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Hold the dark

  • Published at 05:00 pm February 1st, 2020
Dhaka street road car traffic pollution jam bus
Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Does anybody want to fix this city?

You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose, American politician Mario Cuomo once said.

But that kind of sweet, seductive campaign process is nowhere to be seen in Dhaka. Instead, we get laminated posters throughout the capital, and loudspeakers blaring at us at all hours of the day. All the things we hate about Dhaka during normal times get dialed up to 11 around election time.  

Even bad poetry shouldn’t be making a person physically ill.  

What kind of governance will follow from this kind of campaigning remains to be seen, but for now, many residents are breathing a sigh of relief at the lowered decibel levels. For now.

Dhaka is a city of overwhelming challenges, and overwhelming chaos. Forget development, most of us, most of the time, are happy to only hold off the dark -- that soul-destroying pessimism that stalks us at every corner. Bad news is everywhere, and it takes great mental gymnastics to stay hopeful about life in the city.

Dhaka Tribune’s back page placed in front of me informs me that Dhaka once again has topped the list of cities with the worst air in the AQI index. For many readers, the instinctive reaction to this piece of news will be: “Why is this still news?”

They are tired of hearing about it. They know the facts, and they no longer care. 

This apathy goes to the heart of the problem. We have been driven to a point where unliveability is considered normal, a point where a literal breath of fresh air is seen as a luxury. People might be optimistic of positive change if there were observable trends for the better, but there aren’t any. It just goes from bad to worse.

The task at hand for our new mayors is immense, and I am sure not all residents have the same priorities as me. Many, in fact, don’t even fully register the gravity of air and noise pollution as problems. 

This ignorance only makes it spiral. This ignorance is why trucks, buses, cars, and motorbikes seem to lack the ability to move so much as two inches without blaring their horns to make their presence known.

Why do people do this? And why are our laws so powerless to stop them? The decibel level of our mayoral campaigns already answers the question in a way. Nobody wants to stop it: Assaulting each other with noise is simply how we communicate.

The ones in charge do it, so why should regular citizens do any different?

Dhaka has one of the fastest rates of urbanization in South Asia, indeed, in the world. People from all over the country come here, desperate for jobs or a better life. The city, as a result, is bursting at the seams. It becomes tempting, then, to blame to Dhaka’s problem on logistics -- to say it comes down to overpopulation, that the city simply can’t take the pressure.

That’s certainly part of it, as is the poverty. But those factors do not explain the general behaviour seen out in the streets every day, and the inability and unwillingness of the authorities to do anything about them. 

The traffic problem, for example, is partly attributable to the number of vehicles on the street. But that doesn’t explain the lack of enforcement, or the irrational behaviour of the traffic police, or why motorbikes are allowed to just roll on to the footpaths and act like they have some right to lord over pedestrians. 

Most cities that function well have put a lot of thought into not just the technicalities, but the type of conduct needed from citizens. This is done through a combination of educating the public, and enforcing the letter of the law. So if we want to stop littering, for example, we have to ask ourselves: a) Have people been told that littering is not allowed, and b) if they continue to violate the rules after being warned, are they being held to account? 

With the right kind of policies from the city council level, a lot can happen. The world has seen cities devastated by war rise from the ashes. If the resources, the vision, and the political will are there, there is no reason a city cannot start fresh. Dhaka -- even Dhaka -- could conceivably turn things around.

Will our mayors step up? Do they want to? 

Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.

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