dhaka city looked beautiful last night.
now, i realize that such a statement can come as a shock to the dedicated readers of this blog, since one of my favourite pastimes over the last few months has been to bitch incessantly about the city. in fact, it’s a shock to me too. the last time i thought that the city was beautiful was on january 1, 2001, when i was returning home at dawn after a night of copious alcohol, riding a rickshaw through thick fog, watching the sun rise above the skyline, while being serenaded by the subtle melodies of a distant flute-player.[side-note: for some reason, the most surreal moments in my life feature alcohol and music. see the post with the pictures. maybe i should be more drunk while listening to music from now on.]
anyway, as i was saying before i was so rudely interrupted by my brain, dhaka city looked beautiful last night. there was very little traffic, and parts of the streets were illuminated with different colored christmas lights, mixing with the soft neon glow of the multitudinous advertisements. the streets were virtually deserted, and the first sound that one heard upon stepping outside was not the irate honking of a thousand car horns, but rather the whistle of the wind through the trees. overall there was a feeling of calm, of eternal peace, and it seemed like dhaka had finally achieved a sense of nirvana
in contrast, dhaka today was positively ugly. the traffic jams were back. the christmas lights had multiplied to fill every single nook and cranny, making the streets look like some kid had overdosed on halloween candy and vomited it all out. car horns mingled with the drone of vehicle engines and the loud yells of the drivers, and the sidewalks were jam-packed with people who, as luck would have it, still seem to be suffering from whatever dementia keeps compelling them to walk down the middle of the roads.
i must admit, though, that things aren’t quite as bad as before, especially during the pre-eid hysteria. all except for the christmas lights.
when the entire nation is going through a power crisis, causing factories across the country to shut down, i don’t exactly see how the government can afford to drape every public building, tree and square inch of unoccupied roadside land with christmas lights. one must question the power consumption of these christmas lights, especially since the government banned the use of these exact same lights by shopping malls before eid (the ban, of course, did not extend to the government itself, which continued to festoon all its buildings with the damned things).
what precise purpose, i wonder, is served by decorating the roads with lights? i understand that the saarc summit is important, but are we trying to convince all the foreign delegates that dhaka always has a wild, extravagant party? frankly, i don’t see anything wrong with tidying up the city prior to the saarc summit. the part i have a problem with, however, is that the so-called dhaka beautification effort is strictly confined to the roads and areas that will be travelled by the foreign delegates, while other parts of dhaka lie undeveloped and uncleaned. how, precisely, does it benefit anybody if the airport road is bedecked with decorations, whereas a road in dhanmondi is jam-packed with traffic and overwhelmed by the stench of uncovered garbage?
all this reminds me of an article i read a while ago, back when beijing was bidding to host the olympics, and the municipal authority proceeded to cover up the slums by posting huge billboards in front of them. are we not guilty of an equally elaborate eyewash? are we not pretending to look much better than we really are? while attempting to host a summit where poverty eradication is the top item on the agenda, are we taking an ethical approach?
as i said before, the practice of beautifying the city for the saarc summit is a great idea. we must present the best face to our neighbors in order to maintain a certain amount of dignity and pride. in fact, considering that we’ve been adjudged the world’s most corrupt nation five years in a row, that we’re experiencing a boom in religiously-motivated terrorism, that we’re stuck in an endless loop of denouncing the previous administration and finding fault with the present one, and that our most frequent interaction with our closest neighbor is based around a game of who can kill illegal border-hoppers, we must attempt to salvage whatever dignity and pride that we can. not to mention the fact that, with increasing urbanization, greenery is quickly becoming extinct in the city.
rather, it is important that we learn some important lessons and practices from our experience with the preliminary arrangements for the summit.
