Unplanned urbanisation to accommodate the fast increasing number of population in Sylhet city, largest growth centre in the country’s northeastern part, with more than one million population, has been only adding woe to the residents’ plights for nearly two decades after it was upgraded to a metropolitan city in 2002.
Traffic congestion has become a regular phenomenon because of illegal parking areas for different modes of vehicles as they have been built after grabbing parts of the streets at almost all the areas in the city, causing wastage of working hours of the city dwellers on a daily basis.
Crisis of pure drinking water across the city has taken a serious turn as the level of underground water has fallen by several hundred feet. The city dwellers are facing serious waterlogging during the rainy season even after a short spell of rainfall, adding further miseries to the citizens’ woe.
Huge numbers of privately owned housing estates and high-rises are being erected filling up existing water bodies, including ponds, marshlands and parts of canals in the city and its surrounding areas. All this spelt disaster for the ecology alongside obstructing drainage systems, resulting in waterlogging in most of the city areas.
In absence of a master plan and proper monitoring, landowners have continued to construct housing projects in the residential areas and marketplaces and multi-storeyed shopping malls in the commercial areas of the city in violation of the national building code.
They also have been cutting down hillocks and highlands, making the structures more vulnerable to natural disasters, including earthquake as the Sylhet region is situated in the high-risk zone of earthquake-prone area in the country.
Besides, poor drainage system, absence of proper management for both medical and household wastes and digging up roads for different development works round the year have been causing intense sufferings to the citizens, experts and city dwellers claimed.
They held the unplanned development activities run by the Sylhet City Corporation responsible for creating such troubles that force the city dwellers to lead a miserable life for year after year.
Hundreds of crores of taka have been spent every year to implement different development projects in the city but the issues have remained unresolved so far, they alleged.
He argued that the Sylhet City Corporation’s decision to construct a first ever footbridge at Court Point, one of the spacious intersections in the city, was an unwise move. Building this structure in 2015, spending several crore taka from the government exchequer, ignoring the city dwellers’ claim that the proposed footbridge will accelerate the traffic jams in the area, was a bad decision, he pointed out.
Recently, the SCC had to remove the structure after only three years of constructing it since it had not been helpful to ease the traffic congestion, rather had created obstructions in vehicle movement, considerably narrowing down the road, the city dwellers claimed.
They observed that forming a development authority and preparing a master plan is very significant for a fast growing and ecologically risk-prone city like Sylhet.
They said the SCC has already taken an initiative to expand the city area by around 7 times larger than its present volume (26.5 square kilometres), adding 13 more wards to the existing 27 wards of the city.
According to the authorities concerned, the plan has been taken as an effort to generate fresh sources of income to make the corporation more dependable on its own resources.
The city dwellers have raised a valid question. They are worried how the corporation would manage a city with a larger area and a greater number of population while it has been facing problems in ensuring minimum civic amenities for the smaller number of population with smaller city area.
They recommended that a master plan for at least 80 years be framed for the Sylhet Development Authority. This must be preceded by an appointment of a skilled urban planner who would address the urban scourges that have piled up and would implement development activities in the city by ensuring concerted effort by all involved.
Jahir Bin Alam, environmental and civil engineering professor of the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, said that population of the city has increased manifolds in recent years, putting huge pressure on the housing sector.
At the same time, rampant urbanisation has also been going on to accommodate the increased number of residents, to the detriment of the natural atmosphere and resources, he said.
‘Even the number of public transports did not increase and enough parking lots was not created either, which was essential to cope with the situation,’ he argued, adding that the number of private cars, jeeps and microbuses, however, spiralled manifolds by this time intensifying traffic congestions on the city roads.
The main reasons behind traffic gridlocks in the city, according to the SCC authorities, is the lack of enforcement of the existing laws by the concerned agencies, the tendency to park vehicles randomly on the city roads and its inter sections, violation of traffic rules by drivers and grabbing of footpaths and parts of roads by hawkers.
Almost all the roads, lanes and by-lanes of the city have already been expanded to ease the traffic movements, they claimed.
The SCC officials claimed that the existing roads were sufficient for the current traffic in the city and added that things would look up if Sylhet Metropolitan Police and Bangladesh Road Transport Authority become more sincere in discharging their duties in the proper way.
Apart from the footpaths, parts of maximum busiest roads at different areas, including Court Point, Bandar Bazar, Zindabazar, Surma Market, Taltala, Jallarpar, Mirza Jangal, Lamabaza, Chowhatta, Dargah Gate, Rikabibazar, Madhu Shaheed, Medical Road, Subidbazar, Mirer Maydan, Ambarkhana, Darshan Deuri, Barutkhana,Jail Road, Mirboxtula, Naya Sarak, Kazitula, Shahi Eidgah, Kumarpara, Sobhanighat, Mirabazar, Sonarpara, Shibganj, Tilagarh, Shahjalal Upa-Shahar, Station Road, Bharthakhola, Khujarkhola, Jhalopara and Kadamtali, in the city regularly remained under illegal occupation of different kinds of street vendors, causing sever hindrance to traffic movements, local people alleged.
Drivers of different modes of motor vehicle, including buses, microbuses, CNG-run auto-rickshaws, four-wheel human haulers, trucks and pick-up vans set up unauthorised parking stands at every parts of the city due to acute crisis of parking places, intensifying the traffic congestion, they claimed.
The city dwellers also said that an organised syndicate comprising a section of unscrupulous officials and employees of the city corporation, law-enforcers and local political party leaders are involved in encroaching roads and walkways.
