The season of manmade disasters
That time is upon us again. Not just to witness people hitting markets for shopping, but also to see them leaving in droves for homes to see their dear ones. It is that time when we see the harrowing scenes of people hanging from rooftops of trains and pedestals, people standing in motor launches back to back like stacks of bamboos, or people packed into buses like potatoes in a sack. But these are not the only scenes that await us this season. In fact, we would be lucky if we were to see only these images.
Unfortunately there will be more shocking reports and scenes -- images of people getting trapped in water vessels, buses, and other transports and losing lives. They will be facing these inadvertently, not due to their fault, but the carelessness and sheer negligence of the people they entrusted their lives with. If the past is any guide, there will be motor launches that will capsize, buses that will collide or fall into ditches, and people who will fall like stones from train rooftops. There will be deaths and injuries, which perhaps could have been avoided.
Why do these accidents happen every time there's a festival? We do not need a body of experts or consultants, or a cabinet sub-committee to tell us the reasons. They are simple and cannot be overstated. People suffer in travels, by any means, not only because there are serious shortages of transports. They suffer because they are mismanaged, an artificial crisis of availability is created, and profiteers gang in to take advantage of people's needs that must be met within a specific period of time.
In the public sector this mismanagement has been proverbially orchestrated in train travels with conniving officials and in the private sector by profit seeking vehicle owners, in collusion with the regulatory agencies. People in desperate times seek desperate measures. They take these life threatening journeys in vehicles, some of which are indeed one-way tickets to hell, because they have no alternatives. They squeeze into trains, buses, and launches because they want to go home, to celebrate the festival with their loved ones. They pay whatever they are asked, they board vessels they are shown. No one ensures that the vessels or vehicles they board are fit to ply. No one ensures that they are not price-gouged.
Yet, every season people are assured that the regulatory agencies are at work to ensure the safety of vehicles or vessels for their travels. We are assured that trains will run on time, tickets are aplenty, buses will ply and not overcharge, and our launches will not capsize. But the reality is otherwise, it's déjà vu all over again.
According to a study conducted by the Accident Research Centre (ARC) of BUET, road accidents claim on average 12,000 lives annually and lead to about 35,000 injuries in Bangladesh. Motor launch disasters took more than 4000 lives in the last thirty eight years. Road accidents happen not just because the roads are congested, but also because the operators are, in many cases, ill-trained, over-worked and the vehicles they ply are in states of disrepair. Launches capsize because they are not fit to operate, and are crammed beyond capacity.
All this points to the role of the regulatory agencies, including law enforcers, in preventing these disasters. Unfortunately, most observations on why these disasters happen directed attention to lax or ineffective regulation and supervision of the vehicles by the people entrusted with the tasks. To complicate matters, sometimes the nexus of transport owners with political parties and party officials, made enforcement of the regulations more difficult.
Accidents during festival times happen in all countries. But accidents in most other countries usually happen from carelessness of the vehicle operator. In cases where public transportation is involved, governments take serious actions holding to account those who are responsible, and take measures to prevent recurrence of such disasters. In our country, however, majority of the accidents occur because of a failure or inaction in our regulatory and enforcement mechanism. All accidents invariably lead to formation of an enquiry committee, and reports that pile up somewhere in a filing cabinet. No discernible follow-up happens, and such disasters are endlessly repeated.
Accidents and transport disasters concern real human lives, real families. These are not just statistics that fill up an annual report. There have been many recommendations in the past from professional agencies, domestic and international, to manage these preventable disasters in a visible and effective way. In the long term these require improving our roads, waterways, ensuring safe plying of vehicles that have been properly vetted and strict enforcement of regulatory measures for all kinds of transports. But in the short term, can we expect to see some visible improvement to allay the travails of holiday travellers? Could there be more supervision to end syndication of train tickets? Can a greater availability of buses and motor launches, and a more rigorous inspection of rickety transports and unsafe launches be ensured?
Politics should not be allowed to interfere with the safety of public life. With Eid holiday upon us, I sincerely hope our government means it when they talk about ensuring safe travels for people this season.
The writer is a political analyst and commentator.