A tale of two cities

| Updated: June 21, 2018 22:25:37

A view of New Town, Kolkata A view of New Town, Kolkata

Two cities -one, the capital of Bangladesh and the other, the capital of West Bengal, India -have similarities in many ways. Dissimilarities between the two are striking too. Where the similarities end and dissimilarities begin is only pronounced to discerning eyes. If the two cities have their remarkable histories treasured in the past few centuries when the Mughal emperors and subsequently the English ruled the Indian subcontinent, it is the soaring spirit of independence that went into the making of history in contexts quite different from each other. Kolkata which was once the capital of India certainly had an advantage over Dhaka in terms of infrastructure and administrative hub.

For about a quarter of a century, both cities boasting Bangalee population's majority, had to be satisfied with the status of a provincial capital. Now it was time for Dhaka to pull apart. With their roles reversed after the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign country, the Bangladesh capital was on a breakneck journey towards expansion -both horizontal and perpendicular. Unfortunately, its initial years of infrastructural development did not follow a comprehensive plan like the Detailed Area Plan (DAP). The city's haphazard growth built on irregularities and illegally taken over lands in many places accentuated the inadequacy of the existing road spaces leading to its commercial and administrative hubs and other important facilities such as hospitals and educational institutions.

When it comes to squalor, lack of hygiene and sanitation, both Dhaka and Kolkata have a hefty share of those not just in the musclemen-arranged shanties but also right on footpaths in city centres. Not only do vendors encroach upon long stretches of roads around New Markets (names are same in both cities), Dalhousie Square (BBD Bagh), Gulistan and other important points but also fend themselves off from rain and sun with polythene sheets cover. Even at the entry of Fairlie Place (also called Fairlie House), one's access is almost obstructed by the busy street restaurants serving cheap foods. These eateries have only polythene sheets overhead to protect themselves from sun and rain. The Indian Railway's red buildings wear a sad and ugly look because of the makeshift polythene jumbles on the footpath. It is no different on footpaths around Baitul Mokarram, Purana Paltan and elsewhere in Dhaka.

Sure enough, murals, busts and statues have been placed at road crossings, by the sidewalks and on both sides of underground passes in Kolkata but the abundance of hanging polythene covers have also obstructed sights of onlookers giving the artistic works a pathetic look. The bust of a famous reformer at BBD Bagh suffers the indignity of sharing space with a makeshift paan (betel leaf) shop on a raised pedestal. Dhaka's endeavour to erect murals and statues on that count has been quite selective and discreet.

So far all this has been traditional. In the heart of Kolkata, the old buildings have not changed and they hardly look impressive, although the rush is heavier in such areas. But then a handful of new tall buildings have come up where the entire outside walls have been used by different commodity brands ranging from cosmetics to fashion wears to announce their brand names and larger than life advertisements. This is yet to happen in the Bangladesh capital. The digital billboards, except at Shahbagh, looks more like toys. Had these innovative merchandising not been there, few could make a difference between today's Kolkata and that of 20 years back.

On the other hand, there are skyscrapers galore in Dhaka but yet it does not wear the look of a modern and fast city. Its urbanity has been constrained by its sluggish pace on the road and lack of a cosmopolitan attitude of people. Rusticity still prevails in exchanges between the urbanites. On this count, a far greater mix of people from all corners of India and then East Bengal has long cemented the cosmopolitan ethos of inhabitants in Kolkata. The difference is perhaps in the level of patience they demonstrate.

Kolkata pulled ahead a few steps when it went for underground metro rail. Now it has also opted, like Dhaka, for construction of an elevated expressway. If the old Kolkata looks somewhat unimpressive with its burden of the past, its New Town seems to have sprung from a fairytale world. So well-planned and spacious this extended township is that one has to rub one's eyes to believe it is part of what is known as Kolkata. Boulevards with expansive parks full of thoughtfully planted trees adorning the area and manicured grasses on both sides and statues of national heroes and icons keeping vigil all around give the impression that all this has been cut out of a Western modern city. There are skyscrapers here and the town is still in the making.

Bangladesh missed an opportunity to go ahead with a similar plan when it undertook the task of developing townships in Uttara and Purbachal City. Compared with the roads in New Town of Kolkata, those leading to Uttara are far too narrower and lack the provision of neatly arranged greenery on roadsides. Now that tall buildings, markets and other establishments have been constructed on both sides of that road, it will be impossible to expand it to the size of New Town. A modern and advanced city, however, needs such roads and metro rails in order to maintain a faster pace of urban life.        

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