Bangladesh and its capital Dhaka both house a major population in an extremely confined space. Bangladesh is not only the eighth most populous nation in the world but also the most densely populated (not counting small city-states and island nations). Dhaka is the geographical and psychological centre of the county, the seat of its government and its economy.

Dhaka is one of the world’s largest megacities, with a population of nearly 20 million. Only seven or eight other cities in the world are more populous. By some estimates, it is also the most densely populated city on earth – with a staggering 49,000 people per km2. If Dhaka were a country, it would have a population larger than those of 130 other countries today. Dhaka’s size and population are also more than three times those of Bangladesh’s next biggest city.

Dhaka is an infamously chaotic city. The combination of the sheer size of its population and its density makes its governance a mammoth undertaking.

Dhaka’s liveability and governance perils

Cities globally are governed through mandates granted to municipalities or city corporations. The same is the case for Dhaka but it also has something unique. Dhaka, unusually, is run by two different city corporations. In 2011, the city was bifurcated and separated geographically along a north–south divide. The then-Dhaka City Corporation was replaced by Dhaka North City Corporation and Dhaka South City Corporation, with the south city encompassing most of the older and historic settlements and the north city comprising the newer developments of Dhaka.

When voters in Dhaka’s two city corporations cast their ballots for their elected representatives, they have reasonable expectations that the incoming mayors will tackle the problems of the residents.

Both of these city corporations are led by mayors, who are directly elected every five years. When voters in Dhaka’s two city corporations cast their ballots for their elected representatives, they have reasonable expectations that the incoming mayors will tackle the problems of the residents.These legitimate, long-standing grievances about the ‘liveability’ of the city have been raised repeatedly, in many different forums. They should come as no surprise to stakeholders. Dhaka ranks in the lowest percentile on the latest Global Liveability Index (2021), published by the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.

Even a first-time visitor to Dhaka will immediately see the day-to-day difficulties that residents face, which are mainly borne out of three broad factors:

  • A lack of spatial planning and haphazard zoning enforcement that plague the entire city;
  • The interconnected problem of gridlocked traffic, road safety issues, poor-quality public transport and absence of parking spaces;
  • Chronic noise and air pollution.

Meanwhile, seasonal concerns occasionally take precedence in the minds of residents. These include waterlogging during the monsoon and the mosquitoes that plague the city every winter.

However, the legal mandate of the two city corporations confers upon them a surprisingly limited set of responsibilities, primarily:

  • Provision of trade licences and birth and death certificates;
  • Management of certain public markets, graveyards and cremation grounds;
  • Collection of licence fees and housing taxes (popularly known as holding tax);
  • Cleanliness and maintenance of roads, public spaces and toilets;
  • Waste management;
  • Certain aspects of public health such as mosquito eradication, market cleanliness and food adulteration.

In Bangladesh, many vital urban governance tools do not fall within the mandate of city government. Noteworthy such tools include city zoning, urban planning, traffic management control, public transport, law enforcement and public utility services. Most of these mandates are scattered across a range of different central government agencies. This arrangement has been many years in the making.

Spatial planning and urban development

The British colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent recognised the principle of local self-government in only a limited form and extended it to only three cities: Calcutta, Bombay and Madras (known today as Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai). The charters granted to these three cities mandated them to administer civic services through elected representatives.

The failed anti-colonial rebellion of 1857 strained the finances of the colonial government. This led the authorities to look at local taxation to enable the provision of local services, which thus required the expansion of local government. This resulted in the Bengal Government passing the Municipal Improvement Act of 1864. Dhaka was first incorporated as a municipality in 1864; it was at the time home to approximately 52,000 people.

This Act empowered municipalities to raise funds ‘by levying rates upon houses, lands, animals, trades and other sources,’ according to Bangladeshi historian Sharifuddin Ahmed’s Dacca: A Study in Urban History and Development. They were required to spend these funds on the maintenance of police, roads, drains, water tanks and garbage disposal services. Right from its founding days, the local government did not have any development or planning authority. In the years that followed, different laws would amend the scope of different aspects of Dhaka’s governance framework. However, the absence of planning and development authority remained constant.

A municipality worker ‘fogging’ as part of the city’s mosquito-control services, Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2022 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

Another inflection point was 1947, when colonial rule ended with the departure of the British, leading to the partition of the Indian subcontinent. At the time, the Bengal Municipal Act of 1932 governed the functions of local government. An evaluation by urbanist Quazi Nuruzzaman in 1979 found that, in actual practice, this Act gave no planning powers to the local body. In other words, the municipalities had no power to make a master plan, control land uses or undertake urban development. Therefore, British rule withheld the power to plan and develop a city from local government.

It was in this context that the next legislative milestone was enacted: the Town Improvement Act of 1953. This new law birthed the specialised Dhaka Improvement Trust (DIT) in 1956. The DIT was set up as an autonomous agency, and was authorised to take over selected areas in need of renewal, carry out improvements and then transfer those areas back to the municipality. It could also conduct new developments in areas outside the then-municipal boundaries. In 1958, the DIT was repurposed as a planning authority, responsible for making a ‘master plan’ for Dhaka.

