Dhaka megalopolis: From planning to reality

Throughout the ages, different governments have taken up different type of plans and projects for development, improvement and expansion of Dhaka City, but a few of those succeeded. Once called ‘Dacca’ grown by the side of Buriganga came into being in the days of legend and myth. The Turko-Afghans, Armenian and Portuguese also ruled the town before the arrival of Mughals. Spontaneously grown with various type of culture, industrial and business places popularly named ‘Bazars’ by dint of its zigzag and tortuous road network, also used to call the town as “Bauanna Bazar Teppanna Gaulir Shohor”. During the Mughal era, the town sporadically expanded up to Tongi in the north and Narayanganj in the south, when it was a business hub in the world. Sebastian Manrique, a European monk visiting Dhaka in 1640, stated that “many strange nations flocked to this city due to her vast trade and commerce and great variety of commodities”.

There occurs reverse growth during the time of East India Company, particularly after the transfer of capital from Dhaka to Murshidabad in 1704 and later to Calcutta. Eminent English writer Bradley Bart wrote in his book (Dacca: The Romance of an Eastern Capital) that “Dacca is merely the wreck of its ancient grandeur; its trade is reduced to a sixtieth part of what it was, and all its splendid buildings, the castles, the noble mosques and places of the Nawabs; the factories and churches of the Dutch-French and Portuguese nations are all sunk into ruin and overgrown with jungles”.  However, Dhaka again became the capital of Eastern Bengal and Assam for a brief period (1905-1911), when a few administrative and logistic buildings constructed at urban areas. Onwards Ramna Area, Rifles Regiment at Peelkhana, Police Line at Purana Paltan /Rajarbagh, Tejgaon Airport, Dhaka Cantonment etc was planned. When Wari-Gopibag and Paltan residential areas, Dhaka University, Engineering and Medical College, Race Course (Suhrawardy Uddyan), and High Court Complex etc were also planned and in the wake of the 2nd World War, an Aerodrome at Kurmitola was developed for strategic purposes.

 Dhaka once a riverine city interwoven by a number of rivers and canals, connecting with Buriganga, Balu, Tongi and Turag linked with Sitalakkya-Dhaleswari and Padma Rivers, were used to call as the ‘Venice of the East’. There were at least three dozens of rivulet, canal and khals that crisscrossed over the city. Rampura-Hatirjheel-Begunbari khals in the east with Balu and Sitalakkya linked with Katalbagan-Kolabagan-Dhanmondi khals in the west with Turag-Buriganga Rivers as flowing waterways till the mid 80’s. Unfortunately, almost all these khals including low-lying lands in and around the city, started to fill-up haphazardly, when there occurs huge influx of population in the city. In fact, the population quadrupled in Dhakafrom 0.5 million (1970-71) to 1.7 million in 1975. At that time, the government in power led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman tried to control the haphazard growth in the capital city by various means, but did not succeed due to political unrest and war-ravaged economy. He also attempted to restructure Dhaka Improvement Trust (DIT) for proper planning and development control by proclaiming an Ordinance, but it was not implemented after his assassination. In such a chaotic situation, the city expanded itself ignoring the planning provisions set-out by the town planners at different times. 

 Town planning in Dhaka starts from the early 19th century’s that one can see in the planning pattern of Central Dhaka area particularly at Ramna and Dhaka University areas, which were  drawn in the light of ‘Garden City Movement” of the British Town Planning system. Eminent town planner Professor Patrick Geddes was appointed for the purpose. He was submitted the report in 1917 named as ‘Town Planning in Dacca’, where he recommended a set of improvement measures both for modernization and expansion of the city. Based of which, a few areas like Ramna area, Wari-Gopibag etc were planned, but they were not totally materialized due to the removal of capital from Dhaka associated with geo-politics and in the backdrop of two successive World Wars. The Governor House (once called ‘Lat Bhavan’) now ‘Banga Bhaban’, Administrative Buildings like High Court buildings, Curzon Hall etc. and Ministers Houses at Hare-Minto- Bailey Roads were constructed at that time.

1st master plan of Dhaka

In 1947, when Dhaka was declared to be the provincial capital of East Pakistan, the Building Construction Act-1952 and the Town Improvement Act-1953 were enacted for planning and development controls. Dhaka Improvement Trust (DIT), now RAJUK was established for the purposes under the provision of the Town Improvement Act. In 1957-58, DIT was assigned a consortium of British Firms for the preparation of a Master Plan of Dhaka city. Initially the Plan was prepared for an area of 220 sq. Miles, which later extended to 320 sq. miles. The Plan was prepared for a period of 20 years with certain assumptions. But, the city developed in accordance with the whim of its rulers, not as per the propositions of the Plan. For example, the green areas at the west of Tejgaon Airport were proposed to preserve for the purposes of ‘Experimental Firm’ development, but in contrary to that proposal the National Assembly Complex of East Pakistan were planned in the area. In fact, this specific land-use (Assembly Complex) was opted to be developed at Zinjira area across the Buriganga connecting it by a bridge near the Ahsan Monjil and linking the area with North-South (English) Road towards the North. A part of Dhaka University was also proposed to shift to Faidabad in the north of Kurmitola but it was not materialized. Similarly Race-Course area (Suhrawardy Uddyan), Ramna Park etc. have also been squeezed by allowing other projects such as Dhaka Club, Hotel Sheraton, Children’s Park, Police Control Room etc in the area. 

On the other hand, why the master planners were opted for retaining Tejgaon Industrial Area in the inner city raised questions. The planners also generated debates on the retaining of Dhaka Cantonment and Rifles Headquarter (now BGB) in the inner-city areas along with the recommendations of their further extensions. The cantonment has now a greater area than in 1959 (6860 acres). Similarly, there was no answer why the Border Forces kept inside the capital city. Besides that, two more new Cantonments (Mirpur and Savar) has been planned within the city limits and due to the presence of cantonments inside the city, the rule of laws has been affected several times. The revolts in Pilkhana on 25th February 2009 by BGB personal caused a big trouble for the localities and virtually paralyzed the whole city administrations.  There were many other odds between the planning proposals and the reality. Most importantly, not a single zonal plan had ever been prepared for any urban areas. The problems exacerbated after the 1980, when there allowed to construct RMG industries, private universities etc. in the inner-city area.  The trends are still on, even after the enforcement of a new Metropolitan Development Plan (DMDP).

2nd master plan: DMDP

The 2nd Master Plan named as ‘Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan’ (DMDP 1995-2015) was prepared for an area of 590 sq. miles of greater Dhaka. It is a Three-tier Plan comprised with Structure Plan, Urban Area Plan and Detailed Area Plans (DAP), of which the Structure Plan is basically a policy plans and the Urban Area Plan is an interim plan for development. DAPs for various urban Spatial Planning Zones (SPZs) were supposed to prepare during the preparation of Structure and Urban Area Plans, but it did not happen. DAP was finally prepared and enforced in 2010, while in the absence of detail development plans, most of the metropolitan areas has been grown spontaneously. Besides that, due to huge influx of population in the city as well as centralized governance system, the planned areas like Dhanmondi, Banani, Gulshan, Baridhara, Uttara, Mohammadpur, Mirpur etc. also lost its character. At present, there is not a single area or houses that can be said that developed as per the plan. Due to the lack of an effective control system, most of the buildings in Dhaka are totally converted into commercial property ignoring their land-use provisions.

(To be continued)

Md. Emdadul Islam is  an Engineer cum Urban Planner