Megacity Dhaka: History and heritage fighting to survive

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megacity Dhaka
megacity Dhaka
Mir Mosharref Hossain Pakbir

MNA Editorial Desk: Bangladesh capital megacity Dhaka has a rich ancient, historic background dating back to the 7th century. It was initially part of the Kamarupa kimgdom, then ruled by Hemanta Sen of Sen dynasty in the 9th century. From 1608 onwards, Dhaka was successively ruled by the Turkic and Afghan governors hailing from the Delhi Sultanate. During the Mughal Empire the then capital was moved from Rajmahal to Dhaka and named after Emperor Jahangir.

During the Mughal period, Dhaka turned into the major commercial emporium which encouraged a much higher concentration of trade, business and commerce along with spread of education and enhancement of the sophistication in Mughal Arts. Mughals built many mosques, palaces, market places and gardens. Some of those monumental buildings still stand today. This led the British East India Company to establish a trading post in Dhaka in 1666. Dhaka remained the capital of the Mughals until they moved it to Murshidabad in 1704.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, economic developments started with increasing trade under the rule of the British as they ruled the region for around 150 years. In 1887, Dhaka became a district capital of Bengal. After the first partition of British Bengal, Dhaka was declared the provincial capital of the East Bengal and Assam province in 1905.

Dhaka was turned into a city of great prospects with newly built government building, churches, educational institutions and residential enclaves. After independence of India and Pakistan from the British Empire, Dhaka was classed as the subsidiary capital of the East Pakistan. After the liberation war of 1971, Dhaka regained its status as the capital city of newly independent Bangladesh. Throughout these centuries Dhaka has played a vital role in the trade, economy, politics and arts of this region and now it is considered as one of the fastest growing city of the world.

Dhaka has turned into a city of around 19 million, larger than population of 174 countries, within a very short time. It has been the centre of all the development works of Bangladesh. Important offices, best educational institutes, best treatment facilities and many mills, factories and industries are inside Dhaka. This is driving the people from all around the country to come to Dhaka for different reasons and many of them stay permanently for employment or education adding to the rising population of this megacity.

Flyovers, foot-over bridges, skyscrapers, new roads and recreational places like; Hatirjheel changed the landscape of Dhaka amazingly in the last two decades. After Bangladesh’s independence, Dhaka acted as the political and economical hub. With such a large growing population with limited space, Dhaka is getting tougher to live as it has already been identified as the third most unliveable city of the world.

Environmental degradation due to large population, climate change and many discrepancies have led towards this unwanted achievement.

Dhaka’s survival is very vital for Bangladesh in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as Vision 2021 and 2041 as we have already made so much investment behind our capital. And for Dhaka to survive the four rivers surrounding Dhaka; Buriganga, Shitalakhya, Balu and Turag must survive.

These four rivers are currently in a very bad shape. Once the rivers with high and strong tides are now fighting for their existence. The condition of Buriganga among them is the worst. The environmentalists have persistently raised their voice for the conservation of major rivers though that did not happen. They are highly contaminated due to organic micro pollutants and non-degradable heavy metals mixed with their water.

A seminar on ‘Pollution Profile of Major Rivers around Dhaka’, organized jointly by Plasma Plus, a private scientific research laboratory and Brotee, an NGO in 2016 revealed that, the water of these rivers are not drinkable even after disinfection as it was evident from the water quality analysis. They are not even worth of agricultural use. They were marked under the ‘Yellow’ category meaning they are eligible for recreation and livestock in maximum.

Thousands of factories, buildings and other infrastructures, built illegally under the influence of political hooligans, are on the banks of these rivers. These factories or buildings caused high population on surrounding areas. Hazardous factory wastage and chemicals are often dumped which largely pollute the waters.

Along with that, human waste, garbage and washing materials also contaminate these rivers as so many people use them without any consciousness. Only around the banks of Turag-Balu, 30,000 factories discharge their untreated chemical wastes and about 12 million people contribute wastes with minimal treatment along with agricultural pollution from the upstream areas.

