Lot of actions, little result!

Quader heads 3 committees for safe roads, holds meetings rarely, delivers very little
Minister Obaidul Quader

Hold meetings, make decisions and then forget all about them.

This has been the practice of successive governments regarding road safety in the past three decades. Since the mid-80s, each government has undertaken numerous initiatives to reduce road crashes, but they are gathering dust at the Road Transport and Bridges Ministry.

Several high-profile committees with ministers, officials, experts and transport leaders have also been formed to discuss the never-ending problems in the sector and find solutions. They too have failed to deliver, leading to frequent accidents, killing thousands every year on roads and highways across the country.

One such accident, which killed two college students on July 29 in the capital, brought thousands of school and college students, out onto the streets for a week, demanding improved safety measures.

About seven people die in road crash in the country every day, according to official counts, which is much lower than the 20 a day estimated by various NGOs. Road safety campaigners say such mismatch of the death tally happens because many accidents go unreported.

Latest credible data is not available, but road crash stands out as one of the highest killers in Bangladesh. Released in 2015, a WHO report estimated road deaths between 17,349 and 25,283 in 2013.

Plans to contain such deaths by multiple government committees have also been aplenty. The only problem is those decisions delivered no result. 

The Motor Vehicle Ordinance of 1983, the first legal document regarding road safety, made formation of a committee with all stakeholders mandatory. Accordingly, the Road Transport Advisory Council (RTAC) was formed in 1985 with the then communications minister at the helm.

It is now headed by Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader. Other members of the Council are labour leader-cum-Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan, secretaries of several ministries, top police officials, including the IGP and divisional commissioners, officials of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), experts, civil society members, transport owners and workers' union leaders.

It held several meetings, discussed various transport-related issues but could do little to make roads safe.

Safe road demand

Another body, National Road Safety Council (NRSC), was constituted in 1995 to ensure road safety. Also headed by Quader, this Council has units even at the upazila level. The upazila nirbahi officer heads the upazila unit while the district unit is headed by the deputy commissioner.

Shahjahan Khan, State Minister for LGRD Moshiur Rahman Ranga (also president of transport owners' association), Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, a number of secretaries, the police boss, transport owners, divisional commissioners, deputy commissioners, superintendents of police, NGO representatives, officials of city corporations and Rajuk, UNOs and experts are members of the NRSC.

Records show both the councils have been discussing almost similar issues and making identical decisions. Time and again, they decided to remove unfit vehicles, bar drivers with fake licence, pull out slow-moving vehicles off highways, prevent modification of vehicles, control overloading, stop reckless or wrong-side driving, introduce monthly salary for drivers and workers and so on.

But none of those decisions has been implemented either for a lack of political will or due to opposition from beneficiaries of road irregularities within the government's power circle.   

“Holding meetings and making decisions have become a mere eye-wash,” observed Prof Moazzem Hossain, who teaches civil engineering at Buet and researches road safety.

Sincerity and will to implement are missing, he said, adding that transport owners and their people became more powerful than government agencies. This is why those decisions could not be implemented. 

As both the councils turned dysfunctional and fatal road crashes continued claiming lives, a special cabinet committee was formed in 2013 with 10 ministers on it to coordinate implementation of the decisions made by the two councils. Again, Quader was made head of it while both Shahjahan Khan and Moshiur Rahman Ranga became members.

After holding two meetings, the ministers ran out of gas and delegated the responsibilities to their secretaries, who did not hold a single meeting as yet.

As the committee of heavyweight ministers failed to deliver, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stepped in. On June 25, amid a flurry of deaths on roads, she issued a five-point directive for road safety, and assigned Quader, Shahjahan and Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal to implement those.

The five directives are: drive-time limitations on drivers of long-route vehicles, keeping reserved drivers on long-route vehicles, restricting them to a maximum of five hours drive time at a stretch, training drivers and their assistants, installing service centres or restrooms for drivers at regular intervals on highways, preventing jaywalking, making sure everyone follows traffic signals and fastens seatbelts.

None of these instructions has been carried out yet.

"There are many players in the road transport sector, but he [Quader] is the person to be held accountable," Prof Shamsul Haque, one of the country's leading road experts and former director of the Accident Research Institute at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, told The Daily Star recently.

A far bigger commitment, conviction and devotion of time are required to ensure road safety in a complex transport system that Bangladesh has, he insisted. 

Quader indeed has too many things on his plate. Requesting anonymity, officials at the ministry confirmed that the minster mostly remained busy off the office, with some other things. Being the general secretary of the Awami League, he needs to handle many issues other than people's safety.

After taking charge of the ministry in December 2011, Quader at the beginning appeared serious about improving road safety. He spearheaded rectification work on engineering flaws at some highways, significant of which was at accident-prone stretch towards Paturia.

But his initial enthusiasm for road safety eventually got diverted to mega infrastructure projects, road repair, political talks and occasional theatrics to camera.

His “seriousness” about road safety that the country saw through media quite often in the last few years was when the minister showed up unexpectedly with hordes of television cameras on some roads to do the job of a traffic official, checking driving licences, fitness certificate of vehicles or expressing unhappiness about dilapidated highways. The great showmanship of Quader made headlines, but roads across the country remain unsafe.

Prof Shamsul, who is involved in a dozen infrastructure development projects, firmly believes things would not have come to its present state, it would rather improve, had the minister played his part in implementing the decisions he took while in office. 

Ilias Kanchan, the film star who has been campaigning for safe road since the death of his wife in a road crash in 1993, is tired of rhetorical responses from people who can actually make roads safe. 

“We want the government to take real initiatives to check road crashes,” he told The Daily Star. 

Last night, The Daily Star called Obaidul Quader and also the ministry Secretary Nazrul Islam, but they did not pick up the calls. They also did not respond to the text messages, requesting their comments.