For that reason, the authorities’ efforts to evict hawkers from the footpaths and streets in the city go in vein — their steps were often mere eyewash since these efforts did not have any consistency, they said.
Talking to New Age, SCC chief executive officer Bidhayak Roy Chowdhury, however, claimed that they, with the help of other authorities concerned, conducted regular raid to evict the hawkers from the city streets.
‘Solving the traffic problems would not be possible by the city corporation alone. Other concerned organisations would also have to be sincere in their effort to alleviate the situation,’ he claimed.
The authorities concerned have taken a number of small and large initiatives one after another to address two major problems — acute crisis of drinking water and waterlogging, specially in the rainy season, but many of the initiatives have failed to bring any real change to the scenario so far.
Talking to New Age, professor Jahir said that the formation of Sylhet Development Authority and preparation of a long-term master plan would be crucial in solving the difficulties that piled up.
He said that water flows from all the canals, which are the main channels to drain out water towards the River Surma from the city, must be revived and other water bodies, including ponds also have to be reclaimed at any cost by recovering the encroached parts from the grabbers.
‘If we become successful, problem of waterlogging would end and water sources would also be available at the same time to face any fire incident in the city,’ professor Zahir said, adding that the city corporation would also have the option to offer its citizen an advantage of walkways along the banks of the canals.
Sylhet’s citizens have been in the throe of the problems for many years, which are only deteriorating at present. More than 19 years after upgrading the former Sylhet Municipality to the SCC, the authorities have failed to bring all of the city’s 27 wards under the water supply coverage.
According to the data available with the city corporation, four wards including Ward No 25, 26 and 27 at Dakkhin Surma area and Ward No 8 at Uttar Surma area in the city are yet to be brought under the water supply coverage.
The city corporation has been supplying highest 4 crore litres for the last five years against the estimated demand of 8 crore litres to its 1 million residents by operating one water treatment plant, 42 deep tube wells and 40 power pumps.
Many times, crisis of water supply also intensified further in absence of uninterrupted supply of power, the SCC officials said.
Talking to New Age, SCC conservancy officer Albab Ahmad Chowdhury said that a project had been taken several years back to install a Surface Water Treatment Plant by using water of the Sari River, which is situated some 30 kilometres away from the city, to meet the water crisis.
He said that the executive committee of the national economic council recently approved a fund of Tk 1,228 crore to implement the proposed project of installing a Surface Water Treatment Plant with some other projects of improving the drainage and sanitation system in the city.
‘The prevailing crisis of water would end after the implementation of the new plat,’ Albab said.
Rampant construction of structures, including high-rises, encroaching parts of the canals both in the residential and commercial areas and dumping of all kinds of wastes in the canals are the main reasons behind obstruction of the water flows that resulted in severe waterlogging at different parts in the city.
They city dwellers said that the city corporation officials were seen sometimes to conduct drives to evict illegal structures erected on the parts of city canals at different area to reclaim some parts of the canals from illegal possession.
The drives however were not continued later in the same areas to reclaim all the encroached parts of the canals, the city dwellers alleged.
For that reason, residents of almost all of the low-lying areas, including Munsipara, Bhatalia, Sagardighir Par, Kajal Shah, Bagbari, Madina Market, Pathantula, Halder Para, Subidbazar, Fazilchists, Kewapara, Sadatikar, Electric Supply Road, Hawapara, Sawdagar Tula, Badam Bagicha, Bharthakhola, Khujarkhola, Station Road, Lawai, Pirozpur, Mominkhola, Barokhola, Chandighat, Gotatikar, Khanbari, Shibbari and Ganga Nagar in the city had been suffering because of waterlogging for a certain period of the year over more than last one decade, local residents claimed.
The city corporation executive officer Hanifur Rahman, however, claimed that the city corporation had been working in a planned manner for several years to improve the drainage system across the city.
Apart from expanding roads and reclaiming the grabbed land of the canals, fresh drains with wider space after demolishing the old ones have already been constructed in almost all of the residential and commercial areas in the city to get rid of the problems of waterlogging, he said.
Mentioning the construction of new drains and renovation of old ones is a continuous process, he said that they could not maintain the required pace of development because of different kinds of limitations.
The civil society members also echoed the same opinion to the SCC officials and said that formation of Sylhet Development Authority like other cities of the country is the demand of time. They also observed that since the city corporation is not capable to keeping watch over and control of each and every aspect because of various reasons, including financial and political ground, coordination between agencies were an imperative.
They demanded that preparing a time-effective and long-term master plan and the formation of the SDA have no alternative to address the main urban problems, including traffic congestion, drinking water crisis and waterlogging problem alongside taking effective steps to set up sufficient number of playgrounds and educational institutions at every wards of the city corporation.
They, however, blamed lack of interest shown by the successive elected representatives to form the SDA, fearing loss of absolute dominance over the activities of the city.
While talking to New Age, the SCC former mayor Badar Uddin Ahmad Kamran told that he prepared a master plan with help of the experts of a developer company, Sheltech (Pvt) Limited, in 2010, for sustainable development of the city since the city dwellers had been demanding it for a long time.
‘The next mayor did not follow the master plan and did not take any step to implement it,’ Kamran alleged.
The SCC officials, however, claimed that Kamran himself did not take any initiative to implement the master plan, though he was in the chair three more years after instituting it.
Many city dwellers also demanded an immediate step to set up protected dumping grounds of garbage in the city. They alleged that the biodiversity, including fish, cropland and water bodies of a vast area at Lalmatia under Dakkhin Surma in the city had already been damaged because of continuous dumping of all kinds of wastage there.
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