4 Iqbal Habib

A.T.M. Hasibul Islam

One of the most celebrated environmental activists and architects of the country, Iqbal Habib is the Managing Director and one of the principal architects of the award winning architectural firm VITTI Sthapati Brindo Ltd. that designed ‘‘Hatirjheel–Begunbari Integrated Development Project’, Dhanmondi Lake Development Project, Asian University for Women (as local consultant), and Headquarter of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh etc. He is also the Joint Secretary of ‘Bangladesh Environment Movement’ (বাংলাদেশ পরিবেশ আন্দোলন – বাপা), an active organizer, and a public voice for some of the pressing environmental and urban issues.

When we think about Hatirjheel, the magnanimously colorful project that instantly became popular among us city folks, the name Iqbal Habib comes into mind. As I take my fourth interview for this book, Mr. Habib shares his opinion on the Hatirjheel project, the problems facing the urban life of the capital, and a few of his personal experiences.

Mr. Habib starts with the story behind Hatirjheel. “The Jheel (lake) was famous since the time of the King of Bhawal. It was named Hatirjheel because of the King’s huge herd of elephants which used to come here to bathe. The elephants were confined in Pilkhana and they used to come all the way to Hatirjheel along Elephant Road, the road that got its name from the passage. They used to come to Hatirjheel to stay there all day long and return in the evening. Later on, probably after the Ershad regime, this particular place became a good target of land grabbers, political goons, rich people in collaboration with the Waqf[1] state of Bangladesh, and also some people from the land ministry.

When many people left the country and went to India and Pakistan, most of their lands had been brought under the Waqf State to be used by the government. Similarly, when the King of Bhawal went into hiding, the government took over those lands through the Waqf state to mitigate the chaos created over the distribution of the King’s wealth since he left no heir. 

Many of these huge lands which belonged to the Waqf State were taken illegally. Among these lands were also water bodies under the district authority. There was a canal- ‘Begunbari Canal’ which is a public property but was grabbed as all such lands were by illegal land grabbers. It was not only thugs who were the illegal grabbers but people from the land ministry, district authority, and Waqf state. Some influential people started to take over this land through these authorities as well.

A great percentage of our city’s drainage system is linked with this land of Hatirjheel. Drainage systems have some levels; one is on the surface level for which the canals were used. Now, it has been made into a storm drainage system through which there is an underground drainage system managed by WASA. The rainwater from the University area till the Tejturi Bazaar-Kawran Bazaar area flows though this place. Again, since the sewerage system of this whole region is not made by WASA totally, this flow path is connected through most of the people’s home sewerage system.”

There is a difference between sewerage system and storm drainage system. Storm drainage system protects the city from city floods when it rains and sewer network system is the system that treats the liquid portion of our human wastes by the effluent treatment system and leaves it in the river water. Besides these, we put different kinds of wastes on our roads- solid human waste, medical waste, pillow, cushions, and even dead animals. All these wastes flowed along this drainage system through the Hatirjheel-Begunbari canal. This canal has branched out through Aftabnagar by the side of Banasree with the name ‘Norai Khal’.

Now, this whole thing has been developed unplanned and people started setting slums and illegal industries in these areas. When RAJUK started planning of this place, they filled up these areas and started trying to make housing projects, Kawran Bazar extension commercial project, etc in the name of planning.

Mr. Habib describes how we still have not been able to design a well-planned master plan for our city since the independence of Bangladesh. “The last master plan was in the early 1969 and after that there has been no more development of the master plan. In the 80s, the term master plan was changed to development plan. Eventually, a structure plan, which is the first stage of the development plan, was done in 1997. During that time, some files, namely, Urban Area Plan (UAP), were developed. 

The plan was an assortment of some policies. In those policies, it was decided that this Hatirjheel area, the half circle area starting from Mogbazar to Tejgaon, is very important for the sustainability of the city. How is it so important for the city?”

Here’s how.

A retention basin is used to manage ‘storm water runoff’ or simply ‘rainwater’ to prevent flooding and downstream erosion, and to improve water quality of an adjacent river, stream, lake or bay.[2] To hold the rainwater of this huge region that covers Dhaka University, Mogbazar, Kawran Bazar, Aftabnagar and nearby places, Hatirjheel is very important.

