Friday, January 25, 2013

Some Good News for Dhaka, at last

The Independent
12th January, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Hatirjheel project that was opened the Prime Minister last week was a major event in the life of the inhabitants of Dhaka. Soon after it was opened for traffic and the public, it became a star attraction for the people for sightseeing. Dhaka that was once a pretty city has lost   almost all its attractiveness as a consequence of the mindless and visionless expansion of the city over the last few decades since our independence in which all regimes that came to power have contributed their share to earn Dhaka the discredit and disgrace last year of being named as the worst livable city in the world.

This project is in sharp contrast to that infamous reputation that Dhaka earned.  Apart from the beauty it has added to a city where beauty as an element of nature has become almost irrelevant to Dhaka’s inhabitants, the mere knowledge that such a vast space at what is pretty much the centre of the city is also a breath of fresh air to the people of the city. The Hatirjheel Project will act as oxygen to the residents of Dhaka who, with the traffic jams, the harshness of the living conditions, and the other miseries, were being snuffed out of life. It was not too long ago that there was a big billboard for construction of Hotel Hilton at the corner where the road from Sonargoan meets the road leading to the Tejgoan Industrial Area as well as many other billboards of different businesses where land grabbers were selling off government land at will with connivance of those in power.

A lot of credit for saving Hatirjheel from going to projects like Hotel Hilton and the land grabbers of Dhaka city  goes to the environmental groups who got together to put the pressure on the governments under both the  mainstream parties. Credit must go to these governments for not falling to the pressure of the land sharks who, with their indulgence, could have turned the vast area now the Hatirjheel Project, 320 acres in all, into mindboggling amounts of cash. The Caretaker Government must also get a great deal of credit for initiating the project while in power and giving the armed forces the hand to lead the project. Hatirjheel stands as a lone example so far of Dhaka standing successfully against the land grabbers!

Hatirjheel is a multipurpose project. To Dhaka, this has given a much needed facelift. To commuters who were crying out to the Almighty for new roads to help Dhaka’s unbelievable and insufferable traffic jam, Hatirjheel has added 9 km of road connecting Rampura to Tejgoan, Moghbazar and beyond. The Project will also come as a much needed relief to help the residents of Gulshan and Baridhara to move towards Moghbazar/Motijheel. The project will give to the inhabitants of Dhaka 10km of walkway on either side of the lake in a city where such walkway is something of a dream. The Project will also come as a much needed relief from water logging during the rainy season. When fully completed, it will have a theatre, park, garden and a few other recreation facilities.

It was heartening to hear the Prime Minister by instructing the relevant authorities to ensure that those who lost land to Hatirjheel are compensated adequately by housing facilities elsewhere. Nevertheless, even the best of projects will have its problems; with the Hatirjheel too there would be those who would be critical on some aspects. The main criticism about the project is of course with the BGMEA building at the western end of the Hatirjheel near Sonargoan as an eyesore. The people of Dhaka wanted the government to tell them what its thoughts are about this building. In fact, they wanted it to go before the Hatirjheel Project was opened. The Government should seriously find a resolution to this eyesore. Better still, the BGMEA that makes justifiable claims for its contribution to the nation’s economy, does not really have a positive image with the people of Bangladesh on its treatment of its workers. Perhaps it could bring the building down on its own and improve its image.

Hatirjheel has been opened prematurely; no doubt because the government is aware this is an election year and thus eager to seek people’s favour. The authorities have not yet put any road signs to help people to use the roads on either side of the Hatirjheel properly. For example, users going out of Gulshan towards Moghbazar have no clear direction on how to get into the proper side of the road.  This problem will be complicated when the Mega Mall of the Police authorities standing where the Gulshan Avenue falls into the Hatirjheel road is opened soon. Gulshan Avenue that Rajuk has turned without any consideration other than a nexus of greed with the land owners where multistoried buildings are coming up like mushrooms will only add more pressure and complications to Hatirjheel in terms of traffic in the time ahead.  Unless the traffic is regulated properly at the intersection where the new road meets the Tejgoan road close to the rail gate near Sonargoan Hotel, the congestion existing there before the opening of the Hatirjheel will be exacerbated.  In fact, the meeting points of existing roads with the Hatirjheel road at various points have not been made user friendly and could cause new problems and traffic jams.

The authorities would have done themselves a great favour if they had sought some interaction with the public before putting the project into execution. They have not done so. One wonders whether it is already late to correct the problems. In the first one week after the road was opened, the public has not seen much easing in the traffic situation.  These issues notwithstanding, the Hatirjheel Project has proven that given a good cause, the government, the opposition and the interest groups can come together and achieve something that is good for all. This gives us the hope that for a greater cause,  namely to find a way for peaceful transfer of power through an election acceptable to all, all concerned will do their share by keeping the  interest of the nation above their own.

The public reaction after Hatirjheel was opened is something worth noting. Those interviewed on the private TV channels were ecstatic. They liberally compared this project with the best of the world. Some felt that this project has elevated Dhaka to the status of the other beautiful cities of the world. Many who may have never seen any big city other than Dhaka were heard saying Dhaka has become as beautiful as Paris as a consequence of the Hatirjheel. Such excitement underscores how easy it is to satisfy our people. The Prime Minister has called the Hatirjheel the government’s New Year’s gift to the people that they have accepted gladly and with gratitude. One expects that she would end the year by giving the people another gift; their constitutionally guaranteed right to elect the party of their choice to form the next government.

In reality, Dhaka has the natural layout to compete and become as beautiful as the other beautiful capitals of the world. With Hatirjheel, the city has reclaimed one of the beautiful spots. We have unfortunately lost almost all the rest. Dhaka city has been endowed by nature with rivers all around it. In fact, this sentence should be expressed in the past tense for the rivers we were gifted by nature are just there, gasping for breath with their lives on the verge of being snuffed out. The efforts of the environmentalists and the media have not been able to do much in getting these rivers back from the land grabbers and the industrial polluters. After Hatirjheel, one hopes and prays that all concerned will come together to save the rivers around Dhaka.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary

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