With the ongoing transport strike intensifying and spreading across the country, a number of transport workers yesterday said they called the shutdown with full backing of some top leaders of their association.
The strike began on Sunday initially in 10 southern districts under Khulna division, protesting a verdict that gave life sentence to a bus driver over the deaths of filmmaker Tareque Masud, media personality Ashfaque Munier Mishuk and three others in an accident in 2011. A court in Manikganj, where the accident happened, gave the verdict on February 22.
Then on Monday, a Dhaka court sentenced a truck driver to death over the death of a woman in a 2003 accident in Savar.
In protest, transport workers extended their strike to other parts of the country without any formal announcement. It was rather organised through telephone conversations among transport sector leaders.
Talking to The Daily Star yesterday, about a dozen transport workers of different categories said senior leaders of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation asked them not to operate their buses and trucks across the country.
Federation leaders denied this, saying the strike was spontaneous.
Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan, also executive president of the Federation, even denied there was any strike.
Talking to a private TV, he said, "There is no strike. The workers have voluntarily abstained from work. They did not call any strike."
Commuters in the capital yesterday woke up to see only a small number of inter-city buses plying the streets.
Those who planned to travel outside Dhaka were among the worst sufferers as almost no long-haul buses left the city's bus terminals -- Gabtoli, Sayedabad and Mohakhali. People of other districts also suffered, as hardly any buses left for Dhaka or elsewhere, according to commuters and transport workers.
Thousands then thronged railway stations or launch terminals to reach their destinations within and outside the districts. The Kamalapur station in the capital was packed with travellers.
At a rally at the capital's Gabtoli, transport workers vowed to continue their protest until their demand for getting "justice" is met. They alleged that the trials in the lower courts were held under wrong provisions of the law, which carry higher punishments.
They called upon Shajahan Khan to discuss the matter with the prime minister.
The workers are now protesting the sentences against their two fellows, Osman Ali, general secretary of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers' Federation, told The Daily Star.
As a result of the sudden abstention from work, businesses are counting huge losses as perishable goods like fruits, vegetables and fish are rotting at various land and river ports as well as wholesale markets across the country, our correspondents say.
Trucker Arshad Ali was carrying vegetables to Chittagong from Bogra yesterday. He said the item would perish if he got stuck on the way for long hours.
In Khulna, some 37 foreign visitors got stranded. They have been staying at different hotels and guesthouses.
Alisa Sokolova, an Australian development worker doing some research on the Sundarbans, went to Khulna on Sunday morning.
"I could not even visit the Sundarbans yet. Neither do I have any scope to return to Dhaka," said Alisa.
FINGERS POINTED AT TOP FEDERATION LEADERS
Transport workers said they had full backing of the Federation leaders and that their protest would continue until they got government assurance of “justice”.
"Our senior leaders have asked us not to operate transports. If I operate, I would face problems,” said a driver at Gabtoli bus terminal, adding that he too had support for the strike.
Earlier on Monday night, leaders of road transport owners and workers sat with Shajahan Khan and also State Minister for Rural Development and Co-operatives Mashiur Rahman Ranga to discuss the initial strike enforced in 10 southern districts. The meeting took place at Shajahan Khan's residence.
Mashiur is also president of Bangladesh Road Transport Owners Association.
"During the meeting, we came to know that a court in Dhaka gave death penalty to a driver. It sparked anger among workers' leaders who were firm about work abstention," said a road transport owner, who was present at the meeting.
"The top federation leaders gave us the go-ahead to continue our programme [strike]," he said, asking not to be named.
But Federation General Secretary Osman Ali said, "The Federation did not call the strike; workers did. The workers even stopped working spontaneously. Had the Federation called the strike, we would have done so through a press conference.”
Shajahan Khan did not pick up the call for comments.
WORK ABSTENTION "ILLOGICAL"
Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader termed the work abstention "illogical" and called on the workers to call off the strike immediately.
"People have no link with the court verdict. Why would the people suffer then? You [workers] should immediately withdraw the illogical work abstention," he told a programme in the capital.
PM's Special Envoy and Jatiya Party Chairman HM Ershad at another programme called on the government to take a tough stance against the strike.
As of last night however, transport workers were hell-bent on continuing their protest and there was no visible steps from the government to solve the crisis.
[Our correspondents from Chittagong, Munshiganj, Bogra, Comilla, Mymensingh, Rangpur, Chandpur, Rajshahi, Manikganj, Jhalakathi and Pirojpur contributed to this report.]