“We make our homes on high lands and previously, there were enough ponds and rivers where rainwater could go to. Since the ponds were interconnected, the water went into the rivers through them. Now, all these ponds, canals and other water bodies are filled up. So, where will this huge amount of rainwater go? The whole city would have drowned by now if we didn’t have a water retention basin. That is why, when we developed the structure plan, it was decided that since it would take a lot of time to implement huge projects such as artificial retention basins, some specified areas would remain untouched till necessary. Hatirjheel is one of these places.”

Even after this decision, people kept taking over this place. RAJUK, at that time, provided immediate facilities and incentives to political leaders and also initiated housing projects. In the year 2000, a group of Architects and other organizations started a protest called ‘Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon’ (BAPA). From there, they joined with different professional institutes like Institute of architects Bangladesh, Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP), Center for Urban studies and started the protest that this kind of water retention areas cannot be filled and used in any other purpose.

Eventually, government passed a law, Mega city, Divisional Town and District Town’s municipal areas including country’s all the municipal areas’ playground, open space, park and natural water reservoir Conservation Act, 2000 (মহানগরী জলাশয় উন্মুক্ত স্থান সংরক্ষণ আইন, ২০০০). BAPA continued protests using this law as a shield. At the end of 6 years, when Caretaker Government came into power, they started presenting the cause to different officials of the government to save this area.

The caretaker government liked the idea of saving rivers and ponds and made a joint venture putting the army in charge. The aim was to protect the Jheel as a water retention area and also connect the roads of eastern and western parts of Dhaka. The roads around the area were to become connectors of two main roads, Pragati Sarani and Tajuddin Ahmed Road.

BUET was given the task of consultancy. BUET, WASA, RAJUK, City Corporation, and Army Engineering Core all together started working on this project. They felt the necessity for consultation for architectural and scenic beauty and they asked for consultants. As they had prior experience of working on Dhanmondi Lake project, ‘VITTI Sthapati Brindo Ltd.’ was chosen to work on the Hatirjheel project. Iqbal Habib has been an active participant in the movement for 6 years and has again joined its cause as a consultant.

They started the initiative to clear public space in this area. To finance this, they needed money. The team figured out that there was enough land of Waqf state and the government did not need to acquire them as they already belonged to the state. So, the money saved from the procurement can be used to make this place better and more suitable for public visit.

Within that time, a democratic government had already come into power and the team presented this proposition to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister agreed that if mass people cannot enjoy this project then the outcome is zero. As a result, they made bridges and elevated expressways with colorful lighting. After decorating this place further, it became a beautiful place for recreation.

Afterwards, the team thought about stressing importance on the possibilities of this asset. Mr. Habib says during our interview, “Our city is not like Dubai, it is not like Delhi, and not even like Sylhet. It has rivers and canals all around it. So, they considered how they can utilize this characteristic of our city.” From the month of June, boats were planned to be available here so that many people would be able to go to Rampura from here by boat. People would be able to go to Baridhara by getting on the boats from behind Hotel Sonargaon. They would also be able to go to Banani Cemetry through the waterway. So, we would find a new mean of transport along with road transportation to travel within the city.

Now, doing all these designs and plans and persuading the government and officials to take this project by protesting for years was not easy at all. There are huge struggles that are inseparable parts of this project and its success. The main struggle was to declare war against those illegal land grabbers. There were politicians and some very influential people among them. They made stages and held public declarations against the protesters. It is a nexus of powerful people and bureaucrats. “Had not the policies and laws been implemented through the army, this project would not have come into being”, says Mr. Habib.

Co-operation among various stakeholders was also one of the many struggles.  Everybody wants to work in their own way and hence managing a huge team has been a difficult task. Another one was that there were new ideas in this project and it was difficult to convince people to materialize them. For example, those people who lived on this land before were driven out after giving compensation and arrangements of modern flats had to be made for them. This is called on site rehabilitation. It was very difficult to convince people to implement these ideas and also ideas like the water transport system.

The final struggle was to make the project self-sustainable, that is, being able to pay for its own expenses from its own income. So, its future costs of security, cleaning, traffic, tree plantation all this would be managed from its own earnings. This project will be a modern self-sustainable milestone urban design given that everything starting from maintenance, revenue collection, security, and others go on well.

Speaking imprecisely, this is the story of the Hatirjheel Project along with the struggles of implementation to some extent. After discussion on Hatirjheel Project with Mr. Habib, we move on to some of the pressing issues of our city life in Dhaka.

