A dream realised
A conversation with visionaries, creators and participants of the Aga Khan Award-winning Nabaganga Project in Jhenaidah – a project close to the hearts of an entire community.
Khondaker Hasibul Kabir (KHK): Jhenaidah is a district town with about 250,000 inhabitants. Although situated in the south-west of Bangladesh, it is less prone to natural calamities. The land is fertile, with good agricultural output. That’s one of the reasons why many people from the south who are driven out by floods, cyclones, and increased salinity, have often sought out Jhenaidah in search of new livelihoods. This migration is an ongoing process.
According to the Municipality’s records there are 63 low-income communities in the city but in a survey, we found the actual number to be 81. Shatbaria is the largest such community, of which Purnima Rani Das is a member. The average ratio of Hindus and Muslims here is 30 and 70 percent respectively (this is true for the whole municipality).
Although most towns in Bangladesh are bordered by rivers, the Nabaganga, which flows through the city, is special to Jhenaidah. It is calm, without strong tides. Typically, the city has evolved around the river. Several iron bridges were built in the early days to connect the banks. The idea was that people would live on one bank and their place of work would be on the other. The ghat (wharf) used to be busy with itinerant travellers and sailboats. Over the years Jhenaidah has prospered equally on both sides of the river. The river is close to the people’s hearts and figures prominently in their everyday lives.
Suhailey Farzana (SF): The issue that we focused on and for which we received the Aga Khan Award in 2022, is the ‘process’. It refers to everything that happened behind and beyond the obvious, and the work that took place in the background. The process thus assumes more importance than the product. We started work at Jhenaidah in 2015. For almost two years, we worked alongside the Shatbaria community to help them plan and design their projects. They were able to secure some funding. The whole thing evolved slowly and it continues to unfold even today.
Luva Nahid Choudhury (LNC): When designing the riverfront, how did you cope with encroachment, pollution, and waste disposal?
SF: Sadly, in Jhenaidah, drains and sewage lines are allowed to expel waste directly into the river. The ensuing problems seem insurmountable, but perhaps that’s why the participatory process is the only way forward. When we sat down for discussion with politicians, members of local communities, shopkeepers and street vendors, each group gave their opinions. It’s interesting that people did own up to littering and carelessness but at the same time, they wished for a clean river. When we started the discussion platform, our own position and identity became crucial. In early 2016, Kabir and I started living here. That made it possible for us to be accepted as members of the community besides our roles as architects. What bonded us was that we were inhabitants of Jhenaidah. This enabled the discussions to be held on an even keel. There were funny moments too when people accused one another of dumping trash in the middle of the night, to avoid being seen. Not everything has been resolved and we are still struggling but by engaging everyone in a participatory process, there has emerged a consensus about conserving the river. The Nabaganga is actively used for fishing, for bathing and all kinds of household chores.
Encroachment is a worrying issue here. Impossible as it may sound, some people with houses along the bank have actually raised earth dams to encircle portions of the river, claiming them as their private ponds. Some people farm on them, some have constructed toilets. At one point we, along with some friends who are members of the Citywide People’s Network (a platform with representation from all walks of life, including the elderly and the young) started organising walks along the river. That had both positive and negative outcomes. Some people were apprehensive and started to wall off bigger portions of the river, while some were motivated to give up previously walled off areas. More and more people joined as we started walking, making it a daily habit.
It’s not that we were able to resolve all the problems but the process enabled us to at least try to address some of the larger issues. The Shatbaria community was able to conceive a plan for their ghat, build and complete it. It was delightful to collaborate with them. Now it has become a replicable model. We firmly believe that the process and methodology allowed us to come this far.
LNC: My take from this is that your presence at Jhenaidah has been an important factor. It actually sends a powerful message to office-bound architects and planners who are keen to do something meaningful for society, but don’t exactly know how to engage. You were able to come this far by physically being present at Jhenaidah, by relocating there, by integrating with the process, and not trying to control it remotely. You have emphasised the participatory angle. We are all aware that the Aga Khan Award focuses on community development and recognition is given for work that is done for the community.
Saidul Karim Mintu (SKM): It would never have been possible for a small pourashabha (municipality) like Jhenaidah to pull off something like this without Hasibul Kabir, his wife Suhailey, and the Co.Creation.Architects team’s selfless work, as well as the community’s wholehearted participation. Members of the district administration, members of the civil society, as well as children, have welcomed the project. There is an issue with funding, which is why we could finish only forty percent of the work on half a kilometre stretch. We are keen to complete the work along the riverbank.
