When the 7th century Chinese traveller Hsüan Tsang came visiting Chittagong, he was so hypnotised by the beauty of the city that he described it as “a sleeping beauty emerging from mist and water.” The 16th century Portuguese traders described Chittagong as Porto Granda and the name of Chittagong is mentioned in the Portuguese epic Lucida. Even before the Portuguese arrived in Chittagong (then Chattogram) it was noted by as one of largest Eastern ports by the Roman geographer Ptolemy in the 1st century AD. The harbour has been a gateway through south-western Bengal in the Indian subcontinent for centuries. Arab sailors and traders, who once explored the Bay of Bengal, set up a mercantile station in the harbour during the 9th century. Chittagong has been one of the few continuous ports for centuries.
Born and spending more than half a century in my beloved Chittagong city it is time for me and my generation to weep for this doomed city. It is now facing total destruction and sad demise. The complete failure of administering the city for the last twenty years now has made this ancient city face a bleak future. If things continue as of now in about a decade or so archaeologist will say ‘once upon a time here was a city called Chittagong which survived centuries but died an unnatural death as the city was administered by a bunch of incompetent people’. But here is the city that once produced city administrators who left their permanent footprints and legacy by their deeds.The legendary Nur Ahmed left a legacy which can hardly be matched by the combined deeds by all his successors. Commonly known as Nur Ahmed Chairman by the people of Chittagong he was a man of many excellences combined into one. Born in 1890 late Nur Ahmed passed his BA in Arabic and Persian and MA in history from Calcutta University with distinction and was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for securing the first position and highest mark in his examination. He also completed his BL degree from the same university and joined the Chittagong Bar in 1917. Later he entered politics and in 1930 was elected as a member of Bengal Legislative Council and served as one of two members (the other one was late A K Khan) for ten years and as a member of the Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly for seven years. In 1918 he contested the local government polls and was elected as a commissioner and in 1921 Nur Ahmed was elected the Chairman of Chittagong Municipality (founded in 1863) and served in that capacity for 33 years and took a voluntary retirement as he could not divide his time between Chittagong and Karachi (the first capital of Pakistan and seat of the parliament).
He was a good orator, and dedicated his life for the wellbeing of the people of Chittagong. He was born in a mud house and expired in the same house in 1964. One of his great feats was making primary education compulsory for children between the age of 6-10 and laid emphasis on education for girls. During his tenure he established one free primary school for girls and one for boys in each ward of the city. The mullahs did not like the idea of sending girls to school in those days but Nur Ahmed Chairman never backed away from his mission. He is credited for introducing compulsory free primary education for the first time in the subcontinent.
Nur Ahmed was a good parliamentarian and in the parliament, whether in Bengal or in Pakistan he always spoke in for the rights of the common people of Bengal, particularly for the people of Chittagong. On 28 February 1942 he tabled a motion demanding that a university in Chittagong be established. The legacy of Nur Ahmed Chairman has become a legend in the history of development of Chittagong.
In 1977 Chittagong Municipality was renamed as Chittagong Poura Shoba and in 1990 Poura Shoba became City Corporation. The first elected Chairman of the Corporation was Late Fazal Karim. As a Chairman he was also dedicated to the cause of the common people and during his tenure he improved the public utility services, refrained from increasing taxes and improved the public health service. People still remember him for his deeds.
The city was also fortunate enough to have a political leader A B M Mohiuddin Chowdhury who rose from the grassroots level to become an elected Mayor of the Chittagong City Corporation. He understood the desire of the common people and focused on improving the quality of education in the schools. As a Mayor of the City Corporation he even ventured to establish a university. Born in 1944 Mohiuddin Chowdhury died in 2017 after prolonged illness. Elected three times as the Mayor of Chittagong Mohiuddin Chowdhury is still respected by the people of Chittagong for his achievements as a Mayor.
The same Chittagong city which once had such illustrious Chairman or Mayors is now struggling to survive as a city. Because of the terrain of the Chittagong district, flooding or water logging was something not known to the people of this city. Now in every monsoon for the last one decade or so the people of Chittagong are experiencing harrowing suffering during the monsoon; and during last one week practically the entire Chittagong has suffered devastating water logging and flooding. Though everyone loves to blame the Chittagong City Corporation and its Mayor as a matter of fact, this is a collective failure of the City Corporation, Chittagong Development Authority (CDA), Chittagong WASA and the inhabitants of the city.For the last three decades the encroachers, most of them with political connection, have managed to encroach all the water outlets of the city (khals). Chittagong once known for its green hillocks with green vegetation now looks barren in places like Nasirabad, Baiyzid Bostami, Khulsi area, and the villains being the real estate developers. Once big sea going vessels use to carry rice and timber from Burma through the Chaktai Khal. Now one has to discover the khal as it has turned into a drain. People generously encroached all such khals. It was the duty of the City Corporation to reclaim these khals but they failed miserably and many of the corporation staffs who are entrusted with this responsibility were busy quick money from the encroachers rather than doing their duty diligently.
CDA – the authority entrusted to develop the public services of the city has redefined public service and limited it to construction of unplanned flyovers. Chittagong WASA has already earned the reputation of digging up a recently carpeted road and whenever a road is carpeted a fresh people wait eagerly for WASA to come and dig it rendering it unusable. No public utility service provider is more inefficient like Chittagong WASA in the entire country.
The current government generously funded lots of development work for this city but all seems to have gone into waste. To make things worse, Chittagong has become a hot bed of inner feuding amongst the political leaders. It does not matter which party is in power, everyone is busy trying to discredit others by any means. It is not only the lack of coordination amongst the public utility service providers that have contributed to destruction and possible demise of this city but the political leaders must also share their part of unwillingness to improve the living conditions of the people of this city and of course the inhabitants must also learn to obey some civic norms and laws and distinguish between a drain and a garbage dump. Maybe there will not be another Nur Ahmed Chairman or Fazal Karim or even A B M Mohiuddin Chowdhury in near future who will come and take control of the City Corporation but the people who are in charge of managing the affairs of city and providing public utilities can at least learn some lesson from the examples they have set.
The writer is an analyst and a commentator. Currently he teaches at ULAB.