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Shanghaiing Dhaka: Prospects and Issues (Longer Version)

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Shanghaiing Dhaka: Prospects and Issues (Longer Version)
Mohammad Zaman*
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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 referring to the unprecedented growth of Pudong across the Huangpu River, holding this up as a shining new example of urban transformation in China. 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. In short, Pudong helped transformed Shanghai into one of the most modern and populous cities in the world within a span of some 30 years. 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. He 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. Shanghaiing Dhaka would not be an easy task, for various practical, political and social-structural reasons. Nevertheless, from a development point of view, Mr. Zhu’s idea is undoubtedly inspiring, and thus it deserves serious review and consideration.
In this brief review, I discuss some of the critical issues that would require careful attention from city planners and policymakers in Dhaka prior to making any long-term perspective plans following the Shanghai example. Needless to say, cities are our future. Nearly 50% of the global population will live in cities by 2035. Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, is the country’s only megacity and its most populous urban centre. 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, and perhaps close to 20 million in the total urban agglomeration. With recent administrative expansion of the city area –doubling the total area to roughly 307 sq. km – Dhaka is rapidly expanding in every direction, both horizontally and vertically. Today, Dhaka is considered one of the most crowded cities in the world, with about 30,000 persons per sq. km, and continues to experience an influx of migrants, particularly rural-to-urban migrants seeking work, with additional impacts on housing and transportation.
I have worked in Dhaka in an advisory capacity on many major infrastructure development projects funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank (WB), particularly in the transport (roads/highways, bridges, railways), water resources (flood control and irrigation), urban development and energy (gas pipelines) sectors, trying to adapt to the rapidly increasing need for infrastructure and amenities in Dhaka and the rest of the country. Similarly, I have worked in China on many ADB-funded projects in infrastructure planning and development (with professors Shi Guoqing and Chen Shaojun), including an impact assessment and evaluation of the Shanghai-Nanpu Bridge Project over the Huangpu River. The river used to divide Shanghai into the congested Puxi area on the west bank, and the less-developed Pudong on the east bank. The construction of the bridge (1991-1995), funded by the ADB, relieved congestion on the west bank by encouraging the development of Pudong and the transfer of industries and redistribution of the population from Puxi to Pudong. In October of 2016, I visited Shanghai for a week and saw the new Shanghai with its rapidly changing skylines. Thus, this brief overview and discussion are informed by my intimate work experiences and familiarity with Dhaka and Shanghai.
Shanghai epitomizes 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 the Asia region. It has also the largest free-trade zone in mainland China.
Shanghai is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Currently, it has over 25 million people. It is also the largest city in China. The entire city is connected by an excellent public transportation system, including high-speed bullet trains to and from the Shanghai Pudong International Airport, and a vast network of metro trains, buses and taxis. There are two bridges and several tunnels under the river, connecting Puxi and Pudong. In the city centre, an impressive network of elevated expressways has been built to lessen traffic pressure on surface streets. The city’s international airport is a state of the art facility and one of the largest in the Asia-Pacific region. Shanghai is also a major hub for Chinese expressway networks connecting the city with the rest of the country.
The city is visited by close to 10 million tourists every year. The bund along the Huangpu River on the Shanghai side is a favourite spot in the city, where literally hundreds of thousands of tourists congregate during the peak hours of the day to take in the sweeping panoramic views of Pudong. In addition to numerous skyscrapers, Pudong boasts two truly enormous towers – the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (468m/1,535 ft.) built in 1993, and the newly built 127-story Shanghai Tower (632m/2,073 ft.). As of 2015, Shanghai Tower is the world’s tallest building measured by height to highest usable floor. To summarize, within less than three decades, Pudong – now called the “Pearl of the Orient” – helped transform Shanghai into one of the most modern cities in the world. Pudong is generally viewed as the embodiment of Shanghai’s modernization, as well as a symbol of China’s reform and development.
How did Shanghai achieve this miracle? In brief, Shanghai’s multi-billion dollar modernization programs began in the 1980s, during the early years of China’s economic and political reform and development. Beijing unveiled this “visionary” mega plan in 1990 to develop the area east of Huangpu into a special economic zone. In 1993, the “Pudong New Area” was officially established – covering over 1,200 sq. km of Pudong – with strong leadership, support and commitment from the Central Government and the State Council. Pudong eventually emerged as the engine of economic growth and social development in Shanghai. Along with its new skylines and impressive infrastructure development, Shanghai also took measures for social and environmental safeguards, including relocation and resettlement of those affected by infrastructure projects and urban renewals. Resettlers were given better houses in newly built apartments with running water, gas, electricity, separate kitchens, and toilets. According to available reports, living standards of the resettled people improved significantly as many of the resettlers moved from the field to the factory and service sectors with additional skills training. This required timely and appropriate social development plans, institutional capacity and strong inter-agency coordination for effective execution, management and monitoring during the implementation stage.
So, 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 absence of any public transit system, coupled with the prevalence of multi-modal motorized and non-motorized transportation modes such as rickshaws and animal carts, create everyday congestion, delays and worsening air pollution. The roads in Dhaka cover only about 7% of the land in the city, compared to the 20% or more covered by roads in many developed capital cities (including Shanghai). The sewerage and drain systems in Dhaka are completely clogged with city refuse and compost, resulting in severe flooding with all its associated environmental and health-related consequences. The July 2017 floods are just one such recent example.  