Initially, a lot of people thought that we would cut down some of the large trees which have survived from the British era. But the team proved that it is possible to undertake development work without cutting down a single tree and spoiling the environment. We are proud of our local architects and grateful to the team for putting Jhenaidah in the spotlight.
Syed Manzoorul Islam (SMI): We hope you will be able to complete the rest of the work soon. Will the Municipality also ensure that the riverbank is kept clean and usable, and maintained properly?
SKM: Yes, indeed, the Municipality will ensure upkeep, to the best of its ability. Now that the project has received the Aga Khan Award, we are keener than ever to look after it well.
SMI: That’s very reassuring! Can you tell us something about the level of community involvement in the Nabaganga project? The community is the foremost beneficiary of a project of this nature but it often turns out that it is the community itself that cares the least. Preventing littering and keeping the river clean are some of the biggest challenges in any public riverbank facility. There is also the issue of guaranteeing a safe space. For example, the ghat that has been constructed should not be allowed to become a hunting ground for muggers and bullies. People should be able to safely access and use the ghat with their families.
KHK: I must point out that we had already been working for nearly two years on a community housing process across the city for impoverished social groups. We mostly dealt with women who demonstrated better accountability. At that time, the authorities did not think much of the housing initiative and discounted it as a run-of-the-mill NGO scheme. They began to show interest only when two of the low-income communities, a severely disadvantaged social group, managed to complete the housing project on their own. That sparked everyone’s interest. The general feeling was, if such a poor community was capable of resolving their housing needs, why couldn’t the rest of society collectively address the city’s problems?
LNC: When you were working on the housing project, did the Nabaganga figure in your thinking?
KHK: The river was not on our minds at first. Many of the low-income communities in Jhenaidah live on the edges of the river. When we were trying to tackle the housing issue, their concerns and priorities pushed us to consider the river as a major element in the reorganisation process. The matter of saving the river also came up strongly in conversations with people on how to make the city better. Everyone felt that the water system—including ponds, reservoirs, and the river—was the starting point for addressing the city’s needs. It came up in a survey that many children in Jhenaidah don’t know how to swim—that’s a tragedy for a riverine country like Bangladesh! We conducted several workshops and asked people how they wanted to see the river. There was a steady stream of feedback from the elderly to the children.
In the end we made some sketches and computer aided visualisations to give shape to their ideas. The Mayor rushed to get some funding and actually started work based on the preliminary sketches. We then requested them to hold the work until the detailed drawings were prepared. The project can be roughly divided into two components: one is a small community ghat in a section of the town, and the other is a central riverfront walkway with a public ghat. The planning for a 4-kilometre stretch is now complete.
LNC: How did you determine the extent of the 4-kilometre run?
KHK: Five kilometres of the riverfront are under the Municipality’s jurisdiction and we have completed the design on about 4 kilometres.
SMI: Everyone has praised the Shatbaria community’s role in realising their project. How did you figure out a plan for your ghat, and how did you design it?
Purnima Rani Das (PRD): We didn’t have a ghat at all in our community. The place where we had to step down to the river’s edge to fetch water, bathe and do household chores, was in a terrible state. But we never gave it any thought and assumed that there was no way to fix it. When we came in touch with the architect team, the 400 families in our community got together and tried to make a list of our most pressing problems. It turned out that we suffered most due to the lack of a ghat. We then split into three groups and tried to conceptualise the kind of facility we would like to have. The architect team guided us through this process. In the end we were able to set down the requirements and design our own ghat.
SMI: Did you design it yourself?
PRD: Yes, and the architect team liked what we came up with. Nothing much happened the next two years as the authorities were unresponsive. Subsequently BRAC Urban Development Programme came with a project to develop our roads and drains, plant trees and do other infrastructure related work. As they were about to wrap up, they asked if our needs had been properly met. We told them that the ghat remained a pressing problem. BRAC promised to help. We immediately sought the architect team’s help to make a project based on our design. In order to meet the implementation cost of BDT 1.5 million, we pitched in 10%, the Municipality provided 40%, and the rest was borne by BRAC.