…local government’s absence in city development and planning, initially ensured under the British colonial government, continues today.

With the DIT, Dhaka finally gained an authority vested with the powers to plan and develop the city. However, in keeping with the status quo, this also did not empower local government. In other words, the DIT was independent from Dhaka municipality. In 1987, the DIT would be replaced by RAJUK (Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, or the Capital Development Agency), which is today housed under Bangladesh’s Ministry of Housing and Public Works.

Thus, local government’s absence in city development and planning, initially ensured under the British colonial government, continues today. After 158 years, this has gradually been codified to the point that Dhaka’s city corporations do not have the authority to zone or plan their own city.

Traffic, public transport and road safety

An everyday discontent that all residents of Dhaka, including its administrators, share is that of traffic and road safety issues. This is a multi-layered discontent, touching on many problems, such as unsafe public transport, lack of enforcement of traffic rules, choked roads with grindingly slow traffic, inadequate parking spaces and insufficient sidewalks.

The current regulatory framework to fix these interconnected problems lies tangled across many different government agencies:

The Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority is the most empowered agency from a road and transport point of view. It was established in 2012, after identification of a vacuum with regard to integrated transport planning. It was meant to ensure interagency coordination in the transportation sector, and to improve traffic management. However, lack of capacity means it has not been able to coordinate between different agencies, or to integrate land use and transport planning.

Dhaka will soon introduce its much-awaited metro-rail, the mass rapid transport (MRT). The MRT network will offer residents relief from some of their concerns. However, its governance of this MRT will complicate the regulatory patchwork. The Dhaka Mass Transit Company (DMTCL), is the ‘owner’ of the MRT network and will maintain its infrastructure, including the ticketing and billing processes. This means that any one-card payment system across multiple modes of public transport (similar to London’s Oyster card or Bangkok’s Rabbit card) will be administratively extremely onerous. Dhaka’s city corporations would need to negotiate separate agreements with multiple agencies that are individual ‘owners’ of different segments of the overall public transport system.

The issue of discipline and order remains the elephant in the room when it comes to Bangladesh’s urban governance. Dhaka’s road management issue is probably at the core of the discourse. Dhaka’s police service, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, is housed under the central government’s Ministry of Home Affairs. Dhaka’s city corporations do not have any mandate in police affairs. Hence, they do not have the tools to tame the chaos of the roads. For all the frustrations that residents of Dhaka may feel about a lack of compliance with traffic rules, the city corporations are powerless to enforce road regulations.

Dhaka’s traffic is among the worst in the world. It is projected to slow to the speed of walking by 2035. Meanwhile, the responsibility for resolving traffic congestion is sprinkled across different agencies. While there are various public transport authorities, each works on different modes of public transport. For example, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police separately enforces a road regulation set that is disconnected from the overall transport ecosystem. There is no single authority mandated to ease the perennial congestion and gridlock of Dhaka itself. No authority has a mandate to put the different pieces of the puzzle together to ease the flow of the overall traffic load on the city. A capacitated centralised authority for traffic management is an urgent need.

Contiguous control, a core problem

To understand Dhaka’s service delivery, it is important to understand the actual land areas – that is, the limits of contiguous control – of Dhaka’s city corporations. Let us consider the northern part of bifurcated Dhaka, which is under the Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC). The DNCC does not have contiguous control of the overall landmass within the boundaries of ‘Dhaka North.’ Surprisingly, large tracts of land, some at crucial connecting junctures, lie outside the regulatory ambit of the DNCC.

Some of Dhaka’s noteworthy landmarks outside the DNCC’s ambit are the four Defence Officers Housing Societies (DOHSs), the old ‘Tejgaon’ airport, Dhaka Cantonment and Dhaka airport (Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport). Many parks and lakes are also outside of the DNCC’s ambit; these are mostly under the authority of the city’s development/planning authority RAJUK. Interestingly, a large residential suburb, named Bashundhara, is privately owned and also outside of the DNCC’s ambit. Bashundhara has recently transferred some service delivery responsibilities to the DNCC. This is a step in the right direction.

The lack of contiguous control by the city corporation poses multiple problems. One specific example is that of traffic load management. For instance, even if the DNCC receives a mandate for traffic management, it will not be able to solve the problem because the heavy-traffic roads may run through city areas that are outside of its control.

Here, Dhaka’s backbone road running from the National Parliament to Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport is arguably the prime example. Dhaka’s natural diversion roads from this airport–parliament thoroughfare run through out-of-reach areas, including the DOHSs – which are gated communities. Entry to these DOHSs is limited to their community members, and ‘outsiders’ are denied any drive-through rights.

Another example: consider Dhaka’s landmark single massive waterbody, which runs through many neighbourhoods and commercial areas. This single waterbody comprises Dhaka’s Baridhara Lake, Banani Lake and Hatirjheel Lake and stretches south towards the commercially busy Kawran Bazaar area. Comprehensive management of this water ecosystem is complicated because different entities manage different sections of this lake, including neighbourhood associations and different government authorities.

