Sylhet City: A Local Development Case Study

Photos of Sylhet roads without overhead cables and bereft of hawkers in footpaths have gone viral in the Sylhet online community. After a disappointing and depressing year, many Sylhetis have found comfort in coming out and seeing their new-look city. While I celebrated my city’s recent development initiatives and extended my congratulations to the local leaders who have made this possible, I decided to take a deeper look into what the objectives have been for the current and recent-past local government.

What makes a city livable? What makes a city achieve a just balance between urbanization and preserving its natural treasures? When we take local development initiatives, do we pay heed to our unique identity? Since the formation of Sylhet City Corporation in 2002 and rapid urbanization, it has been a concern among many whether Sylhet can stay true to its identity while facing the challenges that come with trying to achieve sustainable developments of a city. In this case study, I will look at several problems identified by scholars and locals (both residents and governments), and what Sylhet has done to address those problems in recent years.

In a 2014 report created by Sylhet City Corporation for “Special Event of Asian Mayors of the Eighth Regional EST Forum in Asia”, the corporation identified road width and overall infrastructure, water logging, non-motorized and public transportation, and disability accessibility among its biggest challenges and their top-most priority in a master plan being developed with a goal of creating a sustainable city by 2030.

After a slight delay, the master plan was created under the guidance of National Professor late Jamilur Reza Chowdhury and a team consisting of eminent civil engineers and architects from Shahjalal University of Science and Technology. After the plan was submitted to the Ministry of Local Government in the first quarter of 2020, a bigger Sylhet City Corporation was approved with the aim of incorporating more playgrounds, public spaces, water bodies, etc.

In particular, the Sylhet City Corporation (SCC) must be commended for their initiatives to address water logging problems despite backlashes from illegal land grabbers. Through Ward Disaster Management Committee and Community Volunteer Groups for each ward, SCC allocated $3 million and implemented several development projects aimed at excavation of water bodies, drain cleaning and maintenance, water supply and waste management. Last year, the city mayor Ariful Haque Chowdhury stated that the executive committee of the national economic council approved a project of Tk 12,228 crore to resolve the problem of waterlogging and ensure sufficient supply of pure drinking water in the city.

Sylhet city was also the first in Bangladesh to remove overhead cables last year, with seven-kilometre area of the city slated to go overhead cable free under a pilot project, costing about $6 million. There was a minor setback, and due to the novelty of the idea in Bangladeshi context, an alternative plan was also submitted if any malfunctions happen at any time.

This month, Sylhet City Corporation along with Sylhet Metropolitan Police have been successful in relocating and rehabilitating 1,070 roadside hawkers. It was a direct result of the local government’s decision of creating a hawker-free city in a bid to curb of traffic congestion. There has also been a plan in place to monitor the footpaths so that the hawkers do not return.

Another aspect Sylhet city has pioneered over the years, is an active collaboration between various politicians hailing from opposite ends of the political spectrum. There is a good understanding between Sylhet-1 Member of Parliament and Sylhet City Mayor, who represent AL and BNP respectively, and they have worked in a close relationship for a long time. It has been the same case in previous regimes as well.

Sylhet City offers us a respite from various political hindrances that block local development. It also offers a lot of pragmatic lessons to achieve local development through active collaboration between urban scholars, local leaders, and central government. It is up to all of us to hold our local governments accountable. I encourage everyone in Bangladesh to share stories of your own locality, particularly what are the challenges faced and what are the steps being taken to overcome them.

Photo: Sheikh Nasir