Sunday, December 11, 2011

Four minutes ends 400 years of united Dhaka

As I See It
The Independent
December 10th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The Prime Minister has said if the Government had money, it would have split Dhaka city into four. Her concerns are to give the people the best service and splitting is the best way to provide this service. She believes that splitting an organization such as a municipality or a corporation that provides public service is the best way to increase its effectiveness.

Coming from the Prime Minister, there is no reason to think of the contrary as far as her concerns go. Nevertheless, there are a few issues that the Prime Minister has not considered before the decision to split Dhaka. In the first place, this decision has lacked transparency. Dhaka is after all the capital city of the country. Everybody in the city and the country has a legitimate stake in what happens to it.

For the city to be divided in consultations limited only between the Prime Minister and the Ministry of LGRD by taking the people of Dhaka for granted is to say the least, highly improper and un-democratic. For the Prime Minister and her Minister for LGRD to tell them that they know what is better for Dhaka and they should accept that without question is not right.

There are people and groups living in Dhaka who have expert knowledge about city matters. There are people and groups here who know the legal implications of dividing a city. Then there are people and groups too in Dhaka who know about environmental issues. The opinion of these people has not been taken. Then there are some members of parliament from Dhaka city who have not spoken; nor were they consulted, at least not in public knowledge.

From a common individual’s point of view, the first obvious question that comes to mind is how do you divide Dhaka? From a physical point of view, certain world capitals have a natural advantage. Cairo for instance is naturally divided by the River Nile. Seoul is divided by the River Hangang. Yet those in power to decide never thought of doing to these cities, that are much bigger than Dhaka, what we have done to ours because there are so many better ways of providing the service that the Prime Minister has given as the main cause for the division.

One very simple way would have been to re-organize the wards. The 56 wards of Dhaka City Corporation could have been grouped into 4 divisions (to suit the Prime Minister’s fond wish!). Each could have been placed under a Vice-Mayor and given enough powers and money to provide the services that is the Prime Minister’s major concern and retain them under the Dhaka City Corporation under a Dhaka City Mayor. In this way, the Prime Minister’s concerns could have been met and Dhaka could have been kept united. Tokyo City Government could have been an ideal example to emulate. Tokyo too has a 400 years’ history. The city government works under an elected Governor and the city’s large number of wards are each placed under a mayor.

Yet the Government of Japan has not split Tokyo into two or four or whatever. In fact, in 1943, the Tokyo city and the Tokyo prefecture came together to form Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) under a Governor with an Assembly whose members are elected directly by the citizens of Tokyo. TMG has under it 23 wards, cities and villages that make up Tokyo with adequate manpower and resources to provide services to the people of Tokyo at their door steps. At the same time, it has made the elected Governor of TMG very powerful to be able to coordinate with all Mayors in the city of Tokyo effectively and with adequate muscles to get from the Government of Japan all the resources it needs for the services it provides. By dividing Dhaka, a weak Dhaka City Corporation has been made weaker and the divided structures would have more difficulty getting from the Government resources and hence more difficulty in providing the services the citizens need.

The Government’s stance that it has divided Dhaka for better services is a palpably weak one. Even a weaker argument is the one that says it would save people travelling a long distance to the present Nagar Bhavan from the northern locations of the city. On the issue of services, the main ones the citizen of Dhaka need are water, electricity and law and order. Not one of these is given by the City Corporation. If they have any role in such services, it is only on paper. On the issue of saving citizens travelling hassles, none of us or may be a few have gone inside the Nagar Bhavan ever. The need to go there is limited. Only those who own a house or property in Dhaka have the need to go there. When that need arises, most citizens of Dhaka use someone who works for them to do the needful, often by paying bribes.

Dividing Dhaka would not help in solution of problems in anyway whatever. The problems it would create are so obvious that it is strange why and how the government has turned a blind eye to these problems. Apart from one problem mentioned earlier in this piece, namely where to draw the line of division, other problems are which Dhaka would own the present Nagar Bhavan? Where would be the new Nagar Bhavan for the new Dhaka? Where would the present manpower of Dhaka City Corporation go? Would it not mean creating a similar structure with the same manpower for the new city corporation? Has anybody estimated the extra costs that could be a huge?

It is no doubt that these questions must have come up in the minds of those who divided Dhaka. Yet they sidetracked these problems. This raises the obvious question: why have they? The answer to this question is also obvious: politics. The AL is looking at the next elections. What they see cannot be at all promising. Its failure to deliver on the election promises and all round poor governance is causing widespread criticism from its own ranks while helping strengthen opposition ranks. The failures of AL candidates in city elections in Chittagong and Naryangang have sent warning signals to the party. A failure in a united Dhaka mayoral election, that looked very likely, would have been politically disastrous.

Dividing Dhaka and having administrators sympathetic to the party in place would allow the ruling party the advantage it needs to win. Further, a divided Dhaka would give the AL a much better chance of winning in the part where old Dhaka with its Hindu citizens would fall. To assure a 100% commitment of Hindu voters, Suranjit Sen Gupta who had spoken for annulment of the Vested Property Act has been made a Minister and the Act has been annulled.

In a hurry to divide Dhaka, the Government has weakened its own argument against the caretaker government. The Government has argued that the unelected nature of the caretaker government make elections under it un-democratic. Yet it has now opted to hold elections for the two Dhakas under unelected administrators in place of the elected Mayor. The Government has unwittingly also got caught in practicing double standard. What is worse, it seems not to care!

United Dhaka’s demise defies logic. It is also frustrating. Nevertheless, the resilient citizens in Dhaka are dealing with this strange decision with a bit of humour and a premonition. In a talk show, one participant said if Dhaka had become too big in the four decades of independence to make its division under two Mayors necessary for better service then the country should also be divided into two and placed under two Prime Ministers for it has grown two times in the last forty years to govern effectively! The premonition is on the time it took to adopt the bill dividing Dhaka in parliament and another bill in 1974. The fourth amendment or the BAKSAL bill was passed in 9 minutes and the bill on Dhaka, 4 minutes!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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