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Environmental lawyer and BELA executive chief Syeda Rizwana Hasan.Bangladesh Supreme Court lawyer and executive chief of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), Syeda Rizwana Hasan talks to Prothom Alo about Dhaka’s environment, the city’s innumerable problems and possible solutions.

Prothom Alo: You are a permanent resident of Dhaka city. How are you faring?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: We are suffocating in Dhaka. It is all right as long as we are at home, but the moment we go out, it is terrible. We have to plan a few days in advance if we want to go anywhere. Those of us who are working may have two or meeting in one day. I may have to attend a hearing at the High Court and as well as have a meeting in Gulshan. If so, then I have to arrange the Gulshan meeting at 9 in the morning so I can finish it by 10:30 and go to the High Court. I can’t arrange the meeting for after 2 in the afternoon even though I know my hearing at the court will finish in time. I can start in time from the High Court, but have no idea when I will be able to reach Gulshan.

Prothom Alo: So the problems are all on the streets. It’s all fine indoors?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: No. I did say we are all right as long as we are at home, but it is no longer as before. There are an alarming number of mosquitoes at home. You will read in the newspapers that even after the ‘dengue season’, there are around 250 dengue patients in hospital. So you are not really safe even at home.

Prothom Alo: What else?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: I have some relatives who go to Bangkok for medical treatment. The physicians there tell them that their cough has been lingering for long because of air pollution. There is no other reason. They advised wearing masks not only outdoors, but to use HEPA filters indoors too because the air within our homes is polluted too.

Prothom Alo: So, according to you, the acute problems faced by Dhaka city at the moment include air pollution, mosquitoes which also lead to dengue, and traffic congestion which causes suffering and delays. These are permanent problems. Then again, construction and digging are going on the year round and waste management is far from satisfactory.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: I have a friend from the Netherlands who works for a donor agency. She has to come to Dhaka almost every year. She said last year when she came to Dhaka, she thought the traffic couldn’t get worse than that. But this time she saw it has actually worsened. How is that possible!

Prothom Alo: Why are things like this? What can’t we have a normal and stable urban life?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: Dhaka city lacks guardianship. The term ‘city father’ has no meaning at all. Think of the recent city corporation election. The manner in which the candidates’ posters, banners and festoons littered the entire city, it is obvious just how oblivious they are about the voters. They painted their slogans on people’s walls. They do not have the right to do that. But we have not reached that point of civilisation. On one hand we are crying out the slogan for ‘digital Bangladesh’, and yet there are so many millions of posters and banners being printed.

Prothom Alo: Why wasn’t this stopped?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: You will not see those in charge of Dhaka city ever talking to each other or discussing matters with each other. Over the last one and a half or two years you have been hearing that Dhaka tops the list when it comes to air pollution. But it has been for around six or seven years that Dhaka has been ranked among the top four most unliveable cities of the world. If Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) points to the corruption of any particular government department, that department pounces on TIB. They say TIB’s investigations have no basis, that TIB is an agent of foreign quarters and they question the sources of TIB’s funds. But when it is repeatedly being said, on the basis of reliable foreign studies, that Dhaka is among the top four most unliveable cities in the world, there is no protest or discussion about that.

Prothom Alo: Would you recommend coordination also in the case of infrastructure construction, repairs, etc?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: There will certainly be problems in a city when large infrastructure is being constructed. But it is not acceptable that this will lead to the air of Dhaka being the most polluted in the world. Are metro-rails not being built anywhere else in the world? Are roads not being constructed anywhere else? Are flyovers not being built anywhere else? Of course all these are being constructed. But Dhaka is an orphan city. It doesn’t look as if has a mother or a father or any guardian. And the price of land in the city is on a steady rise. Permission is randomly being given to construct houses and buildings without taking into account how many people can actually live in the city. Where there was a 6-storey building, permission is being given for 12-storeys. Where there was a 12-storey building, permission is being given for 16 storeys, 18 storeys. There are professionals involved in multi-storey constructions who speak in favour of all this. They are looking after their own business interests. But where will the people of Dhaka get water, gas, electricity, sanitation facilities, how will the roads bear the burgeoning burden of traffic? No one thinks about all that. It’s been nearly 50 years since independence, but the city’s waste disposal is still not proper. We don’t even hear about any plans in this regard. All we hear is some project or the other is being taken up.

Dhaka city is losing its playgrounds. Private clubs are taking over these fields. The parks are losing all beauty. After the departure of the British, there has been nothing created like Ramna Park. At the most a fountain, a seesaw and a slide is set up on a three-acre plot of land. But that is not what we want. Why will the open spaces of a park, the trees and nature be destroyed?

Prothom Alo: Dhaka’s population is increasing as people come here for employment. The city is filled with industries…

Syeda Rizwana Hasan: Why are the readymade garment factories not being shifted out of Dhaka? Why is Keraniganj being taken over by land grabbers? Why can’t the government take up housing schemes there? I am talking about flats, not plots. Why couldn’t the government take up such schemes in Narayanganj, Savar, Gazipur or Tongi?
We can’t fix bus services, train services properly for public commute, but we are setting up the metro-rail. It is not that metro-rail is unnecessary, but I think the bus service should be fixed first before thinking about such a colossally expensive metro-rail. You can’t fix the bus service because you are virtually held hostage by the bus owners. You can’t even put them on trial and punish them when they run over and kill people. But you can uproot your opposition. You target anyone who differs from your definition of development. But you can’t do that with the bus owners. You can’t implement the road transport act. You shouldn’t use the term ‘city fathers’ anymore. Dhaka is an orphan. I never heard any political party ever say let us sit together and decide how to make Dhaka liveable.

Prothom Alo: How do you think Dhaka can be made liveable?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: There has to be coordination. The present government does not accept the concept of a city government. They feel a government within a government will create problems. It is not easy to solve Dhaka’s problems. A vision is required for this. How do I want to see Dhaka, say, 20 years from now? I don’t think of it. I just see 6 storey buildings, 12 storey buildings, 16 storey buildings and 18 storey buildings. What I need is a vision of a liveable Dhaka. What does that mean? What does that mean to the youth? What does that mean to a housewife, to a working woman? What does that mean to a working man, to a cultural activist?
Once a vision is determined, the two city corporations, RAJUK, WASA and DESA must prepare a work plan based on this vision. Whether it takes 10 years or 15 years, they will have to materialise this vision. It is imperative to take all sorts of measures to relieve Dhaka of the extra population pressure.

Prothom Alo: What about the other cities of the country?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: They are in a bad state, and deteriorating steadily. Nothing is coming up in a planned manner. There is land grabbing in these towns too. Ponds, canals and other water bodies are being filled. Waste management is deplorable. In most places the roads are in a bad shape. Traffic congestion is increasing in the district towns too. Crop land is being destroyed. The hospitals do not have basic equipment to diagnose infectious diseases. The beautiful juxtaposition of the towns and villages are no more. The municipal city master plans haven’t been finalised. Even if they are finalised, it will hardly make a difference. RAJUK itself has made of mess of Dhaka’s master plan. The district town will simply follow suit.
When Turag is filled in Dhaka, the river of a district town will be filled too. In the capital city’s Detailed Area Plan when wetlands are shown as housing estates, , the chairman in a pourashava will so the same there. Everyone will simply build structures randomly with no planning whatsoever. The district cities will go from bad to worse.

Prothom Alo: Thank you.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.

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