower income middleclass.

Open man-holes are a common hazard in many of Uttara's roads

The rational approach now is to create avenues of improvement. The first concern is effective external evaluation. This is an essential complement to a good internal monitoring and evaluation system, which should have been effectively integrated at the design stage. Rather than confining just within the institutions directly involved, the development and perseverance issues of Uttara model town need to be more widely publicised. This calls for active awareness among the wider public domain so that other institutions with an interest in this area can focus on the outcome and progress of all initiatives regarding Uttara.

Along this line, the creation of self-sustaining finance systems to meet the demand for affordable finance by people when purchasing, building or improving their dwelling units can be emphasised.

Encouraging diversity of housing by type, accessibility, tenure, and cost can ensure that Uttara continues to have a healthy mix of people. Design ideas can be crucial at this stage. As an urban planner stated “We should encourage a broad variety of housing types, universal designed dwelling units, tenures and price ranges suitable to meet the needs of everyone in the community, including families, singles, couples, people with disabilities and seniors”.

Average annual urban population growth rates in India and Thailand in the late 1960s were 4 per cent and 4.8 per cent respectively against 6 per cent in Bangladesh at the same period. The rate became more significant after the country-achieved independence in 1971. 'Uttara', the supposed satellite town was created to solve the housing problem of middle class in the 70s, modelled on housing solutions done in the s 60s in the central area and northern areas of Dhaka city.

'Save the Uttara Lake' has been one of the few successful community campaigns

But, as urban population growth rates in Bangladesh are among the highest among the South- and South-East Asian countries, Uttara has evidently been manoeuvred away from original idea of serving the middle class as a whole. Yet the question of leading Uttara towards the model town destiny still appears viable if the relevant authorities want it to be.

From a social point of view, Uttara seems still waiting to become the ideal locality where residents get the full advantage of an independent satellite town. "Sure there are many restaurants, fast-food joints, shopping malls, hospitals and schools," says Shaila Rashid, an Uttara resident of several years "there are also many Kallyan Samities, but I still feel very isolated. Community feeling does not exist, something I miss from my previous home in downtown Dhaka."

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