The growth of this megacity is increasingly taking the form of suburban satellite cities with no affordable transport infrastructure. The influx of people from across the country – impacted by climate change, displacement and migration – has pushed the annual population growth rate of Dhaka to nearly 5%. Every year, between 300,000 to 400,000 migrants come to Dhaka from different parts of the country. It is projected that by 2020, Dhaka will become the third largest megacity in the world. The growth of the city has also caused many of the nearby low lands to fill up; nearly all the low lying areas on the eastern and western sides of the city have become populated, largely with illegal slum dwellers and bastee settlers, who constitute nearly 40% of the city’s population. 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 adapting to changes and demands of both local and global economic/market forces. Further, to become a “middle-income” country by 2021, as desired by the current government, Dhaka must develop new infrastructure and urban transport systems on a massive scale worthy of a global city. The issues of urban slums and provision of housing for the urban poor must also be resolved. To date, no tangible policy initiatives exist in this particular area. On the contrary, those living in slums and bastees in Dhaka are constantly subjected to forced eviction and displacement without any assistance for housing and resettlement.
Lately, the government has devoted some attention to the growing need for affordable mass transit and improved transport systems. Several mass transit projects under the umbrella of the Strategic Transport Plan (STP) are currently in an advanced stage of construction with funding from the ADB, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the World Bank. These include the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and the Dhaka Elevated Expressway (DEE) Projects. The DEE is being implemented as a PPP Project, and will establish uninterrupted north-south connectivity in the city between commercial and business centres, reduce traffic times, and provide travel comfort and convenience. Once operational, these systems will reduce the present street-level traffic congestion responsible for reducing the city’s economic density and compromising its livability.
Given this scenario, how do we evaluate Mr. Zhu’s remarks regarding the future eastward expansion of Dhaka City? Why eastward expansion? In the case of Pudong, there existed an underdeveloped area with great potential for development across the Huangpu River. Is there any such potential for eastward expansion of Dhaka across the Balu and Shitalakshya 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 the year 2000 among development partners. I recall attending a presentation by the World Bank in Dhaka specifically related to this subject. 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. It was considered a very ambitious plan, which required an integrated approach to urban planning involving close to a dozen government ministries. Two critical issues were raised, the first being inter-ministerial coordination and second being the investment requirements – estimated at more than US$2 billion at that time. The need for establishing a single authority to design and implement such a plan was also highlighted at that meeting. Such a mega expansion would further boost development in Demra, Rupganj, Siddhirganj and Narayanganj. This would also have positive long-term impacts in terms of industrialization along the Dhaka-Comilla-Chittagong Hwy corridors. The proposed Dhaka-Chittagong Expressway, the recent doubling of the Tongi-Bhairab Bazar Rail and the ongoing construction of the Akhaura-Laksam Double Line under ADB funding would support the growing infrastructural needs for eastward expansion. The proposal of a bullet train from Dhaka to Chittagong via Comilla is also under consideration. Indeed, China Rail delivered a presentation advancing this proposal at the Prime Minister’s Office in 2015. Thus, the eastward expansion of Dhaka is a very real possibility, with great potential for even further future expansion.
In addition to eastbound expansion, there are several other equally potential options for development in Dhaka. For instance, many local experts are of the opinion that Dhaka should expand across the Buriganga River to Keraniganj and beyond as far as Mawa. The widening of the Dhaka-Mawa Hwy, and the new Padma Bridge Rail Link Project with connectivity to the southwest of the country to Jessore/Khulna, would help the expansion in terms of business and commercial development. Any plan for expansion of Dhaka towards Keraniganj would require the cleaning of the Buriganga River, which is highly polluted from industrial and commercial waste. Twenty years ago, the Buriganga was a clean river and a recreational boating destination for the residents of Dhaka as well as tourists visiting the city. It is now polluted beyond comprehension.
A third option would be expanding Dhaka to the southwest across the Padma Bridge to Shariatpur and Madaripur. With the construction of the Padma Bridge and associated infrastructure (new highways, power, gas etc. at the bridge end in Janjira), the Shariatpur-Madaripur area would be ideal for city expansion, as the travel time from there to Dhaka would be reduced to less than an hour via the Padma Bridge by road or train. Further, this would boost development of the underdeveloped southwest region under Barisal and Khulna Divisions.
Clearly, there are several options and opportunities related to future expansion and development of Dhaka. In addition to the eastbound expansion suggested by Mr. Zhu, other potential options must also be considered and studied by a team of qualified and experienced international and national specialists. The government has recently undertaken a study related to site selection and feasibility for a new international airport in Dhaka. The site to be selected 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, however, require huge foreign investments, proper planning, new policies, capacity, technical knowledge, leadership and political commitment to make Dhaka a truly global city.
Finally, any expansion and development of Dhaka City 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. Any future expansion of Dhaka must consider and recognize the social and environmental costs of such mega development. For instance, the dramatic expansion and growth of the city will require massive acquisition of lands, demolitions of houses/businesses, and displacement and resettlement of the affected people. Similarly, massive environmental impacts and degradation will be experienced due to land-use changes and infrastructure development. The laws and regulatory framework in these areas are currently very weak. Therefore, social and environmental safeguards planning must be supported by new policies and “good practices.” Further, social and environmental safeguards must receive top priority during the planning process and be fully integrated into the project cost. Any move toward the Shanghaiization of Dhaka without adequate social and environmental safeguards will create untold miseries and disaster for those affected by such expansion. By definition, a global city must meet global standards when it comes to safeguards planning and implementation.
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* The author is an international development specialist and Advisory Professor, Hohai University, Nanjing, China (e-mail: mqzaman.bc@gmail.com).