Saturday, March 20, 2010

Billboards or Angels of Death?

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Independent, March 21st. 2010

Recently Dhaka earned the dubious distinction of being the second worst city of the world, courtesy the prestigious Economist Intelligence Unit. However, in recent years, we all knew that we were living in a city that has some of the worst credentials as a livable city. It is just not the traffic jam that is getting worse by the day while successive governments, the present one included, have set their sights for the state of the art traffic system for the city. The city’s water and power situation should shame those in charge of assuring these.

The British are no longer ruling us. We have sent the Pakistanis packing. Who do we blame for Dhaka’s ever increasing misfortunes? The incident that occurred in Gulshan Avenue a few days ago when a billboard fell on parked cars and killed two is a stark reminder about the uncertainty and dangers of Dhaka life. Unbelievable information has come to press about the billboards. The smiling faces of models on billboards are in fact angels of death. A Dhaka City Corporation official has told the media that there are several thousand billboards across the city of which 90% have been illegally launched. Most of them are literally hanging there by the thread in the face of a storm.

And who do you think has facilitated these illegal billboards? If you have not read it in the newspapers, you would never be able to guess it. According to newspaper reports, these illegal billboards have been facilitated by a ruling of the High Court that in 2007 while hearing a case prohibited the DCC and the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartipakkha, the regulatory authorities for these billboards in Dhaka city, not to tear down billboards until further orders. Unscrupulous billboard operators have taken advantage of this order and have launched billboards at will without caring for even the minimum safety requirements. One would like to know whether that case is still unsettled or whether that case was settled against the regulators. Going by the large number of illegal billboards that have been constructed after 2007, both seems likely; that the case may still be unsettled or that the ruling in the case was against the regulators.

The citizens of Dhaka would be looking towards the High Court for clarification in the matter and urgently. The sad incident on Gulshan Avenue happened in seconds because the nature of the nor’westers is such that it can and does create such massacre in no time at all. Thus all the thousands of illegal billboards, in the face of nor’westers are there ready to fall upon the passersby to kill more. Till a clarification comes out of the High Court, the deaths on Gulshan Avenue would be on the conscience of the High Court. The regulators, the billboard owners and the owners of the building also cannot absolve themselves of their responsibility in the deaths. If the High Court stay order is in fact the reason for new billboards to have come up illegally, the regulators should have sensitized the public about the dangers. In fact, they need now to clearly tell the public about the dangers of such billboards during storms; the precaution they need to take; and if the High Court ruling stands in the way to deal with these illegal billboards, take legal steps to resolve the matter. There is no reason to believe that the High Court would not do the right thing if the regulators are up to their task.

The incident on Gulshan Avenue should force us not just to take this extremely seriously but also to look at how many other things are happening around us that are illegal and hazardous with the authorities oblivious about these . Looking at the Gulshan Avenue, the hub of the rich of the city, one can see flouting of the laws of the city right, left and centre. This was originally planned to be a residential area. It was not necessity but greed that has turned the big and once beautiful avenue into a nightmare for the residents of the area. I live on one end of Gulshan Avenue. During day time, it takes me sometimes an hour by car to reach the other end, a distance that I travel at night in less than 5 minutes! The reason for turning a dream into a nightmare is the criminal indifference and I would say, connivance, of regulatory authorities, realtors and those “lucky” few who own land on the avenue to build high rises , some the headquarters of financial and telecommunication giants of the country, without any provision for adequate parking and connected facilities. As a consequence, the adjacent roads of the avenue inside the residential area have been turned into parking lots for the clients of these big business houses on the avenue. Some new high rises being constructed on the avenue have taken over the footpath, exposing the pedestrians using the avenue into life threatening hazards.

Some newspapers and the civil society had taken the very noble initiative to expose the illegal activities of some of Dhaka’s rich and powerful and how they have occupied parts of the Gulshan Lake that is ecologically dangerous for the area and Dhaka city. Only fear of the emergency authorities had forced some of these people to give back some of the land they had grabbed. Thanks to the return of democratic government, these powerful people are again back to what they do best, illegally grab land. While we have seen Rangs knocked down, “thanks” again to the detestable emergency period where a road that would bring some relief to Dhaka horrendous traffic system is being built, the BGMEA stands “proudly” now that democratic government has been installed as if to say damn to the citizens of Dhaka. This Government’s efforts to recover the rivers around Dhaka, started by the Caretaker Government are now not progressing as well as had been expected. There are a few other buildings around this city where institutions with great reputation stand on land that have been acquired by doubtful means but these buildings cannot be touched because the occupants appear to be over and above the law.

Dhaka’s rich and powerful is the city’s problem. The “builders” and “developers” have acquired land around Dhaka; land that was once part of the city’s natural wetlands and drainage system. They have also acquired whatever else was available legally from not well to do owners to build so-called satellite cities. There was news in the paper recently that many of these so-called satellite towns have not been officially approved. These novae riche are also acquiring land in very large quantity outside Dhaka, some even in natural forests, for building farm houses/resorts which are taking away land from marginal farmers and widening the rich and poor divide. While our socio-economic thinkers and planners are focused on what is now becoming a cliché, namely tackling poverty alleviation, the widening of the rich- poor divide could become a huge and explosive issue that could tear Bangladesh apart. Already people who were lured to sell their land on the eastern side of Baridhara across the Biswa Road divide are beginning to see how some developers and land agents have turned their poor holdings of yester years into gold mines for profit.

Newspaper reports suggest that suddenly the DCC has woken to the billboard issue for tearing down the illegal ones although their attempt before Shahabag was aborted by the police deployed to assist to bring these down!. A citizen who owns business in the building where the ill-fated billboard in Gulshan was launched has filed a case of murder against the building’s owners. The citizens of Dhaka would like to fervently hope that DCC would bring down the thousands of billboards or “angels of death”. However, there is just too much milk and honey in the billboard business for the building owners, the advertisers and others concerned to let the law stand in the way. In this second worst livable city in the world, money, power and greed are always on top!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

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