SF: I want to add a bit to what Purnima’di said, to underscore how powerful their action really was. The citywide community network, along with Co.Creation.Architects and the municipality, took steps to collect information and create a database of the 63 household clusters in their part of the city. The Municipality of course never had that kind of data. When we asked Shatbaria community what was the first thing they needed, their reply was a ghat on the river for bathing. An all-important issue surfaced in the discussion which, had to do with saving women from trudging long distances in wet clothes, after taking a dip in the river. The members of the community came up with the idea of a changing room. The fact that they were able to come up with a drawing of the changing room, construct a three-dimensional model and place figures (dolls) in it to illustrate the idea, is quite amazing! This was a learning experience for us. Our facilitation as architects was to gradually steer the community to develop necessary negotiating tools. For example, the design and model made it easier for them to have a dialogue with the Municipality and push for support that was necessary to complete the project.
SMI: Is the changing room in use?
PRD: Yes, it is used by everyone.
KHK: At Jhenaidah, we strayed from the norm of preparing a design based on a client’s brief, and, in fact, involved the beneficiary in taking ownership of their project, so that it would better reflect their wishes and expectations in terms of the design. We felt that a solution that the beneficiary had themselves researched and collaboratively arrived at, with some help from us of course, would be far more acceptable to donors and policymakers than anything we would offer without the participation of the beneficiary.
SMI: The Shatbaria community’s innovative thinking is indeed praiseworthy. The fact that the community identified the problem and came up with the idea of a changing room, indicates a refreshing, modern sensibility.
SF: In 2019, we organised a workshop with people who enjoyed voluntary work, as well as members of the Platform of Community Action and Architecture (POCAA), and other local and foreign architects and engineers from Community Architects Network. We invited them to Jhenaidah, to see for themselves the work that was being done and also discuss what could be envisaged for the city. We approached the Shatbaria community and asked how they wanted to participate in the workshop. They had figured out that as they lived on the bank, any walkway constructed along the river would impact their neighbourhood and would bring about changes in their pattern of living and social engagement. Consequently, the community was keen to visualise what their neighbourhood might look like after the construction of the walkway.
Accordingly, we deliberated on the design of the walkway and how it would change the neighbourhood. We worked collaboratively to visualise probable layouts for the neighbourhood after putting the walkway in place, and what the houses and the rest of the facilities would subsequently look like. We also developed a drawing in line with this.
LNC: It’s quite clear that there was a deep participatory engagement. Did you encounter any resistance at the policy level?
KHK: We haven’t had any problems so far as these are small interventions. We might face resistance when we start working at the macro level. The most common line from the authorities is that if your project doesn’t fit the government template then it will be difficult to get approvals and funding.
The projects that we have done so far are small in scale but the process is fascinating and the outcome has high social impact. I wish architects and other professionals lived in their hometowns, ran their practice from there and rendered some local voluntary work. There is a vibrant informal sector in these small towns, where exchanges take place at so many levels. Some towns have master plans but they are wholly disregarded. The absence of an enforceable master plan or related policies creates room for both good and bad interventions. While the grey area makes it possible to serve personal ends, it can also be manipulated to push people to become involved in valuable work for the community.
Many of the encounters are casual in nature. For example, sometimes the community is trying to reach the Mayor but he is occupied. In such cases we assist by calling on the Mayor, explaining the problem to him and taking him to the site. One other thing that we did was to take down walls and create access to unused public spaces in the heart of the city. It was difficult to figure out these pockets at the street level but they were easily identifiable in aerial view. When we pointed this out to the authorities, they came forward to take down the barriers and free up the spaces. All this was done informally, without the complexities of official demolition procedures. The most important learning is that the best way to achieve common good is by working collectively.
SMI: The walkway that has been built – is it used only for getting around and for walks? How does it complement recreational and cultural activities, if any? Sadly, the cultural realm in small towns seems to be shrinking. When working on the Nabaganga project, were you at some level thinking of linking it to cultural revival and awareness of one’s heritage?
KHK: Historically the river bank has been the focus/locus of cultural activities at Jhenaidah. It is heavily used, perhaps overused! The people usually construct a stage at the centre of the river and gather on both banks to watch. We have often helped build stages for theatre, on either side.
