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Shanghaiing Dhaka:Prospects and Issues (Shorter version)

Author: Anonymous     Sources: NRCR     Update Time:2017/9/2 8:17:52
Shanghaiing Dhaka: Prospects and Issues (shorter version)
Mohammad Zaman*

I am intrigued by the recent remarks made by Zhu Ruo, a leading urban planning expert in China, suggesting that Dhaka follow Shanghai's example in regards to urban transformation and growth. Mr Zhu was in Dhaka in mid-July for the first time, at the invitation of the World Bank, to attend an international conference on development options for Dhaka towards 2035. As the dean of the Pudong Planning and Design Institute, he witnessed firsthand Shanghai's eastbound growth in Pudong—watching the area transform from a marshy rice field in the 1980s to a powerful modern global financial centre packed with skyscrapers. Mr Zhu reportedly found many similarities between present day Dhaka and the Shanghai of the early 1990s, hence his assertion that Dhaka could learn from the Shanghai experience to transform itself into a modern city through proper planning and development.

I believe Mr Zhu was right in many respects. There are surely numerous lessons to be learned from the Shanghai experience. However, “Shanghaiing” Dhaka would not be an easy task. Nevertheless, Mr Zhu's idea is undoubtedly inspiring and deserves careful consideration. In this brief review, I discuss the various options for expansion of Dhaka, including need for careful policy consideration prior to making plans following the Shanghai example.

Shanghai epitomises what a world-class city means in terms of its economy, transportation, social infrastructure, environmental management and governance. Today, Shanghai is the principal commercial and financial centre of Mainland China. In 2017, it was ranked thirteenth in the Global Financial Centres Index and fourth most competitive in Asia after Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Shanghai is also home to 300 of the Fortune 500 companies. Manifestly, it is an economic powerhouse in Asia. Shanghai is the largest city in China with 25 million people and one of the fastest growing cities in the world. The city is served by excellent public transit systems, including high-speed bullet trains. The Pudong International Airport is a state of the art facility and one of the largest in the Asia-Pacific region. Shanghai is visited by close to 10 million tourists every year. To summarise, in less than three decades, Pudong helped transform Shanghai into a modern global city. Today, Pudong is viewed as the embodiment of Shanghai's modernisation and a symbol of China's reform and development.

Needless to say, cities are our future. Nearly 50 percent of the global population will live in cities by 2035. Dhaka, the capital, is the country's only megacity. It is also the main business and commercial hub of the country. Currently, Dhaka has an estimated population of over 15 million in the metropolitan areas. With recent administrative expansion of the city area, Dhaka is rapidly expanding in every direction, both horizontally and vertically. Today, Dhaka is considered one of the most crowded cities in the world, and continues to experience an influx of migrants, particularly rural-to-urban migrants seeking work, with additional impacts on housing and transportation.

Does present day Dhaka represent the Shanghai of the early 1990s, as suggested by Mr Zhu? It is hard to completely refute the assertion. Dhaka's civic amenities and public infrastructure, including transport, serve city dwellers very poorly. The growth of this megacity is increasingly taking the form of suburban satellite cities with no affordable transport infrastructure. The city is currently spreading towards the north, to Savar, Tongi and Joydebpur and as far as Kaliakair, due to the presence of garments factories and special economic zones.

To date, Rajuk has taken no serious efforts to create a planned city; as a result, Dhaka has been growing according to its own demand without any real plan for transformation into a global city. Such transformation requires new infrastructure and urban transport systems on a massive scale worthy of a global city. On the contrary, those living in slums and bastees in Dhaka are constantly subjected to forced eviction and displacement. Lately, the government has devoted some attention to the growing need for affordable mass transit—for instance, the ongoing construction of the Bus Rapid Transit, the Mass Rapid Transit and the Dhaka Elevated Expressway.

Given this scenario, how do we evaluate Mr Zhu's remarks regarding the future eastward expansion of Dhaka City? Is there any such potential for eastward expansion of Dhaka across the Balu and Sitalakshya rivers, offering the chance of establishing a Pudong-like city? Mr Zhu may not be aware that an eastbound expansion of the city around the Dhaka Eastern Bypass was discussed as early as 2000 among development partners. I recall attending a presentation by the World Bank in Dhaka specifically on the eastward expansion of Dhaka. The rationale behind the construction of the Dhaka Eastern Bypass was that it would offer relief from annual flooding and inundation to a huge area of wetlands of Beel Belai, and eventually allow the area to be developed to ease the pressure on Dhaka. The eastward expansion of Dhaka is still a very real possibility; with great potential for even further future expansion. However, other equally potential options—for instance, expansion across the Buriganga River to Keraniganj and beyond as far as Mawa or to the southwest across the Padma Bridge to Shariatpur and Madaripur—should be carefully studied. The decision for the site for the new international airport by the current government will indeed define the future course of expansion and growth of Dhaka City.

Dhaka must grow and develop as a world-class city. It will require huge foreign investments, proper planning, new policies, capacity, technical knowledge, leadership and political commitment to make Dhaka a truly global city. Any expansion of Dhaka must benefit all city dwellers in terms of jobs, affordable housing, education, health services, transport and other basic amenities. The miracle of Shanghai should not easily sway us. We must consider and recognise the social and environmental costs of such mega development. The laws and regulatory framework in these areas are currently very weak. Any move toward the Shanghaiisation of Dhaka without adequate social and environmental safeguards will create untold despair and miseries. By definition, a global city must meet global standards when it comes to safeguarding the people and the environment.


Mohammad Zaman is an international development specialist and advisory professor at Hohai University, Nanjing, China. E-mail: