Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Let's save Puran Dhaka!

by: Taimur Islam

On June 3rd a fire at Nawab Katra, Nimtali in Old Dhaka (Puran Dhaka) claimed the life of at least 117 people, mostly women and children, injuring hundreds more. It seems that the fire was caused by the explosion of a chemical warehouse situated on the ground floor of a five-store residential building. As mentioned in the articles of the Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star, people were trapped inside the building as there was no emergency exit. Because of its location, the fire brigades were not able to get there fast enough. When they finally arrived, the building had already been so engulfed by flames that they were ordered to stay back. It would have been very dangerous for the rescue operation to simply enter the building.

It is estimated that 80% of residential houses in Old Dhaka have some kind of factory or warehouse on the ground floors and residential flats on other floors. Most of these warehouses or factories are either of chemicals or plastic materials. It is also reported that 50,000 houses of Old Dhaka are risky for living. Most of the houses in Old Dhaka grew in clusters. The roads are very narrow making access to the buildings very difficult. That is what happened in the Nimtali incident. It was very difficult to rescue the victims. (Author: Nadia Goodman)

Source: The Daily Star Newspaper - Bangladesh

The following letter is written by the architect Taimur Islam from the Urban Study Group in Dhaka. His letter is an appeal to the government and international agencies to preserve the very few historic buildings that remain in Dhaka city today.

Dear Friends,

In the wake of the Nimtali tragedy, which took away so many lives, Puran Dhaka now faces a new crisis. The old buildings of Puran Dhaka are about to become the scapegoat of this tragedy. Putting the blame squarely on the historic urban fabric of the old city the government, is planning to demolish most of the old buildings in Puran Dhaka.

Historic building on Lalmohan Shaha Street

Different department and agencies of the government, have declared their determination to demolish most of the old buildings in Puran Dhaka, in order to make the old town absolutely safe (sic). Surprisingly, citing the success of Singapore model, a section of the scholars and urban planners, as well as REHAB, the national association of the apartment developers have been pushing for a 60’s style urban renewal approach; they are proposing for a block by block redevelopment of the old city, barring the important monuments .The REHAB is expected to take the responsibility of the implementation.During the last seven years , while Urban Study Group has been running the campaign called Save Puran Dhaka for the preservation of the historic properties of Old Dhaka, we have never faced a crisis of greater magnitude.

Another historic building on Lalmohan Shaha Street

Whatever progress which has been made regarding protection of the old buildings of Puran Dhaka now runs the risk of being totally reversed and undone. In 2004, the government was planning to demolish 90 old buildings in Shakhari Bazaar only but now they are talking about all of Puran Dhaka, which means about 2000 buildings now face the threat of being demolished, completely wiped away from the surface of the earth.

A listed building on Hrishikesh Dasd Road

Making things worse, of late there has been a sharp increase in the construction activity in the old town. By offering very lucrative deals small developers many of whom are not even member sof REHAB, have managed to persuade individual owners to pull down the old buildings and replace them with new apartment blocks. In different lanes and by lanes of the old city construction work is going on in full swing, rapidly eroding its historic urban fabric.

Worse still, today the media is also somewhat divided on this issue; like others they also support preserving the monuments but they are a little wary about the urban areas.

Shankha Nidhi Lodge, one of the 9 buildings from the colonial period designated by the cultural ministry, is on the list of unsafe buildings recently published by DCC

But right now we have to stop the juggernaut of destruction before it can strip old Dhaka of its precious adornments. We‘d like to reiterate our position on the old buildings; i.e. given the architectural and historic significance of the old buildings and areas (streets) of Puran Dhaka, spanning 5/6 centuries, with a proper management regime in place we can try for the nomination of Puran Dhaka as a world heritage site. Which will not only improve/enhance the image of Dhaka city but also help to make it better place in terms of quality of environment, not to speak of the benefit it can bring for the economy through tourism.

Another historic building in Sutrapur

We urge you to raise the issue wherever possible; let’s try to persuade the government to revaluate their step and protect our beloved old city, Puran Dhaka.

Let’s Save Puran Dhaka.

Taimur Islam

Please contact the Urban Study Group at usg.dhaka@gmail.com for further information or heritage walks in Old Dhaka