In the wake of rapid urbanization, cities and towns across the country are gradually turning into jungles of concrete structures. Urban areas, according to dependable estimates. contribute 60% to the country's gross domestic product ((GDP). Dhaka city alone contributes 36% to the GDP. This was revealed at an international conference on urbanization held in the city on December 8 last. Experts at the conference, as reported in The Financial Express in its issue of December 9, blamed dysfunctional urban management and centralization of administration for turning urbanization into a curse. They said that urban planning should start from union level and must be implemented in phases.
In fact, over the last three decades Bangladesh has been undergoing rapid urbanization. This has created mounting pressure on infrastructure and basic services. Four major cities Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi and Khulna- have 44% of the country's total urban population. And Dhaka alone accommodates 37% of them. The main reason behind such urbanization is economy.
Measures so far taken by different government agencies to check unplanned urbanization appear to have yielded no result. The authorities concerned also admit that unplanned urbanization has been going on at a phenomenal speed in almost all the cities including the capital and this trend may take a heavy toll of life and poverty. Hundreds of commercial and residential buildings have been built in violation of the building code. Now time has come to adopt a right policy to check unplanned urbanization without further delay. Thousands of people are migrating to cities from rural areas for a better living which, in turn, contributing to unplanned urbanization with greeneries vanishing fast in the process.
With regard to unplanned development of metropolitan city of Dhaka, conscious citizens blame the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK) for the haphazard growth mainly due to its lax supervision, corruption and inefficiency. But the limitation and gross political interference under which the RAJK has to work seldom get public attention. The situation has come to such a pass that the RAJUK authority recently expressed its helplessness to execute city development plan and urged the political leaders to sit together and put forward their valuable suggestions for development of the capital city and its adjoining areas covering Gazipur, Keraniganj, Savar and Narayanganj under a new Detailed Area Plan (DAP). The RAJUK has warned that unless there is consensus among our political leaders on new DAP, Dhaka city cannot be protected from impending disaster. At present a DAP is in force for construction of buildings and development of lands. The RAJUK has been facing serious obstacles from various influential quarters in course of implementation of present DAP. The RAJUK chairman himself has stated that there might be some minor errors in the DAP which can be revised in the new plan. Unless this is done, the chairman warned, the Dhaka will turn into a city beyond control and it will be impossible to protect the capital from the land grabbers.
That the land grabbers have become irresistible is evident from the fact that the developers continue to fill up wetlands and floodplains adjoining Dhaka city in violation of a High Court order issued more than two years ago. Influential quarters, press reports say. are putting pressure on RAJUK not to take action against the illegal housing projects undertaken by the real estate owners. Press reports also say that the government recently approved four such projects and is going to give approval to some other housing projects which were developed during the last ten years illegally on wetlands and human habitations in low-lying rural areas. Such illegal projects have also sprung up on the banks of the rivers Buriganga, Balu and Turag along Dhaka-Mawa, Dhaka-Sylhet highways and at Rupganj in Narayanganj district. The High Court in an order issued on July 27, 2010 asked RAJUK and law enforcers to take steps to stop earth filling, sale of plots in illegal private housing projects and not to issue advertisements on those. In January last. High Court also issued similar order. But the implementation of illegal housing projects continues unabated. The RAJUK. on its part, could only dismantle a few billboards of illegal housing projects so far. Under the real estate management law, it is a punishable offence to issue advertisements and sell plots in illegal housing projects.
In the face of continued aggression on wetlands and floodplains causing serious environmental hazards, the RAJUK appears to be helpless in protecting water bodies, flood flow zones and habitations of rural folk. Experts say it is nothing but a systematic destruction of natural eco system which will make Dhaka city unfit for living soon. It is high time that the government policy makers in cooperation with political leaders of all shades of opinion sit together and come to a consensus on devising ways and means how to save the capital from impending disaster as RAJUK chairman has pointed out. Side by side RAJUK should be strengthened with required manpower and logistics to deal with this national problem effectively.
There is another danger confronting the city dwellers which relates to faulty construction of high-rise buildings. The Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) under the Ministry of Food and Disaster management had forecast earlier that 100.000 people may die and numerous others will need hospitalization in case a 7.5 magnitude earthquake in nearby Madhupur fault hits Dhaka city. The CDMP report identified 4,00,000 buildings in three major cities - Dhaka, Chittagong, Sylhet -- as extremely vulnerable to earthquakes and would suffer irreparable damages in the event of major tremor. According to Professor Syed Humayun Akhter of the Geology Department of Dhaka University, Madhupur fault line is very active and too close to Dhaka. Therefore it poses serious threat to people residing in Dhaka city. He pointed out that proper safety measures have not been taken in constructing high-rise buildings in the capital. This has turned the metropolis into one of the riskiest cities in the globe.
It is indeed alarming that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in a survey has also found that most of the buildings in the Dhaka city are not earthquake-resistant. About 53% of the buildings have weak foundation. 41% are unstable and 34% possess weak pillars and columns. Amid this scenario the authorities concerned must exercise utmost caution to check the violation of building code so that the area of hazards does not further expand with the constructions of new faulty buildings.
Improper piling, faulty construction, use of inferior quality materials and violation of building code have been found behind the collapse of many other buildings in the city in the recent past. Most of the collapsed buildings have one thing in common, that is, the structures were raised on wetlands. In order to save money the developers hardly lay foundation from required depth. Moreover, the design of the building, approved by RAJUK is not strictly followed. The RAJUK also cannot supervise construction and compel the developers to obey rules.
It is high time that the authorities take urgent and effective measures to prevent illegal construction of buildings for the sake of public safety. On the other hand planned urbanisation needs a strong political will on the part of the government.
The writer is the consultant editor of the FE