Arial Beel’s Versailles moment

Published : 8 Feb 2011, 02:36 PM
Updated : 8 Feb 2011, 02:36 PM

I have to acknowledge that I felt deeply conflicted about the proposed airport project at Arial Beel.

On the one hand, in the age of globalisation and global mobility an airport is after all the de facto gateway to a country. That crucial first impression is made at the airport. The poorly designed and stinking toilets at the Shahjalal International Airport take on, sadly, a kind of national character. If Bangladesh has an image problem, it tends to begin at the antiquated luggage-retrieving belts of the Dhaka airport. Today, countries around the world are building new airports as part of their mission to reinforce or renovate national identity. Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi, Madrid's Barajas, Beijing's Capital, and Berlin's Brandenburg (under construction) show how airports have assumed vital roles in public diplomacy.

Therefore, prime minister Sheikh Hasina's wish to create a new international airport is no less than visionary. It is okay to dream big and for the future, and projects should not always be guided by rigid cost-benefit analyses or bland utilitarian projections alone. Investing in the future can't always be rationalised by the simple equation that only 50 percent of the Dhaka airport's passenger-handling capacity is now being utilised.

Yet, Arial Beel? When, how? Dropping a 25,000-acre mega project on an ecologically rich site out of the blue, sadly, conjures up the image of Louis XIV and his absolute monarchy in Versailles. Public accountability does not matter within monarchic ambition.

Let us look at the timeline of the Arial Beel's Versailles fantasy. We have learned that the decision to create the Bangabandhu International Airport was made on principle at a ministerial meeting on August 29th of last year. A pre-feasibility study committee then visited multiple sites for the proposed airport in Mymensing's Trishal and Tangail's Bhuapur. While Trishal loomed large on the horizon, the same committee, on November 15th, went site hunting in Faridpur, Madaripur, Shariatpur, and Munshiganj. On November 30th, the committee finalised Arial Beel as the site for the new airport. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina approved the proposed location on December 12th. And the process of land acquisition reportedly began shortly thereafter.

This is a stunning velocity for a project that would cost over 7 billion US dollars (50,000 crore taka) and entail the mass relocation of people whose livelihood depend on the low-lying swamp called Arial Beel.

Who would not appreciate efficiency and a streamlined bureaucracy to get things done? But the project's speed was actually an impediment to its credibility because such haste did not leave any time for the airport project to incubate in the public consciousness. Instead of articulating in clear terms the futuristic promise and economic benefits of the proposed project to a national audience as well as the masses in and around Arial Beel, the government passively watched from the sideline the project's quick swelling into a venomous ideological battle between subsistence economy and free-market economy. The fierce street fight between the local people and law-enforcement personnel on Dhaka-Mawa highway and other locations in Munshiganj were not simply about the airport project any longer. There seemed to be something deeper in it like the rural-urban disconnect and centre-periphery tension.

People's militant resistance to their impending eviction hardly concealed larger conflicts between the agrarian history of the country and the urban-centric, futuristic ambitions of the ruling elite; between land-based politics and unimpeded movement of capital to which the government subscribes. The battle highlighted that the rural-agrarian periphery would not like to be ordered by the urban-political centre to swallow a mega project.

Despite its claim to be a people's party, the Awami League appeared to be clueless in the Arial Beel fiasco about the peculiar dynamics of land ownership in a historically agrarian country like ours. As anybody would know, Bhita (ancestral home) has a crucial significance for the country's social cohesion. For the majority of the rural population, ancestral history doesn't reside in those romantic black-and-white photos tucked away in the safety of an almira but in their sublime attachment to a small piece of land they call home. The jomi yields their food and sustains their life. Thus, taking away people's land means depriving them of their sacred right to maintain their source of food and family heritage. The romantic vernacular of people-soil bonding—jan dibo, tobu jomi dibo na (I will give my life but not my land), as an elderly protester of the airport project summed it all up in Munshiganj — has been the staple of classic Bengali literature.

But the natural right to ancestral land, as righteous as it may sound, does not automatically mean that the government does not have constitutional power to relocate people for a project of national significance and for the benefit of the most. Even though there is a vast socio-cultural difference between the US and Bangladesh, the recent case of the Denver International Airport is a case in point. The creation of the 34,000-acre airport required relocation of many farmers who cultivated the lands there for generations.

In general, history is fraught with the examples of state patronage of mega projects as image-building tools. Nehru created the planned city of Chandigarh in Indian Punjab not only to compensate the loss of Lahore to Pakistani Punjab, but also to present a modern India to the world. In the 1980s, Francois Mitterrand sought to reverse the depleting French cultural pride through his sponsorship of Grands Travaux, a series of mega architectural projects that now dot Paris, including the city's cultural heart, the Grand Louvre. More recently, India's burgeoning global stature is complemented by the Delhi Metro, the capital's new high-tech underground train.

So what went wrong at Arial Beel?

First, the mind-numbing speed of the project left the nation gasping for some persuasion acts. Why so quickly and why here? The project was hardly allowed any gestation period and, thus, it smacked of a top-down autocratic attitude. From environmentalists and development communities to the media and general citizens, the majority reacted to the project with bafflement from the beginning. Within weeks in January, public mood tilted toward resentment. One can't be absolutely sure how much of the angry mass demonstration against the airport project was political instigation. But it didn't matter anymore. The project died a quick death in the public imagination since it appeared every bit anti-people and incompatible with democratic ideals.

Second, the government prematurely assumed that the people around Arial Beel would embrace this project with open arms and ear-to-ear grin. No, they didn't. Because Dhaka's decision-makers hardly explained to them how an airport in their midst was any better than their piece of land to which they have deep economic (no matter how meagre) and psychological ties. The airplane may be a symbol of progress, but to an empty stomach it is just another giant irrelevance. Incentives, such as 40 percent of the airport jobs would go to the locals or 30 percent of the housing units at the proposed Bangabandhu City would be allocated to the evicted people, might have created pockets of sympathy for the project. Alas, there was no reassuring message of the rehabilitation of displaced people but there was glamorous chattering about an ultramodern city next to the airport.

The Arial Beel project was a glaring example of failed public diplomacy. I wish the prime minister were more cautious to approve the project by simply seeing Joynal Abedin Talukdar's (chief of the cell for the proposed airport) fancy multimedia presentation at her office. It would have certainly helped if she paid multiple visits to the Arial Beel area and shared her ideas with the local people in town-hall style meetings (although I remain opposed to an airport in environmentally important wetlands).

Third, that no environmental impact assessment and technical feasibility studies were done before the announcement of the project in an ecologically rich site failed to garner the support of professional communities. There is a laundry list of things-to-do before the decision to implement a mega project (like an airport) could be made, such as: land-use planning; operational and security aspect; interference with existing road network; impacts from earthwork; hydraulic works; structural requirements; impacts on historical and archaeological resources; environmental impacts; and air pollution and noise impacts. Without any preliminary studies of these factors the project seemed whimsical, especially when the country is becoming much more environmentally conscious.

The prime minister's respect for the people's demand that the project be taken somewhere else is admirable. Yet her quick announcement that the project will be built on the other bank of the Padma came as a shock. Based on what considerations? The political quirkiness of the Arial Beel's unbuilt airport seems to have already pervaded the other bank of the Padma, which is hardly a geographic vacuum where just about anything could be dropped by a bureaucratic decree from Dhaka. This is a real place with its own geographical features, and human characters that may not like to be simply told that they are the lucky recipient of a brand-new airport. They may care more about their fishing nets or boats or plows than a Boeing.


Dr. Adnan Morshed, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.