  • The increase of in-migrations and population of Dhaka every year
  • Slums and poor living conditions in Dhaka City
  • The traffic congestion in Dhaka
  • Lack of clean drinking water and social security

Let’s start with Dhaka getting more and more centralized and in-migrations taking place mostly due to economic forces. What are the causes and possible solutions to this massive influx of people every year?

“First and foremost, we need to remember that, it is our political indecisions that have led this city into a centralized system. Dhaka has become a centralized location for politics, economics, education, health, and all other principal sectors. People have a tendency to migrate here. We have failed to spread our health sector and education sector all over Bangladesh. 

The administration is centralized and all the heads of the Government have their offices here. Even a force like the Navy has its headquarters in Dhaka. An organization like BGB whose main work is in the borders, has its headquarters in Dhaka. This political philosophy of a centralized capital has created the problem of internal migration.

Beside this, people who lost their homes in river erosion and other jobless people are coming to Dhaka in search of jobs. Also, we are not spreading development equally in all parts of Bangladesh and not encouraging people to spread to other cities. All these factors have had their cumulative effect and now we have a population that the capital cannot feed or shelter in the most humane way.”

In 1975, Dhaka city had an approximate population of 2,173,000. [3] In 2015, the population of Dhaka city increased to 22,766,000. In these 40 years, the population of Dhaka city has multiplied almost 10.5 times. That is a 6.05 % growth rate from 1975 to 2015. Dhaka already houses more people than its capacity and it cannot bear the pressure any more. No matter how much its facilities are increased, it still cannot tolerate this excessive pressure. The solution to this mammoth problem is pretty simple, actually.

As we discuss about these complications, Mr. Habib also suggests some measures to counteract these glitches. “First, we need to change our political philosophy. Development has to be done equally in all parts of the country. The divisional cities are to be marked as centers of development. Secondly, we need to ensure rapid and easy transportation and communication system between Dhaka and other divisional cities. In this aspect, we need to put more importance on water and rail ways. We also need to make undisturbed roads or elevated expressways.

In Bangla, মহাসড়ক or Undisturbed road means it won’t have any home, market or crossed road on its two sides. Even though we have undisturbed road laws, we can’t find any such roads because in reality, there are intersecting roads and markets beside almost all of the highways in our country. These highways need to be cleared off the interruptions.

There needs to be very quick and easy communication system between Dhaka and all the cities around Dhaka such as Narshingdi, Comilla, Manikganj etc. This can be done through commuter rail, river ways, etc. As a result, there will be a public transportation system that will be beneficial to the mass people. So, if we can take these steps, then the in-migration of Dhaka will come to an end over the years and would benefit the whole country in terms of development and communication.”

Now, to alleviate the problem regarding the unhygienic living conditions in the slums of Dhaka and the lack of good housing system for the poor, there needs to be Housing Solutions. According to ‘The Poverty Maps of Bangladesh 2010[1], which was released in 2014, about 32.3% people of Dhaka live under the poverty line. That is 1.59 crore [2]people out of the 4.94 crore poor people in the country. The main reason behind the slums of Dhaka is that when housing solutions are planned, it is mostly planned for the rich and middle income people. The rest of the people do not come into account.

Till now, there has not been any large scale housing project for the middle income and lower middle income families. All the housing projects done in Dhaka are only for the rich people. As a result, slums have been on the rise. If planned development can be done, then not only there won’t be any slum rather, as Mr Habib states, “We have shown through calculations that Dhaka, which gives shelter to about 1 crore  45 lack people, will be able to shelter about 2 crore 75 lack people keeping all canals, rivers and natural resources undisturbed”.

However, due to lack of planning, Dhaka has not only reached its limits to bear the pressure but also has become a hub of traffic and congestion. These problems can be solved if the government and investors feel motivated and obligated to focus their housing projects on mid and lower mid income people and also bring suitable policy changes.

There are some strategic terms of traffic. These are, in simple words, “Rules of Traffic and Roads” but who would follow rules here? The main prelude to such strategic terms of plan is that we must concentrate on pedestrians first. Second prioritization should be public transportation and then comes private transportation. A modal share is the percentage of travelers using a particular type of transportation or number of trips using said type. To decide where our priorities should be at, let us look at the modal share in terms of number of trips in Dhaka as per JICA Report, Phase I- 2009. [3]

Transport Type Percentage of Share (%)
Rickshaw 38.3
Public Bus  28.3
Walking/Pedestrian 19.8
CNG 6.6
Car 5.1
Private Bus 1.8
Railway 0


We can see that Private Cars have the third lowest modal share and Rickshaw and Public Bus together consist of 66.6% of the modal share. Now, as Mr. Habib says, “The interesting part is that of all these trips that are made every day, almost 40% are only 1.5 to 2 Kilometers long.