These four rivers are being extremely affected by continuous dredging. Sand collection increased vastly due to rapid urbanization and expansion of Dhaka city. Several canals and wetlands are being filled with sands for construction, ruining the stream of these rivers. Along with that, people are getting progressively engaged in river based businesses. They are trying to control river’s stream which is causing degradation in terms of flow and quality of waters.

Rivers surrounding Dhaka city is very important for its existence. If the natural flows of these rivers are hampered and illegal occupancies alongside the banks are not removed along with recovering the 57 canals of Dhaka, threats of natural calamities including flood, water logging and earthquake in Dhaka will intensify.

Further contamination must be stopped to protect the people and water lives from poisoning. Only if we can save these rivers and canals, we will be able to sustain Dhaka as our capital city.

Several problems are influencing the lives of Dhaka citizens, traffic jam being the number one of them. Increasing traffic is causing us an annual loss of around USD 336 million per year in fuel cost due to the slow traffic movement. It is also creating serious mental hazard. The economy is being highly affected due to intense traffic.

Air pollution and sound pollution are major troubles of living in Dhaka city today. According to the Air Quality Management Project (AQMP), funded by the government and the World Bank, more than 15,000 premature deaths as well as several million cases of pulmonary, respiratory and neurological illness are caused by the poor air quality in Dhaka. Vehicular air pollution is the major cause of respiratory distress in urban Bangladesh, as it was identified by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The minimum noise level at any Dhaka city street is between 60-80db while the desired level is only 45db according to the Department of Environment (DoE). This possesses threats of several physical and mental illness of Dhaka citizens. Recently Bangladesh Police has started using ‘Sound Simulator’, capable of creating 100db sound to disorient the protestors. It is a serious reckless behaviour with no concern of the general people.

Food safety and related hazards are also one of the biggest problems in this city as 18 per cent death of children younger than five are caused by eating unsafe food and it tolls up to 10 per cent for adults’ death.

Cultural transformation chiefly among the young generation is another critical problem as they are becoming very aggressive and violent along with their confusing western culture. Moreover, widespread usage of drugs is also causing a great headache all around the country, particularly in Dhaka.

All these problems are due to huge and increasing population of this megacity and everything being centric to it. Everyday thousands of people are moving into or passing through Dhaka. The population of this city has grown so big that this city requires ‘City Government’ for sustainable and integrated development drives. This will enable to approach all the above mentioned problems in a focused manner.

Dhaka was divided into two city corporations on 29 November, 2011 with two city mayors elected on 28 April, 2015, who took few initiatives to ease the lives of Dhaka citizens. But with sudden demise of the Dhaka North City Corporation Mayor, Annisul Huq on November 30, 2017, who has been working with a great vision to unravel the hazards of Dhaka citizens, the city will go through an unbearable loss of their hopes.

Citizens are required to be provided with a ‘City Residence Card’ in two categories – permanent and temporary. Only those who are permanently living in Dhaka with their family for at least five years will be provided permanent cards. On the other hand, people who are required to stay in Dhaka for more than six months, needs to apply for and attain temporary cards.

City Residence Card is a widely practiced concept in the developed world. Facilities need to be planned for permanent residents while temporary ones will also have access to some. The holding tax, surcharge or city corporation tax will be associated with that city residence card. The authority must ensure no people can reside at Dhaka without residence card. This will help us to identify the actual number of people living in Dhaka and to monitor their needs and required facilities with efficiency.

Dhaka, a historic city of the world, is fighting to survive though we, the citizens are yet to realize that. But we definitely want our beloved city to survive as it is a crying need for the development of our economy and also the country itself. We need some drastic steps to ensure that Dhaka sustains along with its rich history and culture and so, we urge to the government for planned focus on this megacity.

The Writer is the Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA) and the Chairman of Mohammadi Group of Companies.