After passing nervous two months thanks to the countrywide general shutdown, hitting the Dhaka streets again has become a compelling need for Md Belal Hossain, who drives a car under a ridesharing service.
But the partial reopening of the economy has not brought any good news for him as the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) has asked all ridesharing services to stay off the roads until further notice, although restrictions were eased for transport services and buses, minibuses, trains and domestic airlines have resumed operations.
"The decision is frustrating. If the operation does not resume soon, my family will starve," said Hossain, who mainly provides ride-hailing services by way of both Uber and Pathao.
His plight began at the beginning of March when the country reported the maiden cases of COVID-19. As the situation worsened, the government was compelled to enforce a shutdown, banning the movement of all public transport.
And with it went Hossain's source of livelihood.
Until the coronavirus reached the shores of Bangladesh, he used to drive a car by paying a monthly rental of Tk 22,000.
He has been with Uber since 2016 when the San Francisco-based American multinational ride-hailing company debuted in the country and has been taking home about Tk 18,000 a month on an average.
The income was enough for Hossain to rent a small flat in the capital's Mohammadpur for his wife and two children at a monthly rent of Tk 5,000.
But, he has been unable to pay the rent for the last two months.
"Even on Saturday, the landlord paid a visit for the rent. I requested him to wait for a few more weeks as I had thought that ridesharing services would be operational again," he told The Daily Star over the phone in an emotional voice as if he was on the verge of tears.
If he can't pay the rent for June, he fears he might be evicted.
He has been buying daily essentials from a local grocery shop on credit assuring the shop owner, whom he knows for a long time, that he would repay when the situation returns to normalcy. He owes the grocer more than Tk 20,000.
"When I go the grocery to buy something, I cannot look at his eyes because I feel so ashamed. I went to every potential source to get some donation or food incentive, but I got nothing."
He submitted the photocopy of his national identification card to the office of the local ward councillor and visited it for a dozen times only to get rejected.
And neither Uber nor Pathao provided anything during this hardship. "I had thought at least Uber will do something for me as I have been with them for a long time."
CALLS FOR REOPENING GROWS LOUDER
On May 30, the BRTA sent a letter to 12 ridesharing service providers instructing them not to resume operation. The government agency did not explain why.
Drivers strongly protested the decision.
"While bus, train, CNG-run vehicles and minibus are allowed to ply on the roads, the authorities put us in the red zone. But why?" said Md Kamrul Hossain, president of the Dhaka Ridesharing Drivers Union (DRDU), an organisation of app-based drivers representing around 5,000 members.
He urged the government to allow them to resume operations immediately as many families depend on their earnings.
"We are from lower-middle-income groups and we can't go outside for begging. The only solution is to allow us to drive again as it has already been allowed for everyone else."
The companies echoed the same. On June 1, Pathao and Uber jointly wrote a letter to the BRTA seeking permission to resume operations.
Ridesharing service, which is operated with the help of technology, is capable of providing the safest transportation to the public, the letter said.
OBHAI also wrote to the agency seeking approval to run the trial of its car and CNG-run vehicle services.
The main reason for not allowing the ridesharing companies to return to roads is safety concerns because of the highly contagious nature of the virus.
BRTA's Acting Chairman Yousub Ali Mollah recently told The Daily Star that they decided to halt the operations as most vehicles under ridesharing services are motorcycles and maintaining a social distance might be difficult for passengers and riders.
"If the situation changes, we will consider resuming this service."
However, the companies argue they are safer than any other mode of transport.
In the letter to the BRTA, Uber and Pathao said while mass transports like bus, train and subways are closed in many other countries, ridesharing service was allowed to continue as they were deemed safer.
As there is no restriction on cars and motorcycles, there will be an increase in offline trips that would pose a threat to safety and hygiene for both drivers and passengers, the companies said.
The companies are providing training to drivers through video tutorials and pictorials so that they can make a safe journey during the crisis, according to the letter.
"The transport service we provide is the safest. We are far safer than the bus," Hossain said.
Uber said it has spearheaded the formation of a 'Transport Safety Alliance' in partnership with DBL Pharma, Zantrik, Dettol (Reckitt Benckiser) and Fresh Tissue.
The alliance will raise safety awareness amongst consumers and equip drivers with necessary health and safety supplies to ensure safer rides.
Uber and its allies will distribute key safety supplies such as masks, soaps, tissues and hand sanitisers to drivers from Zantrik's distribution points.
Reckitt Benckiser will provide Dettol soap bars free of charge and Fresh will distribute tissue papers, the ridesharing company said in an email to The Daily Star.
"As always, we will continue to invest in technology, safety protocols and will comply with all government guidelines to help keep everyone who uses the Uber platform safe," said Ratul Ghosh, head of East India and Bangladesh at Uber.
Pathao has consistently been taking necessary steps in making sure that safety is perfectly ensured in these times, said Sayeda Nabila Mahabub, director for marketing and public relations at the company.
It is providing facemasks, hand sanitisers, disinfectants and hand gloves to its drivers and will also provide regular health check-up facilities to customers.
"The government should allow us to resume the service as people who used to it are now suffering a lot in its absence," said Maliha M Quadir, founder and managing director of Shohoz, another ride-hailing service with around three lakh registered drivers.
With no affiliation with the government-recognised union and no bargaining power with companies, ridesharing drivers said their voice has long been ignored.
"We have never received any privileges extended by the government as we have no union. Even during this pandemic, no driver received any food or cash incentives from the government," said Belal Ahmed, general secretary of the DRDU.
Some Uber drivers say the company still sends them notifications for repaying the dues during the shutdown.
"It's a cruel joke for Uber to ask for the little dues even if they know we are now jobless and unable to manage our daily expenses," said Jobayer Ahmed, a driver, who uses both Uber and Pathao apps.
He said no company directly stands beside the drivers during the difficult period although the companies charge 25 per cent of the fare. But some drivers who run the ride-sharing service on OBHAI have received cash donations from a foundation.
Uber hasn't replied to an emailed question on the notifications for unpaid dues.
When drivers call for reducing the charge, Uber said the rate is analogous across all markets, Ahmed said.
"In Bangladesh, it is a profession and the owners of the cars let drivers run them. But in other countries, people who are also the owner of the cars share the ride."
The commission taken by the ridesharing platforms should be brought down to 12 per cent from existing 25 per cent, he said.
There are more than one lakh professional drivers in Bangladesh and the number of overall registered drivers would be about 4 lakh, according to the DRDU.