Population pressure: Decentralisation a must to save Dhaka 

Many studies have been conducted on the increasing population pressure in Dhaka, and leaders have delivered numerous political speeches on the matter. However, the stark reality remains that effective measures to control Dhaka's population have yet to become visible.

In this context, the information presented during the seminar titled 'Decentralising Dhaka and Sustainable Urbanization of Bangladesh,' organised by the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI) last Saturday, is nothing short of alarming. 

The main issue raised in the seminar reveals that the Dhaka metropolitan area covers only 1 per cent of the total land area of the country, amounting to 1528 square kilometers. Astonishingly, 32 per cent of the nation's urban population resides in Dhaka.

Furthermore, approximately 700,000 people are displaced annually due to climate change, with the majority seeking refuge in Dhaka city. This Dhaka-centric urbanisation has given rise to several challenges, including traffic congestion, water pollution, air pollution, escalating energy consumption, and health risks, in addition to the loss of working hours for its residents. 

During the seminar, Land Minister Saifuzzaman Chowdhury emphasised the need to shift away from a Dhaka-centric development programme. Similar sentiments have been expressed by many ministers and researchers in the past.

However, there appears to be a lack of noticeable initiatives to decentralise the development programmes. Government offices, private industries, educational institutions, and commercial establishments continue to be built in Dhaka city. 

According to estimates provided by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Dhaka ranks as the 11th most populous city in the world. Remarkably, Dhaka has now surpassed all other cities in terms of population density relative to its land area.

With a staggering 43,500 people per square kilometer, Dhaka surpasses Mumbai, the second most densely populated city, where 32,400 people reside. According to data from Prothom Alo published in 2016, Dhaka city witnesses the addition of 1,700 people daily. This influx of people into Dhaka has escalated in recent years. 

Overpopulation poses a significant problem in Dhaka city, yet it is not adequately addressed in the government's development policies and plans. The government is actively constructing metro rail systems and high-speed flyovers to alleviate traffic congestion in Dhaka.

However, the essential necessities such as housing, water, electricity, and gas for a population exceeding 15 million people remain unmet. Consequently, Dhaka consistently ranks at the bottom of the list of livable cities. 

In this context, the slogan 'city benefits will be available in rural areas' falls short; the government's development plans should be designed to reduce the concentration of resources and opportunities in Dhaka. Efforts should be directed towards creating employment opportunities not only in Dhaka but also in other divisional cities and rural areas. 

There is no compelling reason to maintain the headquarters of all administrative and commercial government departments exclusively in Dhaka. During the Ershad government era, several departments and institutions successfully relocated their headquarters out of Dhaka.

Unfortunately, political pressures later led to their return to Dhaka. The government has announced its intention to make Bangladesh a smart nation through digitisation. Why should all work in Smart Bangladesh be carried out from Dhaka? 

To transform the 'uninhabitable capital city' into a livable one, it is imperative to curtail the influx of people into Dhaka. Policymakers should recognise that decentralisation is essential to protect Dhaka, as the city cannot be salvaged without it.