A megacity with mega problemsby Masum Billah
DHAKA cannot afford the burden of 140 million people on its 360 square kilometres of land. The densely concentrated population itself poses a potential threat. The high-rise buildings, constantly growing industries, increasing number of vehicles and growing slums continue to aggravate the situation. Sixty percent of its citizens live without proper access to city facilities, even though they live within the ambit of the city. Many throng to the city just to earn their living. Driven by extreme poverty, insecurity, river erosion, serious unemployment problem they move to the capital with high hopes. This situation needs a lot of time to change. Environmentalists have expressed concern that encroachment on the river Buriganga, the life line of Dhaka city, traffic congestion, pollution and diseases are turning this once majestic city into a choking hell. About fifty percent of the river’s pollution stem from industrial waste while sewerage and domestic wastes contribute to the remaining fifty percent. Between 1980 and 2009 the population of Dhaka swelled from three million to more than ten million, and, while its importance has increased manifold, the basic amenities have not kept up with these changes. Water from the river Buriganga and Sitalakhya, which would have supplemented the need of drinking water and other purposes such as cooking and washing, has been fouled as much by raw sewerage as by a number of industrial and chemical units, and sometimes, even pesticides.
Traffic congestion stands as the number one problem in Dhaka. About 93 per cent of its city dwellers are directly involved in this problem. The city’s vehicle population has almost increased ten times since 1992 as a result of our failure to introduce proper mass transport. Eighty percent of the vehicles are three wheelers, small buses of the old days and cars which spew more than half the major pollutants. Carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, photochemical oxides e.g. ozone, nitrogen oxides, particular matter and lead are the main culprits. A recent study indicates that motor vehicles are a major or primary source of other toxic air pollutants including 1.3 butadiene, benzene and a number of carcinogens. In developed countries, governments have fought for clean air by regulating all major and many minor sources of air pollution. Industrial emissions have been significantly reduced. As a result of the introduction of new motor vehicle emission standards in 1988, new vehicles in developed nations are now 90% cleaner than those manufactured in 1970s.
The city dwellers, city planners, policy makers, experts and researchers who think about the city will unanimously agree that Dhaka is one of the most unplanned cities of the world. It stretches quite long in the southern and northern directions while its width, the eastern and western directions, is only a few kilometers. There is hardly any scope of its expansion on the eastern and western sides to a visible extent.
There are different types of vehicles on the city roads, namely cars, buses, jeeps, trucks, minibuses, microbuses, auto-rickshaws, tempos, mini-trucks, motorcycles and innumerable rickshaws. Many of the vehicles that ply on Dhaka’s streets daily are faulty and emit black smoke in excess of the prescribed limit. Black smoke is primary un-burning carbon that agglomerates into small particles caused by over-load and faulty engine condition of vehicles. A two-stroke engine emits 30 times more pollution than a normal car.
Non-mechanised vehicles, mostly rickshaws, often fall victim to any decisions taken in order to ease traffic. But in such cases it is important to ask, are cars more efficient than rickshaws in terms of road space occupancy? Despite constant claims of the city officials that rickshaws are the main source of traffic jams, data indicate that rickshaws are far superior to cars as far as road space occupancy and pollution contribution are concerned. In the base case, i.e. before the fuel-free transport ban, rickshaws made up 67.8% of vehicles, yet unlisted only 43.5% of road space to transport 59.4% of passengers. Cars made up only 6.4% of vehicles, yet occupied as much as 29.9% of the road space to transport far fewer passengers than rickshaws did. Despite being removed from the main roads, rickshaws are still the most popular mode of transport, serving 30% of the passengers whereas cars serve only 8.5% of all types of passengers. Making a separate line for rickshaws such as in the Dhaka cantonment area, both mechanized and non-mechanized vehicles can be allowed to run without causing serious traffic.
Traffic causes air pollution which in turn affects the one’s respiratory tract, causes irritation, headache, fatigue, asthma, high blood pressure, heart diseases and, eventually, cancer. Experts say if this trend continues unabated, most residents of the metropolis would become exposed to the risk of those ailments and different other health hazards and complications. The development of mental fault of children would be impaired by lead pollution that could also affect the central nervous system and generate causes of urinal damage and hypertension. The massive traffic congestion, taking its toll on human health, should thus not be allowed any more. Behavior scientists have long done experiments to show that even insects demonstrate aggressive behavior when they are placed in a crowded situation. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to see that Dhaka’s pedestrians, the rickshaw pullers, baby taxi drivers, van-wallas, and bus and truck drivers all vie for tiny spaces with noticeable and utter disregard for other’s right of way. This obviously creates serious problems such as unnecessary traffic holdup and many unfortunate incidents. Serious road accidents are growing at an accelerated rate for the growing traffic problem. It is reported that the government has decided to withdraw about 70,000 old and dilapidated vehicles from the road. Very old and decrepit vehicles will not be allowed to ply. All these measure are aimed at mitigating the problem. However, when such measures will actually see the light of implementation remains unknown to us, the citizens, of Dhaka.
Growing insecurity in presence of law enforcing agencies, and sometimes even their involvement in various crimes have created panic among both the city dwellers and tourists who come here and are often in a hurry to just do their official job and leave as soon as possible. Everyday, pickpockets, hijackers and extortionists rein the city in every nook and corner. Only the victim realize how painful it is. To our utter surprise, the victims do not have any reliable office, or system that they can file complaints with, and hence they take the law in their hands. Many may ask, why not the police station? The truth is, in Dhaka, no victim wants to approach the police, so that they are spared even further harassment. The police are known to harass the public more than helping them. When will this situation change? Again, mob beating or unleashing torture upon ‘suspected’ pickpockets or hijackers is another serious concern of this city. Sometimes, it may happen that the gang of pickpockets or hijackers attack any ordinary passenger or passer-bys just to save themselves. So, in no way should people be allowed to take the law in to their own hands. Strict law must be imposed regarding this matter.
Extremely unbearable price of food of all kinds have also plagued the city dwellers. It bites them like poisonous bees with its sting. The members of the present government showed extreme sympathy for the people during the time of caretaker government as people felt that they were in a fish-out-of-the-water situation because of the price hike. They attributed the cause to caretaker government’s inexperience to run the state. Now, the price has gone beyond an all-time limit and people are disappointed, but there is no sign of reducing the price. We only hear comments such as ‘If any body is involved in raising price of essentials, stern action would be taken against them.’ Such fake promises cannot provide the city dwellers with any consolation.
On another note, schools have also crossed its official limit but no authority is here to do anything. Only meetings and seminars are held but no real action or measure is taken to reduce the schooling fee and reduce the dependence on private coaching. Guardians can no more bear the educational expenses though it is said that primary education is free and compulsory for all. Actually, the state does not manage primary education in Dhaka. Yes, some government primary schools are situated in the city but without proper education and without any facility. Then, why this fake promise of ensuring primary education for all? City guardians are to buy education at a very higher price which they cannot afford any more.
Now, what should we do? Do we need to get ready for even more deaths or just continue with this moribund state of leading a life? No, our citizens should not lose heart. We should establish different forums totally free of political associations. The media, both print and electronic, must come forward to engage in their original, philanthropic role to make Dhaka habitable for the present generation and for the city’s posterity. Media, volunteers, philanthropists, environmentalists, educationists, NGOs, students, religious leaders, avoiding absolutely all kinds of political affiliations thinking, should form different citizen forums and maintain regular communication with the service sector authorities such as WASA, BTCL, City Corporation and other business leaders. The editors of all Bengali and English newspapers and the chairmen of all print media can take real initiatives in this regard to bring some positive changes in the life of the citizens. The media retains huge power which must be utilized for making the city habitable with other positive and constructive functions they perform.
Masum Billah is the program manager at the BRAC Education Programme, PACE.
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