Dhaka, a victim of poor governance

The writer says an absence of political will or concern for the city's residents is what leads to houses to continue being tinderboxes that are nothing but death traps.

Mohammad Al-Masum Molla

Mohammad Al-Masum Molla

The Daily Star


Last week's explosion in Gulistan, Dhaka revealed yet another example of negligence and irregularities committed by the city authorities. FILE PHOTO: Rashed Shumon

March 13, 2023

DHAKA – It is a common human tendency to break the law whenever it suits us – hence, the need for penalties or other measures. Since violation of laws is almost inevitable, there is also the need for monitoring, which falls on law enforcement agencies. These agencies, in turn, will resort to stiff measures or, sometimes, innovative schemes to get the people to abide by the law. One still remembers the traffic police stopping reckless drivers and giving them a choice between paying fines or buying helmets on the spot. In fact, it was this tough stance of law enforcement agencies which played a huge role in discouraging motorcyclists from venturing out on the streets without proper helmets in recent years.

The recent incidents of fire and explosion have once again put the spotlight on glaring violations of building code and safety measures in the residential and commercial areas of our megacities. After every incident, we point fingers at the building owners and question whether the building had proper fire safety and/or electrical safety, whether the structure was approved, and whether the safety regulations were being adhered to. This has been happening since the terrible fire in Nimtoli, Dhaka more than a decade ago. There have been several incidents since then, some almost identical. And every time, we have blamed the landlords and building owners.

What about the regulating authorities? What about the government measures to ensure governance? According to news reports, there are 54 agencies under 11 ministries working on city governance. Should these agencies not be held responsible for those incidents, too? I think they should. In fact, if it were up to me, I would point the finger at them first, because if these agencies did their jobs properly, building owners would not be able to get away with violating the regulations.

Charges were brought against a few officials of the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) over the fire at FR Tower on Dhaka’s Kemal Ataturk Avenue, which left 25 people dead and 73 injured. But there appears to be no other incident in recent times where regulators have been charged for negligence of duty.

Among the most shocking revelations about the poor state of governance and lacklustre implementation of regulations is the fact that a Detailed Area Plan (DAP) survey in 2018 found 94 percent houses in the Rajuk jurisdiction built without an approved plan. One cannot help but wonder how these thousands of houses secured utility access like water, gas or power connections.

What about the regulating authorities? What about the government measures to ensure governance? According to news reports, there are 54 agencies under 11 ministries working on city governance. Should these agencies not be held responsible for those incidents, too?

In response, Rajuk officials said the DAP area is huge and has 2.1 million houses, 500,000 of which are buildings (presumably that is the number of concrete structures). Many of these houses were built even before Rajuk was founded. So, they have very little authority on the houses that predate Dhaka city’s development authority and real estate regulator. Is that a good enough excuse? Does it absolve Rajuk of all its responsibilities and obligations – both legal and ethical?

Then there are the city corporations with a significant portion of their revenues coming from taxes paid by house owners and land owners. Don’t they have any responsibility or obligations towards these taxpayers and to the city?

But all these regulators and authorities are intent on evading the issue and shifting the blame to someone else while their constituents continue to die preventable deaths.

It is as good as a foregone conclusion that building owners and landlords are able to get away with blatant violations of rules and laws by dint of a nexus of corrupt officials and opportunistic owners, endangering unsuspecting people who end up paying the real price.

It appears that the main problem is with governance. If government officials were held responsible and accountable for every incident, things would have been corrected much earlier. This city of 400 years, which is said to be the 11th largest city (population-wise) in the world, home to more than 18 million people, has become a ticking bomb only because of poor governance – or rather its complete absence. Dhaka used to be a matter of pride for Bangladesh, but now it has turned into a curse for its residents, most of whom live here only because they are compelled to do so.

Perhaps it looks shiny from the outside, what with the megaprojects going on. There is the metro rail and the expressway. The entire city of Dhaka is filled with major construction projects signifying development and growth. Politicians point towards the city’s glitzy exterior to claim that it is close to becoming our very own Singapore. They would know better than most that such lofty claims are nothing but eyewash and lip service.

But that is the extent of their commitment. Like most other things in a state of disorder, this crisis of governance and flouting of safety regulations go on unabated only because of a complete absence of political commitment. It is only because of this absence of political will or concern for the city residents that our houses continue to remain tinderboxes that are nothing but death traps. A far cry from the Singapore that politicians claim we live in.

Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is chief reporter at The Daily Star.

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