In Singapore, one of the top 10 highest GDP earning countries in Asia, people walk at least 4 to 6 kilometers daily. Now, if we give two trips of 2.5 kilometers then it totals to 5 kilometers. Why do we need to do that on vehicles? People even like to walk but there has been no policy or management to make such pedestrian friendly roads and environment.

Since we did not give the priority to pedestrians, we don’t have nice enough roads for our pedestrians. We make foot over bridges for the pedestrians but very rarely find it well used. The reason is that people get tired of going up and down by a foot over bridge. There are older citizens who cannot walk that much, and many times the bridges are pretty far away from the main alley or junction. Added with these are hawkers and muggers always on the over bridges to make our walk painful.

To solve the transport problems, firstly, we need to change our priorities. We need to focus on those means of transport which have the largest modal shares. We need to improve public transport system and give our pedestrians safe roads to walk on. In London, in the last 15 years, footpaths have been getting wider than the roads. In Manhattan or Singapore, cars stop for the pedestrians to walk. There is a signal for pedestrians when they need to cross the roads and the cars stop. This is called zebra crossing. We could have these instead of long drawn over bridges.

There is no proper place for buses to stop in Dhaka. There is a system called Bus Traffic Transport. According to this system, we need to prioritize buses on roads, like we prioritize ambulances. Private cars would not go in the lanes of buses and will give side to buses to go first. As a result, more and more people will travel by buses and the system will become better for the people.

Other projects we can undertake to solve traffic problems are commuter rails and river ways. If I know that the train comes every 15 minutes and I can go from Uttara to Manikganj in a well-conditioned train, then the travel becomes so much easier for me. I can get down near Farmgate or at Sonargaon if I need to.”

He adds, “Now let us ask ourselves, “Has any country been benefitted with this policy?” Well, Yes. There are many examples. Let us look at Bombay of the 80s. The present Mumbai had problems like us in the 80s and they decided to make commuter rails. Guess what, it worked! We can see the assimilation of this system with the unique lifestyle of Mumbai through their movies as well; Slumdog Millionaire for example.

Currently, the work of our metro rail project is going on, which is another praiseworthy step forward for our country in solving this traffic problem. Dhaka is surrounded by rivers all around. If we can connect these rivers for circulated water way, then transportation would become so easy for us. For example, if I stay at Dhanmondi, I can take a rickshaw to Rayerbazar station and take a river bus and reach Salimullah Medical where I study taking a total of 15-20 minutes. This way, life becomes so much easier for us.

Lastly, we need to make ourselves conscious. We need to teach our children from a small age that we should not pollute here and there, should not break traffic signals, and should follow the rules. This mass consciousness is needed to be built up in our people. Not just mass consciousness, the law and enforcement authority should also abide by and implement the laws strongly.

If there is shopping center without parking space, then close the shopping center. If people park on the road where they are not supposed to, fine them. Strict measures for not just the ordinary public but everybody at large is what would help the public believe in this cause too.”

As our discussion on traffic problem ends, I ask him about his views on the problem of clean drinking water. Mr. Habib starts, “Lalon Shah said about 200 years ago, “লালন মরল জল পিপাসায় কাছে থাকতে নদী মেঘনা(Lalon died of thirst while river Meghna was so near). If we take it literally, the situation is the same till now. There are many people in Dhaka who suffer from clean drinking water problem whereas Dhaka is surrounded by sweet water rivers. We are turning these sweet water rivers into sewer water and digging and sucking water from underwater for drinking.

As a result, aquifer is going down every year and we are becoming more and more vulnerable to tremor and earthquakes. Everyone knows about this but no one is doing anything. We are making the river water so much polluted that the only treatment plant in Sayedabad cannot run for some time during the year due to over pollution.”

Here is an excerpt published in an article of Thomson Reuters Foundation[4]. “Bangladesh plans to begin requiring rooftop water harvesting systems in new buildings in Dhaka in an effort to address the city’s worsening water shortages and curb drops in groundwater levels.

The amendment to the city’s building codes is expected to be in place this year, said Sheikh Abdul Mannan, director of planning for Rajdhani Unnayan Kartipakkha, Bangladesh’s capital development authority.”

This news was reported in 2011 and 5 years later, how many new buildings have been forced to comply with the plan of rainwater harvesting systems in their buildings? Every year we lose a lot of rainwater that could be harvested and used after treatment. Every industrialist, while taking approval, agrees to make water and air treatment systems in their factories but in reality, they don’t do so. So, we can see that these industrialists are turning themselves into villains. They are not only hampering the nature but also putting the lives of so many people into danger.

Apart from all these crises, there are other things to look at too. We need to look at the social security of our people, especially girls, we need to look at gender equality and equality for the physically challenged, and we need to save our environmental resources. If we can ensure social justice for people regardless of wherever they are, we will also see equality for people in respect of gender, disabilities, environmental resources, and social security in our country soon.

Mr. Iqbal Habib considers himself very blessed. He has had the fortune to work in some major areas and in those areas he has been able to bring change. He says that we, as individuals, are change makers ourselves. He has struggled for the Hatirjheel project and also for the policy of housing for low income people. That policy has just been changed and with 3 to 5 percent interest, there would be RMG housing soon. Mr. Habib has shared some stories of his life and work in his TEDxDhaka talk, titled: ‘Redesigning Dhaka City’. “There have always been failures and they have always been an integral part of the success”, he adds.

He shares an interesting insight while we talk about his struggles.

He found that people in slums pay on an average more than what people in multistoried apartments do. As per his findings, for an 8 Feet X 8 Feet house in a slum, the dwellers pay BDT 2600 as rent. This is about 40.6 Taka per square feet. In some cases, it is about 34 to 38 and even 42 Taka per square feet. They use one light, one fan, a shared toilet, and a narrow corridor and live a very unhygienic life.

Comparing that cost to those of nice apartments, let’s say, we pay an average monthly rent of BDT 35,000 for a 900 Sq. feet flat. So, monthly rent per square feet is BDT 38.8 Taka. Look at all the facilities we get for a lower rent. We get 2-3 bed rooms, electricity, gas, security, generator, and so many other facilities that give us so much better living condition than the slums. Why does this parity and discrimination exist? Just because they can’t pay a bulk amount like BDT 35,000 a month!

Hence, all these advocacy needs to draw the attention of the policy makers. Mr. Habib says, “I believe if we work towards justice and development like this In shaa Allah we will have better social conditions in the future. All we need from the government is to be the facilitator and caretaker for the poor. In our constitution, this is the right of the people. So, the government has to fulfill these rights if they claim themselves the government.”

His favorite quote is from Rabindranath Tagore.

বিস্ময় তাই জাগে, তাই জাগে আমার প্রাণ,

কান পেতেছি, চোখ মেলেছি, ধরার বুকে প্রাণ ঢেলেছি

জানার মাঝে অজানাকে করেছি সন্ধান

বিস্ময় তাই জাগে, তাই জাগে আমার প্রাণ,

[What we consider known has a lot of things unknown in them. To know the truth, our ears, eyes, and hearts have to feel them appropriately. Otherwise, we cannot see this truth and without observing this truth we cannot bring change.]

John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Maybe, we should start focusing on what we can do for our country as well. We should grow the sense of responsibility towards our own self, people, and animals around us. We should consider the betterment of the whole world and do our best to take it forward.

 “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
John F. Kennedy

[1]As per the Waqf State Bangladesh, “Waqf means the permanent dedication by a person professing Islam of any movable or immovable property recognized by Muslim Law as religious, or charitable purpose, and includes any other endowment or grant for the aforesaid purposes, a waqf by user, and a waqf created by a non-Muslim.”

[2] Water Environment Federation, Alexandria, VA; and American Society of Civil Engineers, Reston, VA. “Urban Runoff Quality Management.” WEF Manual of Practice No. 23; ASCE Manual and Report on Engineering Practice No. 87. 1998. ISBN 1-57278-039-8. Chapter 5.

[Utmost dedication has been given to transcribe and write the interviews as flawlessly as possible . However, the information and events shared in this book might not be cent percent perfect and there can always be human error in collection and dissemination of information. It is thus requested to forgive any mistake, if found, in this book. At the same time, I request all readers and visitors not to copy the content of this book without the written consent of the author of this book, as these interviews are the author’s original work that has required a lot of hard work and patience. The full book can be purchased here.]


Iqbal Habib Copyright © by A.T.M. Hasibul Islam. All Rights Reserved.

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