Last week the teens of Bangladesh have written a new chapter for the annals of the democratic struggle of the country. They asserted their right to fix the all-encompassing rot that had set in the transport sector of the country. Each year about 3,000 lives are lost and tens of thousands of passengers and pedestrians are injured, some maimed for life, due to poor enforcement of regulations pertaining to driving license and vehicular registration. Decades-long civil society cry to bring order in the sector fell on deaf ears. Vested quarters—a blend of politicians, rent-seeking self-declared unionists and corrupt public functionaries—have established an iron grip over the concerned state institutions (Bangladesh Road Transport Authority and the traffic police) and thwart moves to ensure enforcement of the law and accountability. Political patronage and impunity enjoyed by this coterie led to a situation in which it could challenge and successfully reverse the execution of a court order.
It is in such a context of helplessness of ordinary citizens that the killing of two college students by a bus in late July triggered a huge student protest in the capital. The insensitive and offensive comment by the president of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation (BRTWF), who is also the shipping minister, and the low public confidence on the administration to dispense justice and address the concerns of the protestors further exacerbated the situation. Very quickly, the protest spread like wildfire in other towns and cities. School and college going boys and girls, in dozens, hundreds and thousands, took to the streets demanding justice and effective measures to curb death and maiming on the roads. They also demanded enforcement of existing laws to ensure that only licensed persons become eligible to drive registered and roadworthy vehicles.
The students' frustration over inefficiency and corruption of the traffic police and the latter's collusion with transport syndicates and their godfathers led them to take control of the traffic management in Dhaka city. For almost a week now, the students, mostly teenagers, in school uniforms with bags on their back, braving hunger and thirst in summer heat and rains, have successfully brought about a semblance of order that this metropolitan city had never experienced in the past.
These young people ensure only licensed persons are in the driving seat of duly registered roadworthy vehicles, advise car passengers to put on seat belts, motorcyclists to wear helmets and pedestrians to use footpaths, zebra crossing and foot bridges. Disorderly rickshaws are made to file up when crossing intersections. For the first time since independence, one lane in key arterial roads was made free for emergency vehicles!
The self-appointed teenage enforcers of the law are polite but firm. With due respect they made a senior minister change direction and drive on the right side of the road, and another minister leave his vehicle as it did not carry proper registration papers. Imbibed with the spirit of upholding the law, they stopped vehicles of a DIG, Supreme Court judge and the navy for not carrying proper documentation.
In some situations, students were enraged and vandalised vehicles when drivers could not produce their driving licenses or vehicle registration and fitness papers. Spontaneous demonstrations by protesters at some intersections adversely affected the traffic flow and caused substantive hardships to the commuters. Despite this, the student protesters commanded warm understanding from the city dwellers at large. Social media has witnessed an outpouring of compliments. People reassured them that they were prepared to put up with the inconvenience of traffic delays and detours as those were for the greater good. Some went on to suggest if citizens can withstand the agony of congestions and closures imposed by political party programmes that are of little interest to them, then why not endure this temporary discomfort for a worthy cause.
The teenagers' protest touched hearts of millions. Mothers brought in snacks and bottled water for them. Footage of a lady feeding khichuri to tired and hungry young protestors expresses the depth of support that the youngsters enjoy. By the fourth day of the protest, ordinary people—parents, guardians and admirers—joined the rallies. "Enough is enough" was the rallying call. They all wanted that road safety measures should improve. The rightful cause of the protesters also inspired celebrities. Actors and musicians came in a group to express their solidarity with the students. Together they sang the inspirational marching song of the national poet “chol, chol, chol”.
This protest is unique in many ways. The teens compose and chant appealing slogans, poems and songs. It is a protest not to challenge the rule of law but to demonstrate how laws should be enforced. It is not to put the government on the dock but to draw its attention to the urgent need for making the roads safe. It is not to claim political power, but to demonstrate how state agencies should function with efficiency. The protesters have established that with good intentions and commitment, the tasks that public-funded professional forces could not perform for decades were indeed doable.
The students presented a 9-point charter of demands to the government. Their massive mobilisation, and the support it garnered from the masses, forced the government to concede within days. Despite ministerial commitments for gradual implementation of the demands, the protestors remain apprehensive if at all those would be honoured and hence their reluctance to vacate the streets. The dilatory tactics of the government on the prime ministerial promise of quota reform remains fresh in their mind.
Likewise, the promise of a new transport law drew little interest. Quite rightly, they feel what is needed is the political will to enforce the existing laws and regulations, not a fancy worded new legislation.
The forcible closure of academic institutions and claims by senior ministers that the movement is a ploy of BNP-Jamaat further raises the suspicion of the students about the government's motives. The attacks on peaceful demonstrators by hooded men wielding lethal weapons, allegedly activists of the student and labour wings of the ruling party, over the last few days further erodes that tenuous trust.
The outcome of this legitimate and popular civic movement demanding safe roads remains an open question. The onus lies squarely on the government to bring a just, logical and immediate end to this issue. Appropriate measures regarding the concerned officials will substantially diffuse the charged atmosphere and create enabling conditions for the students to return to classes and give time to the government to implement various provisions of their demands (if it intends to do so). Any attempt to intimidate, insinuate and coerce the students (methods that have been tried and failed in dealing with the quota reformers) will only further aggravate the situation.
"The state is under repair: we regret any inconveniences caused" read a poster on the road that was under siege of the protestors. One surely hopes that the authorities pay heed to their call and indeed take measures to restore confidence of the masses on this important institution, the State.
CR Abrar teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka.