Making Dhaka Livable
by Humayun Kabir for AlalODulal.org
Dhaka has been once again deemed by the Economist as the second least livable city in the world. Damascus came in last only because of the civil war that is tearing the city apart. If the civil war were to stop today, Damascus would become imminently more livable than Dhaka tomorrow. Regardless of our opinion of the Economist or its survey, I don’t think any of us would disagree that living conditions of Dhaka are horrid and are in dire need of improvement. In this article I will try to suggest a few ways to improve Dhaka’s livability. However, before doing so let me say a few words in defense of Dhaka and about the dangers of drawing up schemes for improvement.
The things that make Dhaka one of the least livable cities in the world also give Dhaka its life, character, and, may I say, its charm. Dhaka, like many other Third World cities, has shown remarkable resistance to what James Scott called the “high modernist” schemes of designing and governing space.  Dhaka is characterized above all by its organic growth. I dare to use the adjective organic in describing a concrete jungle of 15 (or is it 20) million inhabitants only because urban planning has been marginally influential in determining its character. Dhaka gained its current shape as millions sought to convert the space to meet their need to find dwelling and livelihood. In the process they defied all the grids and designs proposed by the urban planners. The beauty of Dhaka is that it functions at all. Every time I go back to Dhaka I am awed by the simple process of crossing the street. Having been habituated in following orders from signals and lights, I think that no one is going to make it to the other side without the signals and lights. But people manage and I also learn very quickly. The kind of organic and personal communication and coordination involved in crossing the streets of Dhaka irks the high modernists but probably would have highly impressed the Situationists, who sought to destroy the disciplinary grids of modern capitalist cities and redesign cities on more humane scale . The situationists also would have been impressed by the way the private and public spaces blur in Dhaka – streets invade homes and homes spill out on the streets; addas and social life occur in middle of those messy spaces. All these are to say that we must be careful about what we wish for. The so-called livable cities may not be all that livable. The regulated, orderly, disciplined, sanitized, compartmentalized, and impersonal cities of the West may turnout to be oppressive or downright inhuman. But of course, grass is always greener on the other side and Dhaka can surely use a little order and a little more amenities of modern life.
Dhaka must be made more livable. But for whom? Are we to make Dhaka livable for the middle class waiting in long queues for over-crowded buses? Or, are we to make Dhaka livable for the elite stuck in their air-conditioned cars in the snarling yet slow traffic? Will there be dwellings for millions of garments workers in the improved Dhaka? Or, will Dhaka be a city of high-rise apartment buildings housing the new middle class? Will the footpaths be reserved for the pedestrians? Or, will the footpaths continue to provide the space where millions of “informal sector workers” eke out meager livings? Will Dhaka streets be reserved for motorized vehicles? Or, will the thousands of displaced villagers be allowed to pull rickshaws under the unforgiving hot sun? Each proposal for making Dhaka must navigate through these difficult dilemmas involving contesting class interest. The biggest obstacle for making Dhaka a more livable city has been the fact that the policy makers and the designers have not been interested in making Dhaka a livable city for all classes. Rather, they have sought to improve the city only for the upper and middle classes. But the working classes will not just disappear from the city, for at least two reasons. First, the upper and middle classes will need the working classes to do the work – to do their cooking, cleaning, driving etc. – and will need them to be around. Second, the working classes are being increasingly deprived of sources of livelihood and sustenance outside of the cities and are being forced to come to the cities in search of work and means for survival. So, plans for making Dhaka more livable should stop focusing only on people of Gulshan and also take into account the people of Gandaria.
The first step in making Dhaka livable would be to make the rest of Bangladesh more livable. We need comprehensive policies for decentralizing administration, education, commerce, and industry so that other towns and cities around the country can offer livelihood and decent quality of life to people. Such policies will make other cities and towns more attractive to people and reduce the influx of people coming to Dhaka. More importantly, however, we need to make the villages of Bangladesh livable. Thirty years ago more than 80% of Bangladeshis lived in villages and lived off agriculture. The percentage is now well bellow 50. All these people, who are being displaced form the villages, are now coming to the cities; mostly to Dhaka. We need to save Bangladeshi villages by saving Bangladeshi agriculture. Perhaps, it is now time to revise the Green Revolution. Perhaps, it is now time to finally have a land reform program and prevent the aggressive swallowing up of small peasant landholdings by agro businesses.
The second step in making Dhaka livable would be to provide safe places to work and live for the millions coming in from various corners of Bangladesh. Government needs to construct thousands of low-rent housing projects to substitute for the shantytowns constructed on occupied public lands and infrastructures. More hawkers markets and designated spots where street vendors can do their business would go a long way in providing safe and stable spaces to make a living.
Thirdly, we will have to provide better security for the residents of Dhaka. The rise of private security industry is indicative of the dire security crisis in Dhaka. However, only the wealthy can afford private security and the rest are condemned to live in constant fear. We need to invest heavily on providing more public security against burglary, mugging, and harassment. Perhaps, auxiliary security force like the Ansars can provide neighborhood watch services to supplement the Dhaka Metropolitan Police.
Fourth, the transportation system of Dhaka has to be overhauled. Currently the focus is on building fly-overs and making car travel easier and faster. It is a completely wrongheaded policy given that only a small percentage of the population has access to cars and the global oil crisis is most likely to make cars obsolete in the next 20 to 50 years. We need long term strategic planning that focuses on energy efficient mass transit system based on a network of boats, trains, and buses. To supplement long distance mass transit system we need to enable local/short distance travel by foot, bicycles, and rickshaws. That means creating and keeping clear footpaths, walkways, and bicycle and rickshaw lanes.
Fifth, we need clean, safe, and accessible public spaces in the forms of parks, playgrounds, and public squares. We need to clean up the existing ones and create some new. Here we need to pay special attention to ensure equal access to these public spaces for both genders. There are very few places for adda in Dhaka to begin with and if you are a woman the situation is even more dire. In talking about public spaces, we need to make the steps of the parliament building available to people again. And since we are dreaming, a massive urban development and conservation project should be undertaken to create a promenade on the Buriganga and turn the adjacent Old Dhaka into a walking city housing artisan shops, craft workshops, galleries, restaurants, cafes, etc.
Okay, I can go dreaming up ways to make Dhaka more livable. But I will stop here. Dhaka is a wonderful city; it is my first love and I think it is full of life, love, and character. But no doubt it needs improvements. And, improvements or any kind of change requires political will. By political will I do not simply mean the will of a political leader or the vision of some bureaucrat. By political will I mean the will of the people. The changes outlined or wished for above may be achieved, if people demand it and work for it. As intellectuals and commentators all we can do is to provide the platform where people can come together to forge the vision of the beautiful city they want to live in. Dhaka will not be made livable by a charismatic leader or an enlightened urban planner. If Dhaka is to become a livable city, the people of Dhaka will have to make it so.