first, dhaka city needs to be beautified, but such an effort cannot be confined to simply the vip roads that are used by the elite. the beautification effort needs to be coordinated, preferably in line with a long-term masterplan that will outline the development of all areas of the city. such a masterplan needs to be inclusive of not only beautification, but also infrastructure maintenance, so that all roads are properly paved and pothole-free. the masterplan should also consider the expansion of the most frequently used roads, and even incorporate the use of alternate routes and one-way streets. this is particularly necessary considering the massive expenditure that is being incurred through the development of flyovers and bypasses. dhaka city cannot afford to look a mid-nineteenth century slum anymore – rather, it should resemble the young metropolis of the twenty-first century that it really is.
second, the value of private sector involvement in any such effort cannot be ignored. the existing beautification has been largely spearheaded by the private sector, albeit in a disturbingly forceful way – in early 2005, the government told large companies that they had to take responsibility for the beautification, since it was part of their social and environmental responsibility to the community. while the approach itself may not be ideal, it illustrates two critical ideas: one, that the government lacked the resources to conduct an operation of this scale, but was not afraid to ask (or order) the private sector for their help; and two, that the private sector is actually willing to participate in such initiatives with a view to increasing sales through free advertisements. true, it does get boring seeing every square inch of road blocked off by dhaka bank and grameenphone ads, but at least there are trees and fresh air, and not just a growing cloud of vehicular smoke.
third, with the saarc summit looming on the horizon and the preparations in full swing, the government must realize that they have a valuable opportunity to make some positive changes, and that such an opportunity should not be squandered. approximately 30,000 more defense personnel are now posted in dhaka to ensure fool-proof security, and the perceived threat of these individuals, particularly of the army, can be used to maximum benefit to enforce laws that are seldom implemented. for instance, the armed contingent should team up with the anti-corruption commission, or whatever it’s being called these days, to apprehend the most corrupt officials and the people who bribe them. or the army can be deployed to punish violators of another golden international rule – when the traffic signal turns orange, prepare to stop. believe it or not, most people view the yellow signal as a sign to honk their horns louder, or accelerate faster, so that they can cross the intersection before it turns red. this is done even if the car is several cars behind the intersection. the fact of the matter is that dhakaites of every persuasion are equally afraid of the army, because they are notorious for being unbribable and brutal. i’m not asking the army to be brutal and ruthless and punish everybody of every imaginable crime; rather, i’m asking the government to use this inherent fear for the benefit of the country.
fourth, the massive security deployment has also reduced crime, because every criminal is too scared to leave his house. clearly, then, the existing police and law and order system isn’t working, since only the deployment of the army has been successful in reducing rampant crime. therefore, what is necessary and urgent is a complete restructuring of the police system. the police needs to be able to inspire a sense of fear in people, in order to deter people from committing crimes, and the current police force is too soft and too corrupt to do so. therefore, the police need suitable training and suitable incentives to actually do their jobs. there’s a lot of money available for this. my favourite donor organization (less interference, more practical projects) already has a program on police reform. instead of wasting their money buying armored vehicles for the police, this money should be spent on capacity building. better yet, the efforts of the police should be incentivized. most crimes should be tied to a fixed and definite fine structure, and a percentage of the fine for each offense should be given to the reporting officer. team-building initiatives to encourage police stations to compete amongst themselves in reducing crimes in their neighborhoods should also be put in place. in today’s world, where countries are now focusing on preventing crimes rather than punishing offenders, our situation is grim and needs serious reform.
finally, the most important lesson to learn from our experience is for the government to effectively practice what it preaches. banning the use of christmas lights in shopping malls while flagrantly using at least double the amount to light up specific city roads for five days presents exactly the wrong picture of the government to the private sector. the private sector wants a government that will facilitate its operations and will simplify the complexities of doing business, not a strict behemoth that simply regulates. the private sector wants a government that keeps its word, and not one that issues a directive that it violates itself; nor do they want a government that sets a specific policy that is discontinued as soon as the next batch of politicians take the helm. in a country where trust is a precious commodity, the people need to be able to trust in the government, and it’s definitely sad to see that the government is not making this a priority.
last night, while driving through dhaka, i thought i had arrived in a modern and beautiful city somewhere in europe. that’s something that’s easy to imagine. it’s important today that everybody realize that it’s also not too difficult to implement.