On 29 July, 2018 two school students were run over by a bus. When asked about the accident at a press conference later that day, the Shipping Minister and Executive President of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation, Shahjahan Khan, smiled and remarked, “A road crash has claimed 33 lives in India’s Maharashtra; but do they talk about it the way we do?”.

Agitated by the general condition of roads and the minister’s indifference, school students in Dhaka have taken to the streets over the past five days demanding safer roads. Fearing escalation of the protests, the government employed its forces to ‘control’ the situation. Protestors were beaten and arrested.

The use of brute force on teenagers merely fanned the flames, with the demonstrations spreading across the country and joined by citizens from all walks of life.

How bad are roads in Bangladesh?

The two school students, Abdul Karim Rajib and Dia Khanam Meem, had been waiting to return home after class when were run over by a speeding bus in Dhaka. Eye witness accounts claimed the accident was a result of two buses racing against each other to pick up passengers first. Seven others were critically injured.

Incidents involving reckless racing between busses are frequent – on 3 April college student Rajib Hossain lost his life after getting stuck between two speeding buses trying to overtake each other.

Bangladeshi Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan.

Time has been seen to take priority over life on many occasions on Bangladeshi roads. Earlier in July, a university student, Saidur Rahman Payel, was knocked unconscious whilst trying to board a bus. Instead of rushing his unconscious body to the hospital, the bus driver and conductor made the decision to dump his body in the river. Autopsy reports revealed that, had he been treated in time, he would possibly have lived.

According to statistics published by the Passenger Welfare Association of Bangladesh, at least 7,397 people were killed and 16,193 injured in 4,979 road accidents in 2017, of these 1,249 were caused by public buses. The survey also found at least 87 percent of public buses to be violating rules, and 72 percent of vehicles to be unfit for use on the roads.

These figures make for grim reading, and conditions are getting worse: from 2016 to 2017 road accident deaths rose by 22.2 percent.

The passenger experience

Jericho interviewed some regular commuters to better gauge the passenger experience. One female commuter, Nabila, spoke of the extra difficulties posed by using public buses as a woman, “In a bus carrying about 90 passengers (there are usually around 50 seats), only about 7 are reserved for women, this is usually a wooden bench placed next to the driver’s seat. Even these seats are often given to men, as taking on female passengers is seen as a hassle and often less profitable.

“Most local buses in Dhaka do not have designated stops, passengers are expected to get on and off while the bus is still running, since the buses are usually over crowded. This means passengers often have to hang on to the outside rails of the bus while trying to get on, until enough space is made available for them inside.

“Bus drivers assume women’s attire and physical capabilities might limit their ability to complete these tasks swiftly, and thus refuse to take women on – the other option, slowing the bus down, is viewed as less profitable.”

A number of infrastructural deficiencies have led to this situation, firstly there aren’t many designated stops, thus buses that pick-up passengers from convenient locations (anywhere at all) are likely to get more passengers. When buses stop or slow-down at unassigned stops, it is expected that they will pay the traffic police a small bribe for ‘allowing’ it. To avoid paying the bribe, buses don’t stop at all.

Another woman, Rokhsana, told Jericho how she was once on a bus where there was no back support to her seat, neither were there any rear doors; she had to cling on to her seat to keep from falling out of the bus.

Sexual harassment, cracked windows, cracked glass shattering on passengers are all daily occurrences, almost to be expected. Your correspondent herself witnessed passengers climbing in and out through the bus windows as there was no space to get through the door. One passenger was even seen texting as half his body hung out the bus window.

How did public transportation get this bad?

A special report published by Prothom Alo in 2013 sheds light on how politics is the root cause of these issues. The report notes that the Shipping Minister and his family own multiple bus companies throughout the country, giving him vested interest in keeping regulations lax and profits high.

Khan is also a member of the Bangladesh Road Safety Council, in which he has disproportionate say given his position as serving minister. This direct conflict of interest keeps road safety measures from being implemented.

Khan also represents bus drivers in his capacity as Executive President of the Transport Workers Federation, often in matters that go against public interest, some examples include:

  • Issuing driving licences to illiterate individuals. He is famous for having said, “if he can differentiate a cow and a goat, he should be given a licence”
  • Taking away the option of prosecuting someone for murder if death is caused by reckless driving
  • Limiting the services provided by BRTC – the state owned bus service, to ensure private companies have less competition.

How is this protest different?

In the 5 days since the start of the protests, Dhaka’s roads have been brought to a standstill. In some areas the young protestors have taken over the duties of traffic police and started rerouting traffic, checking vehicles for fitness, checking drivers’ licences, cleaning streets and in one instance even rebuilding broken roads.

Several remarkable instances were recorded, the Minister of Commerce and Industries, Tofail Ahmed, was stopped by protestors and reprimanded for driving on the wrong side of a key road. One of the Prime Minister’s Office drivers was stopped and found to be driving without a licence.

A police officer found to be driving without his licence was forced to file a case against himself. Multiple videos of underage drivers at the wheel of public buses also surfaced. Even journalists were found to be driving without licences while on their way to cover the road safety protests.

A Way Forward?

The protestors have presented the government with eight points of demand:

  • Killers of the students to be brought to justice
  • Apology from the Shipping Minister for his comments and his resignation
  • Freeing the arrested students
  • Construction of foot-over bridges next to all educational institutions
  • Construction of speed breakers in all accident prone zones
  • Banning of unfit vehicles and unlicenced drivers
  • Halving of transport fares for students
  • Stopping buses from carrying passengers over capacity

The government attempted to divert the protests by framing it as pre-election conspiracy concocted by the opposition party. When this failed, they attempted to pacify the protestors, offering to address the issues raised, but the promises were viewed as empty and protestors refused to leave the streets until all conditions were met. The Education Ministry issued an order to keep all schools closed on 1 August in an attempt to keep the students home. This tactic failed.

After a fifth day of protests, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, along with the Chhatra League, the student wing of the governing Awami League party, dispersed some protests through the use of force. Nevertheless, in a sign that even the government realises the protestors may have a point, a legal notice was served to Shahjahan Khan, asking him to account for his constitutionally illegal dual role as both a serving minister and head of a major transport union.

Bangladesh has seen four major mass protests in the last four years, and it appears that the frequency of protests in the country is increasing. Several of the placards compared these protests to the liberation war of 1971. One demonstrator, Zia, is hopeful of lasting change: “This is the beginning of Bangladesh’s liberation from corruption and nepotism” – from the looks of things, it seems to be an opinion shared by many.

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