In the current era of indirect democracy, it is accepted that the laws and policies would be made, not by the people themselves but by their representatives. The expectation in the indirect democracy era has been that the elected representatives of the people would consider the best interests of those whom they represent while formulating laws and policies. However, to what extent the laws made by the people’s representatives reflect the best interests of the mass people is at times uncertain; at least the public often remain in the dark about the motivation behind the laws. However, since few make laws and policies for many, it is a duty of the few to keep the people informed. This write-up argues that the various traffic laws implemented across Bangladesh may epitomise some paternalistic views of people’s representatives and policy-makers at best or some insensitivity towards the interests of the mass at worst.
Recently, Rickshaws have been banned from plying around three major roads in Dhaka city alleging that Rickshaws cause traffic congestion. While transport experts and urban planners would be proper persons to provide expert commentaries, the accepted public opinion is that private cars are the worst contributors to traffic congestion in Dhaka city. In many major cities across the economically developed world, policymakers consistently regulate private cars by imposing measures such as specific tolls or hefty parking fees in city centres. They also invest heavily in improving public transport.
However, apart from taking some limited fiscal measures such as imposing heavy import tariff on cars and advance income tax on car owners, any other restrictive measures on cars so that the car usage in Dhaka city is discouraged has never been taken. Similarly, the well-organised bus and truck owners and workers have almost always remained beyond the scope of stringent legal measures.
Unlike cars and other motor-run vehicles, rickshaws do not pollute the environment. Although some environmentalists and urban planners have suggested having a separate lane for rickshaws and bicycles, policymakers in this country have never paid any heed
to that call. If the public would have been presented with any cost and benefit of banning rickshaws as well the cost and benefit of alternative measures such as a separate lane for non-motorised vehicles, then the ban on rickshaws would have a greater moral force and appeal to the people. Not only there is a dearth of pre-law or policy-making analysis (at least visible to and shared with the public) of cost and benefit of the proposed law or policy, the post-law and policy-making cost and benefit analysis is often also seriously absent in our country. In a rather drastic fashion, a couple of years ago, three-wheelers have been banned from running on highways mainly on the reasoning that such a ban would contribute to the curbing of road accidents. There has seemingly been no public account on whether or not the ban has made any contribution to its professed goal.
The labour market in Bangladesh is not so flexible that so many rickshaw pullers who would likely be forced to stop plying their rickshaws in some streets would promptly have an effective alternative profession. The limited social safety nets that are in place would likely fail to offer adequate cushion for many of these hapless people. Thus, without having any concrete measure in place for their alternative livelihood limiting their professional activities, is a sheer insensitivity to their plight. Somewhat similar insensitive attitude towards commoners may be manifest from scattered measures against jaywalkers. Many jaywalkers have been randomly punished by law enforcers in Dhaka city. While none in the right frame of mind would support jaywalking and for sure, it contributes to many fatal accidents in Dhaka city; the pre-condition for taking actions against jaywalkers is that the streets of Dhaka are sufficiently pedestrian-friendly which is absent in many places.
The commuters relying on rickshaws would also suffer from a lack of viable alternative options. Some policymakers have encouraged people to walk short distances which would be good for their health. Those providing such sermons before being so paternalistic towards the mass should set examples by walking their talk. While some common people be too lazy to walk short distances, it is perhaps rather naïve to imply somehow that many rickshaw commuters are not health-conscious enough or there may not be so many rickshaw commuters who are yet to have a viable alternative to rickshaws. It is also rather inconceivable that any policymaker would issue a sermon like this to car owners to make them more health-conscious.
Inflicting any greater harm on the most vulnerable section of the community and a large middle class than what is indispensable is harsh. Even when laws and policies are well-intentioned, it would be expected of a functioning democracy that the laws and policies would be based on rigorous, publicly-demonstrated analysis of cost and benefits. If the most vulnerable sections of the community and a large middle class have to bear the brunt of laws and policies, they should be persuaded that the upper echelons of the society are also bearing their fair share of the burdens.
The writer is an Associate Professor at Department of Law, North South University.