Traditionally, the people of Jhenaidah are greatly inclined towards music, folk songs, theatre. Regardless of the opportunities and amenities, there are many cultural organisations actively working in Jhenaidah. What this walkway has done is that it has allowed the people to imagine new possibilities. People often draw comparisons with Dhaka – why can we not have our own Rabindra Sarobar, etc. I am happy to say these elements have been incorporated in the design for the 4-kilometre walkway. The banks of the river have been conceptualised as water corridors and cultural corridors, with amphitheatre and other facilities. A retired music teacher here, who everyone calls Bulbul Sir, has conceptualised a university to encourage cultural education along the banks of the river. The important thing is that the people have dreams, they want it, and all we did was create the right kind of nurturing environment.
Rahabir Ahmed (RA): Until about 15 years ago, many social and cultural programmes were held in a field adjacent to an old bungalow that faced the river. I was associated with the cultural organisation, Gonoshilpi Shongstha, at the time and we organised many programmes there. Gradually, walls came up and closed off the area, the river became stagnant, and people stopped coming. When we started thinking about the walkway, the bank had already become a dumping yard. With support from several people, we decided to do the clean-up ourselves. Soon the Municipality joined in and cleared the bank, and built the seats. Now there’s a wooden platform there for cultural events, plus there’s a floating platform in the middle of the river. It has also been possible to reclaim the original field where we used to have the Gonoshilpi Shongstha programmes. The cultural scene in Jhenaidah has been reinvigorated since, and many organisers are arranging events along the river.
SMI: It’s very heartening to note that the walkway has played an important role in cultural rejuvenation. If this can be continued along 4 kilometres of the bank then it will be possible to have significant large-scale cultural events. Has there been any resistance to constructing this public area?
KHK: I can’t deny that there was some resistance. People tend to pour in from neighbouring towns and villages where there are no good quality public spaces. There is also some discomfort, especially among the elderly, as many youngsters tend to skip school and spend their time here. Hopefully in the future when the walkway is extended, it will be possible to accommodate everyone comfortably.
SMI: So, the community has started owning the project.
Khan Mohammad Abdullah Sakib (KMA): Yes, we have begun to own our city. It’s wonderful that everything is being done collectively, and we are very happy to engage with the work. We rely on collective wisdom and local initiative. For example, when we decided to clear the bank and remove the trash, we at first thought of having small patches of gardens so that people who walked past the river would enjoy them. As we sat down to design the gardens, it became clear that it would be difficult to maintain them. Then we came up with the idea of providing benches. There were many large unused concrete slabs of drains that had been lying under a tree for a long time. We designed seats out of the slabs and approached the Municipality for help with moving them. We love what we do and are happy to accept the downside of it too.
SMI: Are you aware of anyone or any project that has been inspired by your work?
SF: Yes, this has sparked a renewed focus on small towns. For example, Cox’s Bazaar is trying to come up with a master plan and we are involved with it. We are trying to replicate the same process there, by involving all the people, drawing out their preferences and having them actively participate in the design process.
I am happy to say that the designers of the shelter in the Rohingya Camp, which also received the Aga Khan Award in 2022, are aligned with our strategy and have pursued a similar process. Many young architects are inspired by our work in Jhenaidah. They are confident about pursuing alternative career paths.
KHK: It has empowered many young architects to start believing in their choices. It has also given them the confidence to return home. Why should it be necessary for them to live in Dhaka?
SMI: That is certainly the most important thing! If there were more projects like the Nabaganga in other parts of the country, and if people became aware of the wonderful opportunities presented by such endeavours, the pressure on Dhaka might ease. In 10 or 20 years, Dhaka might transform into a liveable city.
Syed Manzoorul Islam, Chair, Editorial Board, Jamini
Luva Nahid Choudhury, architect and Editor, Jamini
Khondaker Hasibul Kabir, architect, Co.Creation.Architects
Suhailey Farzana, architect, Co.Creation.Architects
Purnima Rani Das, Secretary, Shatbaria Adivasi Mahila Samity
Saidul Karim Mintu, former Mayor, Jhenaidah
Khan Mohammad Abdullah Sakib, Member, Jhenaidah Citywide People’s Network
Rahabir Ahmed, Member, Jhenaidah Citywide People’s Network
Translation: Tanvir Mustafiz Khan
A conversation with visionaries, creators and participants of the Aga Khan Award-winning Nabaganga Project in Jhenaidah – a project close to the hearts of an entire community. Khondaker Hasibul Kabir (KHK): Jhenaidah is a district town with about 250,000 inhabitants. Although situated in the south-west of Bangladesh, it is less prone to natural calamities. The…