This ‘lake’ example is particularly important because Bangladesh is a riverine country, and its capital is studded with waterbodies. Centralised city authorities, meaning city corporations, should have a jurisdiction over waterbodies so they can truly integrate them into the ecosystem of public spaces, recreational areas and public transport.

The expectations of 1994

1994 was a milestone year for Bangladesh’s urban governance. For the first time, Dhaka’s residents directly elected their mayor. Their ballots expressed not just their choice of leadership but also their expectations. In the years since, Dhaka dwellers have come to expect even more from their elected local government. Today, Dhaka has a well-travelled citizenry that expects their city governance to match the performance of other global cities.

Multiple agencies housed in different government ministries and coordinating local issues are bound to run into a bureaucratic quagmire.

Observations from best practices in urban governance dictate that fragmented jurisdiction is ineffective. Consolidating various city-specific services under a city-focused authority will address the jurisdiction issue head-on. Dhaka’s public transport authorities report into structures that have nationwide mandates. These national governing structures usually do not to have a specialised local perspective. Multiple agencies housed in different government ministries and coordinating local issues are bound to run into a bureaucratic quagmire. This a reality for any country. This archaic system is structurally flawed.

Specifically, Dhaka’s city corporations should be mandated and capacitated to handle the following:

  • Urban design and spatial planning: City officials must bear responsibility for the strategy, planning and design of the physical layout of the city. As it stands, it will not be possible to undo a century of haphazard spatial development. As such, any realistic planning for the future will need innovative solutions from the brightest urban planning minds. The city corporations must be allowed to take ownership and responsibility for this process. Their political leadership will need to make the case to residents about the hard decisions that must be made to improve the city for years to come.
  • Public transport: The design of the public planning network cannot and should not happen independently of the overall spatial planning for the city. The jurisdiction for the public transport system is currently fractured across multiple agencies reporting to central government. It will be necessary to merge the existing entities to reduce the burden of interagency coordination. The merged entities should be further consolidated under the logical umbrella of the city corporation. Therefore, they will report to local government instead of central government.
  • Municipal policing and traffic management: A municipal police department, reporting to the city authorities, is needed for the enforcement of all city-related by-laws, traffic rules and regulations. Without the capacity to effectively enforce city-wide rules, the city corporations will be powerless in their implementation, right from the planning phase. A city-coordinated and city-centralised policing structure is essential to oversee compliance with the city corporation mandates discussed in this article.
  • Revenue expansion: An extended revenue collection mandate for city government is needed. Currently, a city government’s financial fitness relies on annual disbursements from the central government. Let us consider Dhaka North City Corporation’s financial situation. The organization needs to expand its revenue base to be financially self-sufficient. A low-hanging fruit is to allow city governments to collect all fines for by-law infringement. This will quickly inflate the city coffers. The current arrangement in this regard is unreasonable. The city bears the operational cost of enforcing by-laws but the money from the fines goes to the central government. This money should rather be spent on the city, by the city authorities.

Other related city governance functions may also be considered as a part of this discussion but we do not have the space to discuss these today. The broad functions mentioned here are the core functions without which Dhaka’s city corporations simply will not have a legal mandate to improve city life.

End remarks

Any city needs to be seen as a complex, interconnected ecosystem that requires a well-thought-out vision for residents’ welfare. The design, regulation and maintenance of public transport, public spaces, road networks, recreational nodes, waterbodies, green bodies, suburbs, commercial zones and industrial areas all come under one functioning body that needs one brain.

New York City’s Joint Transportation Management Center (JTMC) is a case in point. The JTMC has representatives of the police, the city government and the state government. Close coordination between these authorities has led to an ‘immediate response’ solution to traffic incidents in a massive city. Dhaka can surely envisage building a similar multi-agency system. A pilot is underway: Dhaka North City Corporation officials have formulated a traffic ‘command centre,’ for launch in 2022. They expect this to have a formative impact.

There is no doubt that, if one were to design a governance framework for Dhaka on a blank sheet of paper, it would look very different to the one we have now. In Bangladesh, the only political representatives with a sole city-focused mandate are those housed in the city corporations. Therefore, it is these elected representatives who need to be given the tools to respond to the demands of their voters.

The administrators and political leadership of the city face the same problems as its residents. The grievances of the people are our grievances too. Our frustrations are compounded by the existing state of affairs – that our jurisdiction is simply too limited for us to make a meaningful impact. It is time to untie our hands and to give us the power to create a more liveable Dhaka.


Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Atiqul Islam is Mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation, Bangladesh. He is a businessman and a politician. He is President of the Centre of Excellence for Bangladesh Apparel Industry. He is a member of the Steering Committee of C40 Cities, co-lead of the C40 MMC Global Mayors Task Force on Migration and Climate Change, and C40 vice-chair on migration. He was President of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). He pursued his graduate studies at the University of Dhaka.
Nausher Rahman is Managing Director of The Creative Crowd. He is a communications specialist. He was a public affairs consultant for local and national governments in South Africa and Bangladesh. He was a member of the advisory team for election manifestos of Dhaka North’s mayor in 2020. He pursued his graduate studies in Law at the University of London.