December 1, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
An interesting discussion in a popular TV talk show recently led me take a trip down the memory lane. My good friend Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed, the former Governor of Bangladesh Bank was on the show together with two Advisers of the past Caretaker Government. They were discussing issues of centralization/ decentralization/urbanization in the context of the deaths of workers in a garment factory in Nischintpur near Dhaka due to fire and workers/by standers in Chittagong when a girder gave way in an under construction fly-over. Dr Salehuddin Ahmed made a very pertinent point on these serious but neglected issues. He said that successive governments in Bangladesh since 1971 have erred in their focus on decentralization of government powers and urbanization that has earned Dhaka the dubious distinction of the worst livable city of the world.
I remembered my days as a student of Dr. Muzzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury, our Public Administration teacher in Dhaka University in the 1960s after watching the show. He almost had us get it by heart that decentralization was the key for sound development, urbanization and modernization of any developing country because that is the path that all developed countries took and was modernized successfully. Those were the days when we were demanding transfer of power from the centre to the provinces. The logic of what Dr. Chowdhury taught us was that for balanced development and urbanization, authority and responsibility for development works must be decentralized from the central government to the state/provincial governments and from the provincial governments to the local authorities.
Dr. Chowdhury did not teach us anything new. He taught an accepted theory of development and modernization. This is also what Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed said in the talk show; that Bangladesh has followed quite a different and wrong path for its development; urbanization and decentralization. Where the need for the development sectors was decentralization through a transfer of power from Dhaka to the local governments, all governments since 1971 have worked to make Dhaka stronger. They chose to make Dhaka stronger leaving the local governments weak and powerless. Sadly, our political leadership failed to apply in case of independent Bangladesh what they had demanded from Pakistan, namely decentralization of the powers of the central government that was a major demand upon which Bangladesh’s claim for independence was based.
In fact, it was the military dictatorship of President Hussein Mohammed Ershad that made the only sincere effort for decentralization with the Local Government Act or the Upazilla System. He wanted to make the Upazillas the focus of development of the country. As soon as the country reverted to democracy, local government was the first casualty. Despite lip service from the elected governments, the Centre or Dhaka continued to grow from strength to strength. It is not just in the executive branch of the government that Dhaka has gone from strength to strength; in the elected branch of the government too, it is Dhaka that has become all powerful. The elected officials representing the national parliament have seen to it that elected officials at the local level have little to no power at all so that they could directly interfere and dominate the power structure at the local level as well.
It is now payback time for the failure of the past governments with decentralization of the powers of the government. A look at Dhaka is enough to see the massive mistakes they have made. As a consequence of concentration of all governmental powers in Dhaka, the city has become the magnet where people are drawn to it because every aspect of their lives, or almost every, are controlled in some government office in Dhaka. Despite all the tall talks by those in government about economic development of the country, whatever number of good schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, etc, there are in the country are all largely located in Dhaka thus providing no incentive to people with means to move out from Dhaka and live in the other cities of the country and the district towns. New divisions have been created to decentralize powers and take pressure away from Dhaka but these have failed to draw power and people away from Dhaka because whatever decentralization of power has been done has been done mainly on paper.. Like bees to the hives, people have been attracted to Dhaka with mindless and senseless encouragement from the government.
I worked in the Motijheel C/A in a private bank for three years. Officers of the bank living in Uttara were taking up to 3 hours to reach office! I wondered that if the government had built proper a 4 to 6 lane road connecting Dhaka to Comilla for example, it would have sent a lot of people working in Motijheel to this once beautiful district town which with such road connection would have been less than an hour from Motijheel. Likewise, developing the district and sub divisional towns in the radius of 50 miles from Dhaka and connecting these with Dhaka with again proper roads/train/water ways would have developed these towns as satellites of Dhaka without burdening Dhaka’s absurdly poor infrastructure. Instead to encourage the greed of the developers with which the authorities have an evil nexus, the government has allowed low lying and ecologically critical areas around Dhaka to be developed for residential purposes. These so-called residential townships are using and those coming up will use Dhaka’s infra structure and help Dhaka sink into oblivion even faster!!
This brings me back to the talk show that led me to write this piece. Two of the guests of the talk show were former Advisers. They were in power for two years. While they were in power, they had no opposition. If they wanted, they could have set many things related to our development back on track. There was for them a proposal ready for construction of Dhaka-Chittagong four lane highway. In fact, the proposal for this critically needed infrastructure project just needed a nod of the government but was allowed to “pick dust” instead to use a phrase used one of the Adviser on the show while criticizing past governments. That road has still not been built 6 years down the road. Meanwhile, the costs have escalated many times. In 40 years, we have not yet been able to connect Dhaka-Chittagong with a modern highway that is resulting in un-necessary deaths everyday because it is used by cars/trucks/buses together with the manual modes of traffic and in many places as a market place making it a death trap and not by any means a highway! The failure to construct a modern Dhaka-Chittagong highway is indeed a national shame.
If greed is used an index to describe a country, Bangladesh would easily earn yet another “feather” in its cap. Dhaka’s plight is the outcome of the nexus of greed that exists between the government and people with money. If Dhaka had not been allowed to become the sole magnet for the country and decentralization of powers from Dhaka to the local governments had been the strategy, how would a plot of land on Gulshan Avenue that was worth not even a few lakh Takas after our independence would now be worth Taka 200 crores and more? No sane government anywhere in the world would allow any of these tall structures on the Gulshan Avenue that has shot up land prices to astronomical limits simply because the infrastructure cannot support even single storied buildings on the Avenue. This is why during day time; it takes over an hour to travel from one end of the avenue to the other. In normal traffic, the distance should be covered in 5 to 10 minutes!
It is perhaps already late to save Dhaka because we have missed the decentralization bus decades ago and with that the opportunity of balanced urbanization and modernization. The sad part is the government is still blissfully ignorant of it all and concentrating more powers in Dhaka to lead to its destruction faster.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador