Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Slice Of Dhaka, Anyone?

The decision to split Dhaka seems like one of those ‘brilliant’ ideas that come to the head in a soused or stoned state, which miraculously stick to your mind in the morning. The real consequences of this decision, of course, neither do we know, nor do the critics, nor does the government. That was never the point anyway.

WITH so many amendments being made to the laws that govern our country, I wonder if an amendment can be made to the Right to Information Act 2009, by introducing the word ‘authentic’ to it, and calling it Right to (Authentic) Information Act. I say this, because, on the day our prime minister flamboyantly defended her decision to split the Dhaka City Corporation, she mentioned, that many cities in the world, including London, Manila, Sydney and Melbourne, have more than one city corporation. Correct me if I am wrong, but my Google research tells me that the city of Manila has one corporation (to be distinguished from metro Manila which is not the capital but a region), while south Sydney city council, created in 1989, was merged with the city of Sydney in 2004 as its ‘financial viability’ was under threat. No mention anywhere of two mayors or municipalities or councils in Melbourne. London has the lord mayor of the City of London, besides the mayor of Greater London, though it is essentially a ceremonial post and the lord mayor works as an ambassador to the business and financial establishments of the City of London.

However, it is not that we wouldn’t find more than one mayor in any part of the world if we tried hard. Many of the adjoining townships or new areas of large cities often fall outside the purview of city governments and are administered through separate local councils. If indeed, the administrative functions of a certain geographical area need to be divided for enhancing performance, then you can cut out as many slices of the cake as you may wish.

Slicing up Dhaka appears to have attracted some legal complications though. The immediate-past mayor Sadeque Hossain’s lawyers argued in court that Article 1 of our constitution describes our state as ‘unitary’, while Article 5 defines Dhaka as the capital of the republic. The courts in the past observed that splitting the High Court was a breach of Article 1, while, during the verdict of the 13th amendment case, it declared caretaker governments illegal on grounds that the country cannot be administered by unelected officials, going by the constitution. Whether bifurcation and introduction of unelected administrators contradict the constitution is now up to them to decide.

There appears to be merit in the arguments of the critics of the decision as well. The city corporation essentially fixes roads, cleans garbage and drains, manages graveyards and public toilets, and kills mosquitoes. Important city functions like town planning, controlling traffic, running the public transport system, and supplying water and electricity do not fall among their functions and the case for having an autonomous city government with powers to control those, ahead of the split, sounds rather compelling. Some critics also say that the north-south division also threatens to widen disparity, as the rich areas of Gulshan and Banani in the north are bound to pay more taxes to their mayor than their poor Old Dhaka cousins in the south. Things can get worse if the north get a mayor from the ruling party and the south gets one from the opposition, or vice versa. Add to that, according to the new bill, the government has 90 days to both organise elections during the tenure of an outgoing election commission and split the infrastructure, logistics and administration of the city corporation into half, which is bound to put an avoidable strain on the public exchequer.

The legal and administrative complications are, however, all secondary. What is surprising, if not shocking, is that the whole of us 15 million Dhakaites woke up one November morning to discover that we were either northerners or southerners of Dhaka. There is no mention of it in the electoral manifesto, there has been no study to assess the relative advantages and disadvantages of splitting Dhaka, there was no demand for it from any section of the urban dwellers, in organised form or otherwise, nobody was asked for advice, not even the highest elected representatives for Dhaka. Everyone has been grappling for meaning ever since.

The Jamuna Bridge was built because the people of the north-west of the country wanted a faster route to reach Dhaka. The Padma Bridge has been conceived because the people of the south-west now want a similar route to Dhaka. The country was liberated because the ordinary people of East Pakistan wanted reprieve from the repressive regimes of West Pakistan and the bold leaders of the time articulated their wishes and organised their demand. See, the word ‘democracy’, printed on the bare back of Noor Hossain before he was shot dead, have a meaning. Democracy is a space where people vent their wishes and expectations, while political leaders articulate their demand or deliver on them.

It was during the time of kings and maharajahs that you dreamed up of building an expensive palace as an ode to your beautiful wife, of shifting capitals and of splitting capitals in two halves or four. This throwback to the era of maharajahs is what has left us perplexed. That is why, though the consequences are far less grievous, some people old enough to remember have drawn comparisons to that wintry January morning 36 years ago when they woke up to the six-hundred-pound gorilla called BKSAL.

All this, of course, is a case of sour grapes. The president has signed the bill and whether we like it or not, for law-abiding citizens, it is now a law. What prompted the government to take such a step is something everyone knows, but from a sense of propriety has so far only been described as ‘politically motivated’.

Mayor elections, especially of Dhaka and Chittagong, have somehow become potent indicators of the level of acceptability of the government in power, over the last two decades. In 1994, Md Hanif and ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury’s victory in the Dhaka City Corporation and the Chittagong City Corporation polls paved the way for the then opposition Awami League to kick-start a successful anti-government movement, while Mohiuddin’s victory again in 2005, once again served the Awami League the same purpose. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party already has its hands on the Chittagong City Corporation by removing the mighty Mohiuddin with little-known Manjur Alam. The incumbents can ill-afford another embarrassment in Dhaka and the split at least increases their chances, drastically, of having at least one mayor from their ranks.

This ‘politically-motivated’ decision, of course, is one more offspring of the ‘winner-takes-all’ politics of our country. The culture of mutual political animosity and personal repulsion has driven the two camps in the country to device ingenious ways to keep each other out of power. If only such ingeniousness and acumen was on display when defending our rights and solving our problems. The constitution, the parliament, the judiciary, the economy, the law enforcement agencies, the religion of the majority and now the capital are simple pawns in the game of power ready to be sacrificed at the altar of parochial necessity. Who knows, five years from now, the BNP might want to split Dhaka into four and the Awami League will take to the streets to defend the four hundred years of heritage of Dhaka.

The decision to split Dhaka seems like one of those ‘brilliant’ ideas that come to the head in a soused or stoned state, which miraculously stick to your mind in the morning. The real consequences of this decision, of course, neither do we know, nor do the critics, nor does the government. That was never the point anyway. But in the game of sacrificing pawns and protecting kings, we seem to be swimming deeper and deeper into stranger shores. We split Dhaka now, in the future, we might just as well want to split the country. If wards can be divided equally, why not districts. There is geographical distribution of popularity anyway. On second thought, given the blinding necessity of both sides to keep hold of power it might not be such a bad thing either.

BY : Mubin S Khan.