Monday, December 12, 2011

The Great Partition of Dhaka City—Crying Over Spilled Milk

The great divide of our historic Dhaka city in two parts is finally happening; the legislature has approved the ordinance for the division. Barring any miraculous court orders nullifying the legislation, for which the courts have been moved, soon there will be two cities although we do not know what these will be called.

People like us who had spent their childhood and youth in good old Dhaka will not know what new name our part of the old city will bear. Will they be simply called South and North, or will they be christened after some names? Do we care what the names will be? All we know that Dhaka that we knew and grew up with, the city that the world was familiar with, will no longer be the same with any other name. The milk does remain milk anymore when it is spilled; it lies on the floor in globules. I know any comments on this division are post facto, crying in the wilderness, or more proverbially crying over spilled milk. Nonetheless, I would like to cry. I would like to register my protest as an ex citizen of Dhaka, albeit from thousands of miles away.

We have been told that the division of Dhaka was mandated by poor services to the citizens. We have been further told that this was necessary to make city life better with improved sanitation, water supply, road conditions, transportation, and what have you. A divided Dhaka will make the average citizen’s life much superior with enhanced and faster services—the services that they do not have now. Let us pause for a second to reflect on the promises in these hypotheses.

Dhaka City Corporation has been in existence for over three decades now turning from a Municipality that was created hundred and fifty years ago. From a small urban center of a few square kilometers in 1900 with about a hundred thousand people, the city is nearly 1530 Sq. km in size now, and an estimated population of about 12 million live in this city. As one of the top 11 megacities, Dhaka is probably the fastest growing in the world. It is projected that by 2025 eight of the ten megacities will be in Asia with Dhaka ranked fourth following closely on the heels of Tokyo, Bombay and Delhi. There are few urban areas in the world that are growing faster.

How do you manage urban services for this burgeoning population without first tackling and planning to accommodate this growth? Is it by splitting the city in two halves, or by augmenting resources of the people who manage the services, and handing them the authority to do so?

The key challenges that Dhaka faces are not posed by incorporation of the city as a single entity. The other ten megacities of the world including those in our neighboring country (such as Kolkata and Mumbai) continue to remain a single corporation and they continue to provide urban services to their citizenry as one City Corporation. The challenges, however, that Dhaka faces unlike other cities come from other sources. These are, the city’s unfortunate location being virtually surrounded by rivers that limits expansion, its population density, and impossible traffic.

Bifurcation of the city will not alter the physical and manmade challenges that Dhaka faces now. Our population will continue to grow, and so will our traffic, and the divided city will have to cope with this growth and services will continue to suffer. No miracle can be expected in the delivery of services unless the purveyors of the services have the resources and authority to deliver.

While defending the decision to split Dhaka our Prime Minister reportedly made comments that such divisions “to improve urban services” had taken place in other major cities of the world such as London, Melbourne, Sidney, Manila, etc. To put things in the correct perspective we should point out that London City was not divided by any legislation. London has two parts; City of London, and Greater London. The City of London is a small area (2.9 km) within Greater London, England. It is the historic core of London around which the modern London grew, and it has held city status since time immemorial. The City’s boundaries have remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, and it is now only a tiny part of the metropolis of London, though it remains a notable part of central London. Greater London is the top-level administrative subdivision covering London. Melbourne and Sidney to my knowledge do not have divided City Corporations; both cities are run by elected city corporations headed by Mayors (called Lord Mayors).

We should not be looking at these cities for comparison in any case; they are far above our league. We should look at the nearest cities that have problems comparable to our own—such as Kolkata and Mumbai, and see how the corporations in these cities provide services to their citizens. Dhaka citizens’ problems are not likely to be resolved by this Great Divide. We will probably render them twice in size. 

BY : Ziauddin Choudhury/