Candidates do themselves no favours by promising ‘everything under the Sun’
Given the timing, you would think that last week’s fire would find its way into the agenda for the February 1 mayor elections. The morning-after video was shot last Friday, as the campaigns entered the final stretch. With councillor as well as mayor candidates for the two city corporations in the capital criss-crossing the city like neutrinos in a particle accelerator, you’d expect someone to almost run into the hundreds of families rendered homeless overnight. Not a chance. No candidate went to see them, not even for a photo-op with people in distress. The campaigns flooded the airwaves, but not a word was uttered in solidarity or reassurance for the victims, of their own accord or prompted. Not even after a casualty was confirmed at the DMCH Burn Unit, a woman named Parvin Akhter, after being admitted with 90 percent burns. For all intents and purposes, the elections and that slum fire belonged in different continents, and there was nothing to tie them.
Strictly speaking, Jhilpar bosti falls under Dhaka North, and so you could argue that the onus was on the candidates in that half of the city to address what was at least a tragic incident, if not a symptom of municipal dysfunction. But how Dhaka chooses to deal with its slums is an issue that concerns everyone who lives here, and the electorate must demand new ideas and thinking from leaders who can reimagine a city of 16 million residents. With three days left of campaigning, none of the candidates in the South (where to be fair, it’s been more of a coronation than a campaign) and only some of the candidates in the North have released documents they believe, or would like us to believe are election manifestos.
What jumps out at you from the 9 pages (combined) of the Tabith Awal (BNP) and Atiqul Islam (AL) documents are the similarities, from the ideas to the iconography. To be perfectly frank, each candidate has produced a comprehensive, even exhaustive, list of talking points. And as far as talking points go, they have managed to fit in everything under the sun, without any hint of some overarching vision or prioritisation, or a specific commitment that is close to their hearts. A manifesto is meant to provide mooring, voters should be able to hold candidates accountable to them. What the North candidates have provided are the syllabi for two MCQ tests. That can be taken off a common question paper.
On the specific issue of slums, well obviously they don’t say much. Unless it’s hidden behind some riddle or I’ve missed it in three readings, Tabith actually manages to completely bypass them. No mention of anything to do with them. The nearest he gets is in sounding out ‘low-rent housing’. Which could be for anyone.
Atiqul for his part does acknowledge their existence. Just about. In the first page of his 3-page manifesto, with each covering a plank of his candidacy, under ‘Healthy Dhaka’ one of the 14/15 boxes reads: “Ensure civic services for slum-dwellers.” This is buttressed by iconography corresponding to water, gas, electricity - basic utilities. None of which is to be turned away but considering most slum-dwellers do manage to get them anyway, suggests he has nothing new to bring to the table.
It’s so vanishingly little to go by, but what it does tell you is that our two leading candidates (DNCC) have simply not found it worthwhile to engage with the conditions facing over 5 million residents of the city, one half of which they seek to lead as mayor. To devote some thought to improving their lot in life, or bring forth their inherent dignity, or even just to stand by them in their hour of need. The only reason one may venture for this open disregard, is that slum-dwellers form a disproportionately small segment of the electorate, for which there is some evidence.
The last official census in 2011 put the population of Dhaka City at a tick under 9 million. Today, short of a census, the most reliable estimates that organisations like UNDP provide put it somewhere north of 16 million. Yet you may be surprised to learn that the size of the combined electorate for the two city corporations is approximately 5.5 million. That means only 1 in 3 residents is registered to vote. Even if you take out the under-18 population that is ineligible to vote by projecting them at 40 percent (based on 2011 census for 0-19 years), the size of the population eligible to vote should be close to 9.5 million. That means around 4 million residents who should be eligible to vote are missing from the electoral rolls. A huge chunk, of which the bulk is most likely being missed from the informal settlements. But disenfranchisement can’t negate their existence, and the force they exert on everything around them as their lives negotiate the city, would still be counting. Only we wouldn’t have the numbers.
Tabith Awal (BNP)
He outlined a 19-point manifesto in light of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals-2030 with a focus on combating mosquito menace, traffic congestion and pollution, improving public transport and waste management. Tabith said he will take steps to ensure the rights and security of citizens if he is elected the DNCC mayor.
He said the incumbent government and mayors have failed to handle the mosquito issue.
“If elected, I’ll carry out mosquito repellent activities throughout the year. Dengue is now a manageable problem, the city corporation didn’t take such an initiative, and the diseases spread badly due to their negligence. I’ll initiate the dengue preventive activities from February 1, if I elected mayor,” Tabith promised.
The BNP candidate said he will work for reducing traffic jam and take effective steps to stop air pollution in the city. Dhaka ranked third on the list of cities with the worst scores as per the air quality index (AQI). The capital city has been grappling with air pollution for years.
As part of his plan to free Dhaka from pollution, the BNP candidate said he would take steps for increasing the greeneries in the DNCC. Apart from launching the 'vertical garden' project, Tabith said he has also a plan to start a city-friendly agricultural system. “Certificates will be given to eco-friendly buildings.”
Atiqul Islam (BNP)
He spoke about a ‘three-dimensional plan’ to revamp the city while unveiling his election manifesto at a press conference at the Lakeshore Hotel on the last Sunday before the election.
“My priority is not only to build a city for better living but also to work for developing the citizens’ lifestyle,” he said. “I’ll make DNCC modern, dynamic, and healthy if reelected.”
He promised to ensure safety of the citizens, and ample grounds and parks for games and sports. “I want our next generation to grow up healthy,” he added. Atiqul also promised that he will take effective steps to curb corruption in different sectors.
He said that in order to control mosquitoes, the city corporation would work with all the organizations including its southern counterpart, WASA, Health Ministry, and neighbouring City Corporations to instill an integrated vector management (IVM) system as in developed countries.
Some other projects floated by Atiqul are the construction of open parks and modern playgrounds based on the area, and resource recovery facilities (RRF) in Aminbazar for waste management including energy generation from waste.
If reelected, he will take initiatives to ensure civic facilities for slum dwellers, restoration of water bodies after freeing them from grabbers, construction of modern public toilets, minimizing air pollution through modern technology and ‘Mist blower’, development of 'Ward Complex' for creating ward-based facilities and Tree Clinic for plant lovers and Pet Animal Clinic in Mirpur.
Additional reporting: UNB