By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
A Chinese firm has agreed to conduct feasibility and environmental impact studies free of charge for a new township that Bangladesh’s government plans to build outside the capital, officials said amid legal, environmental and ethical concerns voiced over the project.
The cost of the planned development in a floodplain along the Turag River has not been determined yet, but the studies will focus on a potential site in a 16-km (9.9-mile) stretch on both sides of the waterway between Aminbazar and Ashulia, the project’s director said.
“On Nov 19, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the China Road and Bridge Corporation to conduct the feasibility study and the environmental impact analysis on the project,” Ashraful Islam, the project director who is an engineer with RAJUK, the Dhaka city development authority, told BenarNews.
“The CRBC is carrying out the studies free of cost. We will not provide them any money for the studies.”
Both studies are due in November 2020, he said.
The China Road and Bridge Corp. (CRBC), is a state-owned firm and subsidiary of the China Communications Construction Co., a Fortune Global 500 company. BenarNews was unsuccessful in efforts to telephone the Dhaka office of CRBC to confirm information about the firm’s role in the Turag River project.
Conservationists warn that the project could cause environmental problems and would violate the Water Bodies Conservation Act-2000, a law prohibiting construction of buildings in flood plains.
“This law prohibits both the government and the private sector from building any structures in the flood-flow zones,” said M. Shah Alam Khan, a professor at the Institute of Water and Flood Management, which is based at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).
“The Turag is one of Dhaka’s outlets for flood and rain water. But constructing structures in the flood-flow zone would bar the drainage of flood water. It may result in water logging in Dhaka city,” he told BenarNews, adding, “We can in no way block the flood-flow zones.”
But proponents of the project counter that it aims to save flood plains from runaway development. They say it would help preserve vulnerable wetlands near Dhaka from being acquired by private property developers.
“The environmentalists always level allegations that we are violating the Water Bodies Conservation Act,” Islam said. “Through the Turag project, actually we are trying to preserve the flood-flow zone in Dhaka.”
He said 62 percent of the area for the project would be kept as wetlands or water bodies, while 10 percent would be allocated for housing. The remaining 28 percent would be used for water-based industries and recreation, he said.
Big companies have been buying private land in the low-lying areas adjacent to the Turag River and filing them with sand, Islam said.
“Somehow, we have to save the low-lying areas near Dhaka. Otherwise, Dhaka will be water-logged in the future,” he said.
Under China’s One Belt, One Road initiative CRBC is building the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan Highway, the Pakistan Karakoram Highway Improvement Project, among other worldwide projects, its website said.
The initiative is Beijing’s strategic program to pump trillions of dollars into building a modern-day Silk Road by financing and constructing a network of infrastructure projects across Asia, Africa and Europe.
Bangladesh is among countries that China is targeting under One Belt, One Road.
In 2016, Beijing and Dhaka signed a memorandum where China agreed to loan Bangladesh $20 billion tied to 27 Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in the South Asian nation.
Analyst: ‘Not a good decision’
Mosharraf Hossain, a former housing minister who chairs the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Housing and Public Works, is among officials who support the planned township.
“The housing companies have been buying private land and occupying government land on the Turag River,” he told BenarNews.
“If we want to save the flood flow zones from extinction, we have to back the government to implement this huge project,” Hossain said.
But others question the government’s ethics in allowing the Chinese firm to conduct both the feasibility and environmental impact studies, as well as for free.
The government should not have agreed to this, said Professor Mustafizur Rahman, a fellow at the Center for Policy Dialogue, a private think-tank in Dhaka.
“RAJUK should have conducted the feasibility study or paid someone to do the same in a transparent way. This is not a good decision to accept this free of cost service,” Rahman told BenarNews.
Chinese companies usually make unsolicited offers to implement development projects and for their business interests, in hopes of winning contracts that are skewed in their favor, he said.
“Actually, the Chinese company has been carrying out the feasibility study in an unsolicited way. They are doing the feasibility study with the hope of getting the contract for the project in the future,” Hossain added.