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Can We Save Dhaka By Splitting it in Half?

Following the Rana Plaza factory collapse, international attention has fixated on the questions of labor conditions in Bangladesh, both a major garment manufacturing hub and a scene of squalor. The Bangladesh government has proposed its own radical solution: split the apparently ungovernable city of Dhaka into two distinct municipalities. But the plan, executed towards the end of 2011, has worsened conditions, according to many.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Sarwar Jahan, an urban planner at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, bemoaned, “Everything is messed up. They created more problems than they solved.”

According to the testimony of many of Dhaka’s residents, the bifurcation of the city into two distinct territories has only exacerbated its chronic mismanagement.  The division into a Northern and Southern territory has generated confusion about who precisely is responsible for what: utilities, road maintenance, building codes and general logistical issues have become neglected due to the absence of any clear assignment of accountability.

Disputes over the exact nature of the split, a contest over the drawing of borders, continues to roil Dhaka. And even after eighteen months, neither half of the partition has gotten around to electing a mayor, leaving each rudderless amidst creeping chaos.

Bangladesh at large has long suffered from pervasive bureaucratic incompetence and corruption, a toxic brew. According to the Global Competitiveness Report (GCR), a study completed by the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Bangladesh suffers from increased governmental instability, inefficient governmental bureaucracy and a general lack of access for business to financing.

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The most troubling discovery, though, was that Bangladesh is still addled with rampant corruption. A survey of seventy-one companies unearthed complaints of bribery, tax evasion related to import and export business and the illegal awarding of contracts and licenses as a result of bribery and fraud.

Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director for CPD, said, “These indicate that Bangladesh is still struggling with structural and governance weakness. The existence of these weaknesses is pulling down the economy from attaining a higher level of competitiveness.”

The fear of pervasive graft has made banks cautious about lending, dampening the growth of business. “Banks are now cautious in trade financing after the scams of Hall-Mark and Bismillah groups,” said Moazzem.

And splitting Dhaka is not the first radical solution to be forwarded as a cure to Bangladesh’s radical ailments. In response to the discovery that Bangladesh’s factory conditions are far worse than anyone reckoned and much harder to quickly improve than anticipated, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has decided to relocate nearly 34 percent of them.

Now, with the assistance of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the BGMEA will be supervising the the relocation of 1,200 out of the 3,600 factories that have been earmarked for help. “The initiative of factory relocation has been taken in a bid to improve the country’s garments sector, as we have witnessed a disaster following the Rana Plaza building collapse, which brought a wide range of criticism of workers’ safety,” said a BGMEA director.

Dhaka is a bustling and crowded city of over 7 million residents, expected to bloom to 22 million by 2020, according to the World Bank. Some have suggested that the problem with the plan to partition it is that it wasn’t radical enough, suggesting that such a sprawling managerial mess should be dissected into four parts. Mohammaed Nazmul Islam, the chief administrator of Dhaka South, said, “It should have been more sections. Four cities would have been better,” speaking to the Wall Street Journal.

Dhaka has a long and storied history as the object of urban planning, tinkered into several different permutations. Originally fashioned as a city nestled within East Pakistan, it was once modestly sized and more manageable. But the city has undergone a stark transformation following independence from Pakistan in 1971 to an international hub of apparel production with nearly 5,000 factories.