A post-Dhaka Bangladesh

Published : 16 June 2011, 04:32 PM
Updated : 16 June 2011, 04:32 PM

I have made it a ritual to examine Dhaka while flying above it every time I return to the capital city from abroad or, domestically, from Chittagong. Hovering over the city, before touchdown, the plane enables an omniscient aerial eye to see how the city is growing like an octopus — the tumult of an urban juggernaut, pulverising all lands within its amorphous border and neighbouring agricultural lands. To the north, Uttara used to be Dhaka's satellite, but now it is fully incorporated. On the eastern edge, Bashundhara is another instance of the city's ever-expanding border. With 16 million people teeming in an area of approximately 1,600 square kilometres, Dhaka is a megalopolis that many world surveys identify as the fastest growing city in the world, along with Lagos, Nigeria.

Wandering around the city on foot or in a rickshaw or a car, however, provides the real (and frightening) pulse of the city. The romantic charm of what poet Shamsur Rahman called sritir shahor (the city of memory) flashes once in a while, in some narrow streets of Old Dhaka and around the Teacher Student Centre as well as the Bangla Academy. But the visceral experience of contemporary Dhaka occurs when one gets stuck in its paralysing traffic; sees its infinite masses and the construction boom in apartment buildings, shopping malls, health clinics, and flyovers; and breathes its rancid air. It doesn't take long for one to plunge headlong into Dhaka's infernal modernity.

When will Dhaka have some semblance of calming down? With its real-estate market skyrocketing, is the capital city capable of stopping at all? More than 2,000 people from impoverished rural areas across the country pour into the "city of opportunity" every day in search of a better life. On the other end of the economic spectrum, nearly 200 newly registered cars enter the streets of Dhaka daily. According to one survey in 1999-2000, Dhaka's contribution represents about 13 percent of the country's GDP, but more than 50 percent of the nation's industries and services are clustered in and around the capital. I suspect that this economic asymmetry has now become even more acute.

The Economist Intelligence Unit, the research wing of The Economist, surveyed 130 cities of the world on the basis of hardship faced by their respective city dwellers. Dhaka ranked 127th, barely above Lagos and Karachi. With 28,000 people per square kilometre, compounded by lawless streets, such factors are bound to spawn urban absurdities.

Dhaka has reached a tipping point. Flyovers won't change course, nor would political sloganeering of environmental protection and a Detailed Area Plan. The city has become such a political quagmire as a result of failed urban governance that physical planning seems no longer able to rectify its urban ills. Furthermore, Dhaka has become synonymous with the corrosive culture of corruption and political insolence that diminishes the promise of Bangladesh.

All development activities perilously concentrate in Dhaka. This is a dangerous and unsustainable path to the future. Therefore, the time has come to envision a post-Dhaka Bangladesh.

Decentralisation is the call of the day. And, the best way to accomplish this is to move the capital from Dhaka (I'll come back to the question of where later in this essay). A great many Bangladeshis would shriek at the idea. But calm down. Examples of countries moving their capitals abound in history — from the Egyptian and Greco-Roman times to as recently as 1997, when Kazakhstan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, moved its capital from Almaty to Astana. New capitals have been planned when existing ones became too congested, overpopulated, and politically unsustainable. Think about the recent BDR massacre. The government's inaction was premised on the fact that dense urban areas surround Pilkhana. Any military action, it was argued, would result in a huge civilian casualty.

The US Congress created its new capital, Washington, D.C., in 1790, after meeting in eight cities, including Philadelphia and New York. George Washington took the oath of office as the first US president in New York City. St. Petersburg interrupted Moscow's status as the capital of Russia since the 14th century for nearly 200 years, from 1712 to 1918, when the Russian capital was moved back to Moscow. Ottawa became Canada's capital in 1857, after the Canadian legislature alternated between Toronto and Quebec City. Canberra was planned and designated as Australia's capital in 1927, after neither Sydney nor Melbourne would concede to the other as the capital.

In our own backyard, Calcutta was the capital of British India until 1911, when the colonial regime moved the capital to the northern city of Delhi, which had already served as the political and financial hub of several empires of ancient and medieval India. Pakistan moved its capital from the overpopulated and politically troublesome Karachi to Islamabad in the 1960s.

There are other recent examples, too. The idea of a new capital for Brazil had generated political traction since 1930. Brazil relocated its capital from the overcrowded and Europe-faced coastal city of Rio de Janeiro to the brand-new city of Brasilia in the interior of the country in 1961. Brasilia spurred new growth in the impoverished Brazilian hinterland. With the same nationalist ambition, Nigeria moved its capital from the overcrowded coastal city of Lagos to the centrally located, planned city of Abuja. Although not an ideal example, Myanmar's reclusive military junta has recently relocated its capital from the historic city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) to the northern city of Naypyidaw.

Convenient models of capital relocation span the world. Guided by a policy of administrative decentralisation, Malaysia has moved its many state functions and the prime minister's official residence to a suburb of Kuala Lumpur called Putrajaya, even though Kuala Lumpur remains the formal capital. In addition, some countries have multi-centric capitals. Bolivia's administrative capital is La Paz, while the legislative and judicial capital is Sucre. And, the Netherland's formal capital is Amsterdam, but the de facto seat of the country's legislature and Supreme Court is The Hague.

Given these examples, the idea of relocating Bangladesh's capital from Dhaka should not be considered radical. Indeed, we should begin to incubate this idea in our political and administrative heads. Moving the capital, of course, doesn't have to undermine the political and cultural significance of Dhaka. Its place in our nation's historic narrative is unassailable. Salam-Barkat's Dhaka, the glorious venue of our Language Movement, and the tragic Dhaka of the dark night of March 25th — all are forever burned in our collective memory. The relocation is guided hardly by hopeless abandonment of Dhaka, but rather by a pragmatic view of the nation's future. A new capital could be the symbolic beginning of a corruption-free Bangladesh, a Bangladesh of political tolerance, civility, innovation, and confidence.

Now to the crucial question. What city should become the new capital? A few factors should be taken into consideration. What we want is a low-density, non-urbanised area (so that no cumbersome mass relocation is necessary), away from the flood plains, but not too far away from Dhaka; so that the new capital could still tap into Dhaka's resources and geographic centrality. This way, in the first phase, only the executive branch of the government would be taken to the new capital, with judiciary following in the next phase. The new capital should not be too close to the border. It should not perturb an ecologically important site, nor should it be dropped on an existing urban area, for it would then be mired in the local politics of the city.

This means that the greater Chittagong, Khulna, Rajshahi, and Sylhet regions are out of contention. The new capital location that I propose is the area between Trishal and Bhaluka, to the north, between Dhaka and Mymensingh. I have personally explored the site for a future airport and am familiar with its geography and population density. (Trishal's population is roughly around 4 lakhs, based on 2001 figures). This site could work as a new capital, provided that the government machineries fully convince the local population about the value of a new city in their midst. As an incentive, 30 percent of the construction employment and 20 percent of administrative jobs in the new capital could be allocated to the locals.

The new capital could be realised as the paragon of sustainable urbanism, with clarity in planning and ecological management of natural resources; affordable access to education, healthcare, and cultural facilities; and emphasis on mass transportation, rather than personal autos. This could be Bangladesh's maiden planned city of zero-carbon emissions with a strong policy emphasis on biking and walking. Today's experts on sustainable and liveable cities emphasise these same key issues.

A post-Dhaka Bangladesh will be good for the country as well as for Dhaka. This city and its inhabitants need a reprieve from wrong-headed, steroid-induced growth mantras.


Dr. Adnan Morshed teaches architecture, urban design, and spatial history and theory at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.