Don’t let Purbachal be a squandered opportunity
The Purbachal Residential Model Town, spanning around 6,227 acres of land, was supposed to have been an extension of Dhaka city—to support its growth momentum and accommodate its ever-growing population. Unfortunately, 26 years after the project was initiated, it has turned into a quagmire of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement—a black hole sucking in enormous economic and natural resources, giving nothing back in return.
The plan for the Model Town has been revised a total of five times since Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) launched the scheme in 1995. And from the get-go, there had been reports of corruption and nepotism in handing out plots to selected individuals. Even as recently as May 2, 2021, the High Court questioned the legality of plot allocation to 912 individuals in Purbachal. The Daily Star report on this also stated that the applications of 200 people were found to be "fake and faulty", while 15-16 of the plot allocatees were government officials.
And not just the government officials—MPs, ministers and high-ranking politicians have also been allocated plots in Purbachal from time to time, often in violation of the rule that says people who own land and house in Dhaka are not eligible to get a plot allocation. "At least 285 people have been allotted various types of plots in the reserved quota by Rajuk in the last three years. Of them, 149 are current and former MPs, while others are top bureaucrats, office assistants, and former Chhatra League and Mohila Awami League leaders. Lawmakers who own houses, plots and flats in Dhaka also received the Rajuk plots in special quota. Rajuk officials said they have just followed the instructions of the (housing) ministry," according to a Prothom Alo report published on February 15, 2021.
Kamal Ahmed Majumder, the state minister for industries, who already has an inherited home in Dhaka, is one of the plot allocatees. So is Kazi Firoz Rashid, a prominent leader of the Jatiya Party, who along with his wife own 20 flats, as per his affidavits submitted to the Election Commission. Prothom Alo quoted him as claiming, "The rule, which states that any person owning land and house in Dhaka is ineligible for a plot, is not applicable to the lawmakers."
While influential politicians, lawmakers and bureaucrats, among other beneficiaries, are being allocated plots in Purbachal, it is the local inhabitants who are allegedly being deprived of their due rights. A report by the Sangbad newspaper suggested that around 3,500 inhabitants of the area, who had been affected during the land acquisition process for the Purbachal project, are yet to receive their plots. The Prothom Alo report echoed the same: "Many people affected during land acquisition haven't received the plots yet… According to Rajuk sources, a total of 3,554 applications for plots were submitted in the affected or indigenous category (those who are yet to get plots). After scrutinising those, some 1,453 applications were considered eligible. But the reality is that Purbachal doesn't have so many plots."
So, how are so many people going to be compensated? Rajuk seems to have a solution to this problem as well: revision of the design. The same report quoted a Rajuk official as saying that they are planning to "create" 1,197 three-katha plots on 89 acres of land by altering the design.
There have been multiple allegations against Rajuk of taking away from free, community spaces—or lands allocated for educational institutions or healthcare facilities—to create more land plots for their vested beneficiaries.
The misadventures of Rajuk over the years have reached a point where the High Court, in response to a public interest litigation, had to direct the body to not "efface, subtract, vary or modify the forest, lakes, canals, urban green, parks, playgrounds"—as presented in the fourth revision—without the court's permission. This happened in March 2014.
Despite this, it has been alleged that in September 2018, Rajuk, in violation of the 2014 High Court order, "secretly allotted 84 institutional plots taking land from areas earmarked for schools and their playgrounds," as reported by The Daily Star in 2019.
All these unplanned or ill-planned initiatives by Rajuk are costing the nature as well. Even the fourth revision to the plan, if fully implemented, would entail the felling of 11 lakh trees, according to the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela). Evidently, the new urban sprawl being developed in the model town is costing the ecosystem and biodiversity of that area dearly.
While Dhaka is crumbling under the load of its burgeoning population—according to World Bank, "between 1995 and 2005, road surface in Dhaka increased by only 5 percent, while [the] population increased by 50 percent and traffic by 134 percent"—its hope for emancipation through Purbachal seems like a far-fetched dream.
The project cost of Purbachal has trebled to Tk 10,329 crore from the initial cost of Tk 3,312 crore—as has the pressure to accommodate more people than what had initially been anticipated. The initial plan was to accommodate 10 lakh people, which has now reached to a staggering estimation of 27 lakh.
Given that the Model Town project is already struggling to accommodate the affluent members of society, one wonders how it plans to accommodate those less affluent ones who will have to live in and around the area in order to serve the plot holders, once they start staying there.
But Rajuk alone cannot be blamed for the mess that Purbachal has become. It is the system that protects and promotes corruption that has enabled Rajuk to carry on its illegal and questionable activities with impunity. Either there is a clear lack of monitoring on this from the concerned authorities, or they have been, and still are, equally involved in the corruption that has led to the current state of Purbachal. Whichever it is, we do not know. But given the potential of Purbachal—or whatever is left of that potential—the government and relevant authorities must take immediate measures to address this crisis in the greater interest of the public.
Dhaka is already the fourth least liveable city in the world, as ranked recently by the Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Liveability Index. Going forward, the pressure on the city will only increase given its mushrooming population.
The government cannot afford to risk allowing Dhaka's condition to grow worse, particularly given its importance as the epicentre of the nation's economic growth. It should immediately revamp the Rajuk mechanism that is currently in place, so as to bring transparency, accountability and fairness in project planning and allocation of land.
Those individuals who have illegally been allocated the plots should return them to the government for the greater good of the city. If civil society and public representatives come forward in saving this project, Rajuk and the authorities would be forced to mend their ways.At the end of the day, saving Dhaka and bringing a healthy balance to the growing capital is everyone's responsibility. But how many can rise above personal gains and own this responsibility? Only time will tell.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @tasneem_tayeb