It was a weekend morning, and Fahim Muhammad Tajrain, a Class III student at St. Gregory’s High School and College in Old Dhaka, was playing with a ball on Manik Mia Avenue, the usually busy road adjoining the South Plaza of the National Parliament complex.
Not only Fahim, but also a good number of other children could be seen taking advantage of the wide expanse of Manik Mia Avenue, playing everything from badminton, basketball, cricket, and football. Some were even drawing, flying kites, or cycling, as part of the ‘Car-free Road’ event organized on Friday.
An organizer of the event, ANM Masum Billah Bhuiyan, Policy Assistant at the Institute of Wellbeing (IWB), told UNB that the event was a periodic initiative to discourage the use of cars. Called “Car Free Dhaka Street”, it takes place on the first Friday of every month. Now many private and government organisations have joined to support the initiative.
“Actually the event is arranged aiming to reduce traffic congestion, strengthening the civic network among city dwellers and allocating a space for children to play under the sky,” he added.
It won the support of Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader, who declared to keep Manik Mia Avenue car-free at least for a day. Eventually they managed just under half a working day. Quader’s announcement paved the way for this initiative to begin its journey on March 22, 2017. The event is now arranged on first Friday of every month from 8am to11 am.
“I was born in Old Dhaka where no proper playgrounds or open spaces exist for us to enjoy. It’s not always good to be stuck inside in room of house. However, I am very happy to come here. I will come here for every event,” Fahim told UNB.
He also said, ‘If we had such open spaces in Old Dhaka or near our home then we would not have taken the bus here. I could play here every afternoon.’
His father Najmul Huda, a government official, regretted that Fahim lacks the recreation facilities he enjoyed as a little boy, when he and his friends could play in a number of places to pass the time.
“But now our children can’t play for lack of playgrounds. They are passing time on their mobile all the time and that’s very harmful for their bodies. To expand memory, open spaces for children is a must,” he also said.
He said that the government is laying emphasis on only visible development so buildings are being built in unplanned ways without thinking about future generation. So Dhaka turned into “an unlivable city”.
Another guardian Shahin Mia who came to the avenue with his son Sabbir, a class 6 student at Manipur High School and College, said that he does not have enough time to go out with his son due to his private sector job. So his son plays in his small room.
Bhuiyan of IWB said, “If we can make a private car-free Dhaka then it’ll be better place to live for the dwellers. We would ride public buses and somewhat get rid of traffic jam and children would get more space to play.”
He also said, “We would like to discourage the use of private cars as it impacts on environment. So we want car-free streets in cities. The World Car Free Day has been observed on September 22 every year since 2006. We want to ride public buses and reduce traffic jam.”
Bhuiyan added that public vehicles should run on the roads instead of private car as it puts extra pressure on roads and harms the environment. Once roads were only for walking but these are now occupied by cars polluting the environment.
“However, we also arrange car free street event at Mohammadpur area on Third Saturday of every month. It will be expanded further to ensure sustainable development across the country,” he informed.
Taking turns on a bicycle, Fatima and her little brother Rafsan could be seen having a quarrel over whose turn should be next to go for a ride, on the side of the avenue which was kept shut to normal traffic for three hours as part of the car-free event.
“Our children usually don’t see open spaces in the growing city. The roads are always filled with traffic. It’s an excellent initiative; it gives the kids a space to breathe,” said their mother Nilufar Akter, who accompanied them.
Abu Naser Khan, Chairman of Poribesh Bachao Andolan (POBA), said that they have been organizing a car-free street event with international bodies since a generation back.
“Dhaka is one of the most populated cities of the world. Always traffic jam takes the street here. Besides, cars are polluting environment. If we can discourage use of cars then the city will get a positive message. We will somewhat get rid of traffic jam and children also get open spaces to play,” he added.
Mohammed Nurul Amin, Director of Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA) told UNB that earlier the event was arranged by some NGOs. In 2016, we took part with them as different countries in the world celebrate car free street.
“Actually we want to discourage use of private car. There are huge traffic jams in those cities where there are more cars. If we can increase awareness among the people by initiating such event then congestion would reduce and people would get relief from environmental hazards,” he also said.
He further added that cars are kept off the roads in many developed counties including Europe one day in a week. “But we can’t do that here. However, we started at the avenue; it will be expanded further in future.”