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Splitting Dhaka: Model or Mistake?

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This article was originally drafted by Intellecap for the newsletter “Searchlight South Asia” as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Searchlight Process. For more Searchlight content on, please click here.

Urbanization in Bangladesh has unique and challenging characteristics: extremely unbalanced growth with 60% of its people living in four cities, and risk from natural disaster and severe climate change impact. In Dhaka, the country’s capital, rapid urbanization has nearly paralyzed the city’s ability to grow equitably. Today, 37% of the city’s population lives on 5% of available land. The population density of Dhaka’s slums is seven times more than the rest of the city, according to the Centre for Urban Studies Dhaka. In an unprecedented move in the region, the Dhaka City Corporation (DCC), the capital’s governing body, declared that the situation has become too uncontrollable for a single entity to govern effectively. On November 28, 2011, the country’s massive capital—and one of the world’s largest cities—split into two.

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Busy city scene in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Dhaka’s two governing bodies are now the Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC), with 36 wards, and Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC), with 56 wards. On December 3rd, a hartal—citywide shutdown—was declared in Dhaka to protest Parliament’s decision, and since then, widespread criticism has reigned. The bill splitting the DCC was introduced just seven days prior to its passing, leaving little time for debate, discussion or research to understand the implications of the bifurcation. Defending the decision, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said there is a precedent for dividing large cities, citing far-off examples in London, Sydney and Manila. The move, she says, was a necessary measure to bring improved services to a city in need of major reforms.

Implications of the Two Dhakas

A unified Dhaka city was, by all accounts, a tangled mess. Traffic congestion brought commuters to a halt for hours. Among the causes is that just 5-6% of roads have been built on the city’s available land whereas the worldwide average for a city is 25%. Unlike in India’s megacities, where most cities are under massive construction with high-flying cranes dotting city skylines, Dhaka has seen few projects to their completion.

Predictably, the division of the city along a north-south line has also received criticism for its potential to further exacerbate socio-economic divisions in the city. “The south DCC will be deprived from resources. On the other hand, the north DCC, where powerful and rich people of the city live, would get more financial allocation,” says Salahuddin Aminuzzaman, professor of public administration at Dhaka University, in an opinion piece. This leads to the question of economic viability—can a city that was struggling financially as one unit now exist vibrantly as two? To fairly assess the division’s impact, critics say, a study into the financial as well as social implications was necessary before implementation.

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Map of the division of Dhaka

Restructuring Democracy

The decision to split Dhaka was taken with little assessment; however, moving forward rightly will require deeper inquiries into the very democratic systems on which South Asia’s cities are run. As the urban poor quickly become the majority, are the current governing bodies able to represent these new and ever-changing voices? Would dividing megacities into separate entities increase efficiency and lower representation ratios, thereby improving the living environments of city residents? In Dhaka, at least, the majority is skeptical. Critics attribute the nine-minute Parliament decision to divide Dhaka as a calculated move to hold onto power rather than a proactive move to improve the lives of the city’s residents.

The “inevitability” of the decision from the ruling party’s side has resulted in a storm of controversy from “most opposition parties including BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party], the civil society groups and the media, criticizing the government move as uncalled for,” according to an Independent article. Architect, activist and driving force behind the First Bangladesh Urban Forum Iqbal Halent calls the move disastrous for the residents of the city, especially the poor. The main issue, he says, is that there are 11 ministries under the DCC that run everything from transportation to housing to fiduciary aspects, and dozens of organizations under those 11 divisions. “Splitting the Dhaka City Corporation will make an already uncoordinated system even more ineffective,” says Halent. “The move will make it extremely difficult to implement citywide megaprojects, including the desperately needed infrastructure upgrading.”

New Ideas of Representation
As the two Dhakas move forward, new notions of representation in the cities—one that actively involves its citizenry—could, perhaps, set Dhaka North and Dhaka South on new and positive paths. Without citizen participation, the government will continue to fall short on meeting the needs of the people. India struggles with similar gaps in its democratic representation, most egregiously in urban areas. Ramesh Ramanathan, co-founder with his wife, Swati, of the Bangalore-based organization Janaagraha, put forth his ideas for a more inclusive democracy in urban India during “The Future of the Urban Poor Speaker Series” in Mumbai. In an article on which his talk was based, he writes: “India today has the smallest number of decision makers to population when it comes to public issues …  And as for the average urban resident, forget it.  Imagine if this is true for the ‘empowered’ urban Indian, what it could be doing to the urban poor. They are twice forsaken, once because of their state, and once by the state.”

Ramanathan proposes a platform that institutionalizes the participation of India’s urban citizens by adding a third tier to the current governing structure. This tier would stand below the ward level and would provide an opportunity for citizens to “meaningfully” participate in the decision-making process of the city. The ward committees, he suggests, have been limited in their functionality because of “the combination of a debatable nomination process, limited citizen representation and an ambiguous mandate.” A new third rung, called “area sabhas”—under the municipality and ward level—would create a more bottom-up focused representation that would have greater potential to respond to localized needs of vastly diverse megacities.

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Dhaka river scene

Conclusion: Should Megacities Divide?

So the question no longer remains “Should Dhaka divide?” Since the split has already happened, the question now is how can North Dhaka and South Dhaka most effectively meet the growing needs of its citizens at a time of rapid expansion and change. The Bangladeshi cities will need to stand as a model in the region for not only creating platforms within their own respective governance structures by involving citizens, but they will need to think creatively about how to harmoniously integrate on bigger issues that will stretch across the divided borders. The Prime Minister has given examples of Western cities like London and Sydney, which rarely—if ever—offer appropriate solutions for the region. Dhaka may need to look closer to home to find new ways of looking at governing structures. The result may just be a new and better way of governing Asia’s new urban citizens.

Searchlight Process

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Research and Records Unit has undertaken an innovative approach to addressing this challenge by generating applicable intelligence that emerges from a forward-looking, on-the-ground perspective throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It is known as the “Searchlight” function—a group of forward-looking, regionally-focused horizon scanning and trend monitoring grantees that conduct regular, ongoing scanning for novel ideas, research results, and "clues" to where the world is evolving.