Retired professor of the geography and environment department at Dhaka University and former chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), Nazrul Islam, is presently honourary president of the Centre for Urban Studies (CUS). He has conducted extensive research in the field of urbanisation. In an exclusive interview with Prothom Alo, this city planner talks about the problems faced by Dhaka's citizens, unplanned urbanisation and weaknesses in the service delivery sector.

Prothom Alo: You were formerly the chairman of WASA. Recently some persons went to the WASA head office to ask the managing director to drink some 'safe drinking water'. He neither drank the water nor even met them. What would you say about that? 

Nazrul Islam: This was most unfortunate and unwarranted. Service delivery organisations have to be accountable. There was no accountability here. You have to listen to the people, even if you cannot do anything. Government officials have to be humble, not arrogant. But we do not see this reflected in their behaviour.

Prothom Alo: But we did not get any explanation from the government or the ministry following the WASA MD's behaviour.

Nazrul Islam: Such silence is not expected. The authorities could have said that an inquiry would be made into the matter. Ground water in Dhaka is safe, it is some of the pipes used to supply the water that are unclean. Dhaka's surface water has problems. The water sourced from the river Buriganga is not useable. We would bring water from Sitalakhya but that is also polluted now. Now a mega project has been taken up to bring water from the river Padma. The project is near completion. There may also be plans to bring water from the rivers Meghna and Jamuna. Rain water must also be harvested. We have to use surface water instead of ground water. Perhaps WASA is working on this.

The quality of water supplied by WASA has come under criticism recently. The High Court has ordered WASA to test the quality of its water. The local government ministry has planned a big budget for the purpose. But WASA should be testing its water as a matter of routine. It should have a laboratory.

Prothom Alo: Any modern city should have a mega plan, but Dhaka is in total disorder. The city has grown in an unplanned manner.

Nazrul Islam: It is not true that Dhaka has grown totally in an unplanned manner. British planner Patrick Geddes first made a plan on Dhaka city in 1917. But that was never implemented. Following the constitution of Dhaka Improvement Trust in 1956 during the Pakistani rule, the Dhaka Master Plan was made in 1959. Its tenure was 20 years and most of it was implemented. Actually that plan has kept Dhaka operational to an extent down till today.

At that time, separate residential, industrial and commercial zones were built. However, it was not correct to create any zone exclusively commercial or exclusively residential. Motijheel remains totally vacant at night. The Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan was made after Bangladesh's independence. Its tenure was 1995-2015. This plan was implemented at a snail’s pace and most of it remains unimplemented. Then the tenure of proposed Dhaka Structural Plan (DSP) was 2016-2035 , but its draft is yet to be approved by the government. The Dhaka Detailed Plan is drawn up under the DSP. This makes no sense as DSP should be approved first.

Prothom Alo: Dhaka has been ranked as the 2nd and 3rd worst livable city in the world, according to different international surveys.

Nazrul Islam: Local surveys and researches also say that Dhaka is a least livable city. That is the true picture. But international organisations carry out their surveys on the basis of various indicators which may not be applicable to us. The important factors are the quality of civic amenities and whether it is a living city. Dhaka city is living, despite its problems. The city life would have been a bit better had traffic congestion been reduced. The metro rail is now being constructed. It was supposed to be built several years ago. We make plans but these are never implemented in time. As a result, the sufferings of the citizens increase. There is a crisis of qualified and honest persons in city's service delivery sector.
The problem of our administration is two-dimensional. Efficiency and competence of the service delivery organisations have fallen. Again, corruption has increased the sector too. In fact, there is huge crisis of good governance.

Prothom Alo: How do you view the performance of the current and former mayors of Dhaka?

Nazrul Islam: Mohammad Hanif was the first elected mayor of Dhaka. He was sincere. He wanted to introduce a city government to ensure efficiency in running the city. He did not get the central government's support for this even though he belonged to the ruling party. Hanif made budget allocations to improve the slums. This was a commendable initiative. Mayor Sadek Hossain Khoka was more busy with politics than with running the city. He also was in favour of the city government system also did not get support from this government in this regard. In the recent past Dhaka North City Corporation late mayor Annisul Huq had displayed administrative dexterity. He was sincere and speedy in his work. He introduced innovation in the management. But we did not get him for long. He was the best of the mayors. The present DNCC mayor has experience in running big businesses and this is useful for city administration. In the beginning, he faced several challenges.

Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) mayor Sayeed Khokon had little experience. However, he has gathered experience along the way. Both the mayors are committed. Both of them should include the people in running the complex modern city.

Prothom Alo: How to save Dhaka from dying?

Nazrul Islam: If we want to make a city modern and suitable for living, we have to keep certain features in mind. These include financial strength, security, social dignity, humanity, sustainable environment, cultural strength and aesthetics. A modern city has to have water, drainage system, power, energy, waste management, communication system, education, and healthcare facilities. Although other facilities are more or less in place, the communication system is in a bad shape. Dhaka is far behind in the context of mobility.

Prothom Alo: What is the remedy?

Nazrul Islam: First of all, the city has to have am efficient management system and a credible authority. Earlier, there was one mayor but now there are two. The demand for city government had been raised in the past, but was not implemented. During the tenure of Mohammad Hanif, a coordination committee led by the local government minister was formed, but it did not work. This happened again during the term of Sadek Hossain Khoka. The condition has become more complex with two city corporations in place of one. Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakha (RAJUK) is in charge of the Dhaka city plan. DNCC, DSCC, Gazipur City Corporation, Narayanganj City Corporation, Savar municipality and a number of union parishads are under the jurisdiction of RAJUK. If we want to introduce a city government, all city corporations have to do it. Who will be in charge of the development of Greater Dhaka? If a city government cannot be established, an authority led by a senior minister has to be created to work with all service delivery organisations. This organisation is mainly a coordination council. All mayors, MPs, chiefs of all service delivery organisations of Dhaka and representatives of citizens will be the members of this body.

Prothom Alo: Do you suggest recruitment of a minister for that authority?

Nazrul Islam: Yes. This minister will coordinate among all city corporations and service delivery organisations.

Prothom Alo: How to solve water logging? Dhaka city goes under water every rainy season.

Nazrul Islam: Once there were 50 canals in Dhaka city. Water logging can be reduced to a great extent if at least 15 canals are recovered. The proposal to create a canal in Panthapath by removing all the concrete there is not realistic. The government should simply restore the canals which are in existence. The canals have to be excavated and revived. The water bodies designed by DAP have to be preserved.

Prothom Alo: The HC has sought explanation from the chief executives of two city corporations regarding air pollution. Is there no accountability in the city corporations?

Nazrul Islam: The situation would never be like this if there was accountability. Dhaka city is now affected by air pollution, sound pollution and water pollution. There is Air pollution is alarming. The air in Dhaka is polluted by vehicles and innumerable brick kilns around the city. While development is necessary, this must not be at the cost of the environment. Alternatives have to be found out. Waste has to be removed timely and scientifically.

Prothom Alo: Dhaka is the ninth biggest city in terms of population in the world. Don’t you think it is unnatural for so many people crammed into such a small area?

Nazrul Islam: Of course Dhaka is one of several cities with the most dense population in the world. There are other cities in the world where the population density is even higher, but things run in an orderly manner there. We have failed to ensure order here. About 4 per cent people are increasing every year in Dhaka. The rate of increase has to be brought to zero. Population should not be allowed to increase in Dhaka. There is no alternative to decentralistion. According to Dhaka Structural Plan, satellite towns have to be built around Dhaka city. The pressure will be reduced if the plan is implemented. While building such satellite towns, the issue of employment has to be taken into consideration. The decentralisation across the country has to be carried out in a real sense. The effect of climate change on Dhaka also has to be taken into consideration.

Prothom Alo: When will Dhaka Structural Plan be implemented?

Nazrul Islam: The tenure of the proposed Dhaka Structural Plan is between 2016 and 2035. The plan is yet to be approved, so it cannot be said when its recommendations will be implemented. Besides, Strategic Transport Plan, which is very important, has been approved. Under this plan, a number of mega projects including the metro rail project and bus rapid transit are being implemented. There is a plan of traffic management. If the STP is implemented properly, the livability of capital Dhaka will increase. But it is time consuming and very complex. It is also expensive.

Prothom Alo: Is RAJUK working properly? They seem to be more interested in doing business than their other duties. They are busy making and selling apartments.

Nazrul Islam: RAJUK’s duty is to make plans for the development of greater Dhaka and implement those. Besides, the responsibility of RAJUK is to monitor development activities of different government and private organisations. They are not supposed to do business. People would not oppose that if the development was carried out free from corruption. There are serious allegations of corruption in RAJUK. There is no such allegations against similar the organisation Delhi Development Authority in India. Buildings are being built here without any design. This would not be possible without the involvement of a section of RAJUK officials. Service delivery organisations have to be free from corruption. Dhaka city has to be pro-citizen and humane. Former mayor Annisul Huq said this in his election manifesto. The commitment of SDG has to be kept in mind so that we have to go ahead with all, leaving nobody behind.

Prothom Alo: But what is the reality? On the one hand, there is the glamour of the wealthy class in Dhaka, and on the other there are slum dwellers living sub-human lives.

Nazrul Islam: It is very sad. Those who are in charge of running Dhaka city, are not interested to make Dhaka a humane city or unable to do it. I will draw your attention to the title of a book by prime minister Sheikh Hasina: 'Why are they urchins?’ We have to think about these urchins if we want to make a humane city. We have to think about millions of slum dwellers, people of the poorer classes.

*The interview, appeared in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam