Tuesday, January 31, 2006














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Policy on rural roads
A crying need for saving land
Qazi Azad

          BANGLADESH is said to have a relatively high road density compared to many of the regional countries in this part of the world. It may be so as numerous rural roads have come up in the last two decades and a half. If you go to the countryside, you will find that some areas which were inaccessible previously can be easily reached now by road. Many of our rural roads are also motorable. That is development in the usual sense.
Another aspect of our countryside is that it is strikingly unlike what we previously knew as rural Bangladesh. The vast crop-fields, which once appeared to have met the horizon, are no longer there. Standing crops no more dance with the air-waves in the vast fields to offer a splendid spectacle to the eyes. These fields have become tiny and are now spotted with homesteads. New roads criss-cross the fields making the homes easily accessible to their dwellers. The encroachment of housing and new roads on the agricultural land continues unabated as the problem of fast growing population compounded by the break up of extended families create new requirement for separate homes and new roads. Yes, the country is transforming. But should Bangladesh eventually become a state with houses all around?
The government should never be oblivious of the immutable fact that ours is a country where land is scarce and the population density is very high. The presence of these two mutually incompatible factors requires us to plan land use in a manner, which is logical in our circumstances, so that neither food production nor housing is hampered at any stage to bring back the stigma of "bottomless bread-basket" of 1974. But the way successive governments have discharged their responsibilities in land management and improving communication can only raise the awful vision in any thoughtful mind that the return of that heart-rending stigma is not too far off. We have hardly progressed industrially in relation to our requirement and position as the world's ninth largest nation. The growth rate of our manufacturing sector, which alone could add muscle to the economy in our situation, has continued to be so dismal that it causes anxiety and makes any thoughtful individual nervous. Compare the export basket of 1990 with that of now. Any significant change? Hardly a new product of enduring promise could be added. Pharmaceuticals? You don't know what will happen to it after 2016 when the moratorium on payment of royalty for using foreign formulae by the least developed countries (LDC) will expire. Another question: should we forever remain a least developed country to beg moratorium?
Bluntly speaking, the current trend of our industrial development creates no room for optimism that our country will be able to feed its rising population from its industrial income either through employment or through financial support to the unemployed with regular doles should agriculture shrink or vanish in the face of land shortage. Our service sector does not yet attract foreigners to create strong muscles of the economy with foreign exchange--hospitals as patients, academic institutions as students, tourism and hospitality sub-sector as tourists. As the country's trade deficit continues to soar, the growth of the service sector within our economy, which in its present form only benefits the locals, cannot be taken as a comfortable situation. It you insist that the growing trade deficit is due particularly to increased import of machinery and industrial raw materials then you have to support your contention with statistics showing a proportionate growth of industrial output in relation to the import growth in terms of value. Granted that every new industry needs a hatching period. But the growth curve of investment and that of industrial output from some stage should show consistency as every new industry, after its hatching period, should turn over output. If the situation is different, one may suspect that something like the one, which caused the Latin American debt crisis not very long ago, may be happening. It was a period when many Latin American countries filed up foreign loans atop such loans in the name of investment but actually squandered much of the money on foreign visits, foreign education of children and treatment abroad and then defaulted in repaying of loans. Papers submitted to and cleared by customs may not be always indicative of the actual investment. The appropriate authorities should rather seriously check the position
Should we rely on the foreign exchange remittances from our expatriate workers too much? It's a windfall benefit and it will be safe to treat it as such. Had our exported manpower been experts in science, technology, management and diverse other important disciplines, their world would have been large enough for them to move from here to there as dictated by an emerging situation at their places of employment. We must take a holistic view of our economic situation and our prospect while assessing if there is a compelling need to save our farmland from encroachment by housing and new rural roads.
Singapore has now its redevelopment authority to address development in a redefined way in conformity with its new realities. Old multi-storied buildings are being demolished wherever required to create room for new taller buildings. Aren't there lessons for us? During the heavy floods in 1987 and 1988, when waters stagnated causing immense sufferings to the affected people, studies came up with a common finding that ill-planned rural roads obstructed the flow of waters downward to the adjoining rivers to cause the floodwater to stagnate.
Yet new rural roads are being constructed; and that too not in a planned way. Wherever there is a large concentration of voters or some influential people, even if there is an alternative road, the local union parishad chairman or any of the parishad members often constructs a new direct road either under pressure or for appeasement at the expense of allocated government fund or with the assistance of some NGOs. I happen to know about at least one such road, which has been declared illegal by a higher court after nearly two decades of legal fight. Think about the loss to the exchequer, caused by constructing that illegal rural road. Should you ignore the agony of those who were dispossessed of their precious land by those in local authority who were supposed to protect them? Construction of rural roads by many of the union parishads indiscriminately without regard for planning under pressure from or for appeasing some voters encourages people to found new homes on farmlands according to their sweet will and often away from the existing roads to require construction of new roads. Did you ever travel by the old road between Comilla and Feni? From one point, five or six kilometres to the south of Comilla, the road begins to take turn at an extremely acute angle at every two hundred metres or so. You just cross a distance of hardly two kilometres or so from that point while you travel ten kilometres. A classic example of what pressure or influence can cause in our country in road construction! Besides, the abuse of land, which is in the ultimate analysis a national asset, think about the huge quantum of fuel, which should be worth a very large amount of money, that was wasted by motor vehicles over the long decades in traversing that short distance along a long road.
In the sixties of the last century the approximation was that land demarcation lines alone consumed land equal to the size of Bogra. God alone knows how much land have our rural roads eaten up so far? Do we have any reliable statistics? The precarious situation created by an acute land shortage and a large population demands that there should be a rural road construction policy in the form of a law envisaging that no new rural road should be constructed wherever there is an alternative road, only roads for connecting growth centres with highways may be constructed, and that new homes should be erected as close as possible to the existing roads. The policy may stipulate that construction of any new road at private initiative will have to be justified by the owner or owners in the local union parishad with evidence proving that he or she or they did not have any land close to the road for constructing the new home prior to creating the new road. If every ruling political party in our country refrains from taking such unpopular initiative for the benefit of the state and in the long-term interest of our people, who will actually govern the country with the ultimate public interest in mind?


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