Dholaikhal, a canal that once protected Dhaka, flows into oblivion

With the densely set up homes and shops, Dholaikhal is one of the busiest neighbourhoods of Old Dhaka, but the canal after which the area is named is no more there.

Only five percent of the canal, excavated in the early 17th century by Islam Khan, the first Mughal Subedar of Dhaka, is visible now. Encroachment, garbage dumping and an apparent lack of planning have slowly but surely made it disappear.

The canal, meant to protect the city as well as to provide internal communication, flowed through the heart of the old town. Large cargo vessels sailed through the canal connecting the Balu and Buriganga rivers.   

According to the map, the canal had two portions – the first one was over 5 kilometres long and the second nearly 2 kilometres.

“At first shops were set up at shanties built on the canal. Now multi-storey buildings have been constructed,” said resident Chittaranjan Das, pointing out that there is little or no chance to restore the canal with box culverts and streets built on it.

A view of Dholaikhal in 1970. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Ezaz, chairman of River and Delta Research Centre

Although papers show that the canal is 100 feet wide, an around 30-feet wide portion from the Zahir Raihan Auditorium to Mill Barack is being filled up quickly. The polluted water, thickened by garbage, spreads foul odour. The garbage-filled portion of the canal now has at least 50 shops on it.

Residents said boat races were held in the canal every year while the Hindus from Farashganj, Narinda and Moishundi used it to travel to the Siddheswari Temple.

Even in the early 90s, people used a pier next to the mosque at Rai Saheb Bazar to travel through the canal.

A city corporation official said it built three box culverts in the canal under a project proposed by the World Bank in 1987 to improve the area’s environment. But when the project began in 1995, they had to make very narrow culverts as the canal had already shrunk, the official said, requesting not to be named.

Asked about the project, Md Serajul Islam, the chief urban planner of the Dhaka South City Corporation, said he cannot speak in details without checking the papers.

Only five percent of the canal, excavated in the early 17th century, is visible now.

“A portion of the canal is still there. We will begin the work (to recover the canal) after taking charges from the WASA,” he said.      

The bifurcated city corporation has recently bolstered its efforts to recover the canals mainly in order to put an end to the waterlogging problem after the WASA handed the responsibility to look after the drainage system to the city corporations.

Dhaka South Mayor Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh said he hopes to complete the work to recover the canals by demolishing illegal structures, repairing culverts and putting an end to garbage dumping by March.

Syeda Ishrat Nazia, an associate professor at geography and environment department of the Jagannath University, said the authorities must punish the encroachers of Dholikhal to set an example.

She also called for raising public awareness so that everyone can do their part to protect environment.