Can we ever go beyond 'committees' and 'recommendations'?
Nowhere in the world has the issue of road safety led to the kinds of repercussions we have seen in Bangladesh. How often do you see students from all walks of life taking to the streets to bring discipline to the roads? How often do you see students stopping vehicles to check something as basic as a valid driver's licence? It's both inspiring and, quite frankly, embarrassing at the same time. And it points to the seriousness of the issue of road safety in the country stemming from a collective failure of government ministries, agencies, transport owners' and workers' associations, and ordinary people to ensure the very basics of road safety—driving licence, age limit, adherence to traffic rules.
But forget the basics. We now seem to have reached a point where wanting buses to not kill people is "asking for too much." Every time there's an outcry as a result of a young boy or girl being crushed to death by unruly buses, students take to the streets demanding justice and change, and the whole charade of forming committees and recycling old recommendations repeats itself like a broken record.
This time is no different. Less than a week after Abrar Ahmed Chowdhury, a university student and, ironically, a road safety campaigner, was run over by a bus on a zebra crossing, a government committee formed last month has released a draft report with 111 recommendations. The draft report is ambitious and, admittedly, contains some commendable suggestions which, if seriously implemented, could bring much-needed change in our transport sector and our roads. They include giving skills training to 1,000 drivers by 2020, attending a two-day training before drivers can renew their licences, and issuance of appointment letters by employers to drivers that clearly state the latter's salaries. The recommendations include both short- and long-term strategies.
But is it even realistic of us to expect these recommendations to be implemented? The answer I'm afraid is "no", given our past experiences. First, many of these recommendations are a regurgitation of what already exists on paper—in laws and in guidelines. If the same recommendations made in the past haven't yet been implemented, what guarantee do we have that this time will be any different?
Second, what does the fact that the issue of road safety doesn't get due importance until and unless a life is cut tragically short, say about the sincerity of the authorities concerned? Because traffic violations occur in plain sight all year round—are those not important enough to address? These so-called committees and recommendations that suddenly come to light after every protest, sparked off by deaths on our roads, point to the fact that they are a cosmetic exercise aimed at placating the public. Period.
Third, implementation of these recommendations has to be a collective effort, and corruption and extortion by any of the actors involved means that proper implementation of these suggestions will not be possible. Law enforcement agencies and the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), according to a survey conducted by TIB, are the topmost and second most corrupt service sectors in the country, respectively. And we know that BRTA and Dhaka Metropolitan Police are two of the primary stakeholders in the implementation of traffic rules and regulations and road safety related issues. So, once again, is it even pragmatic of us to expect these recommendations to be seriously implemented when there's rampant corruption in the agencies and organisations involved?
Fourth, let's talk about the committee formed to prevent road accidents that has recently issued the 111-point recommendations. The committee (comprising 22 members) includes eight individuals involved in transport organisations, and is being headed by former shipping minister Shajahan Khan, whose role in the committee has left many shocked and disappointed given the clear conflict of interest. Apart from the incomprehensible fact that Mr Khan was tasked with the responsibility of heading this committee, formed on the heels of the road safety movement, one can hardly be hopeful about the implementation of the recommendations of a committee headed by an individual who was part of a similar body—the National Road Safety Council—eight years ago. The report published in this daily in 2011 states that at the meeting of the Council, Mr Khan, "flanked by his federation leaders, played down the seriousness of the road safety issue by questioning the accuracy of the fatality figures. He claimed the numbers have gone down."
As pessimistic as it may sound, the truth is that expecting the recent recommendations to be implemented would not only be unrealistic but also naive. It was only last year that the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers' Federation, also headed by Mr Khan, held people in the capital and elsewhere virtually hostage by going on strike demanding that the government bring amendments to the Road Transport Act-2018. Protesters stopped ambulances and even smeared engine oil on people's faces. According to a report in this daily published on October 29, 2018, when asked whether Mr Khan had consented to transport workers' decision to go on work stoppage, Osman Ali, general secretary of the transport federation, had said that "there was no scope for opposing the decision taken by the central committee." Detecting the pattern of protecting transport organisations' interests in these instances is a no-brainer.
People don't want recommendations—they want change. Rehashing old recommendations might appease people for a while, but their grievances and frustrations will not go away until and unless there is radical change in the way the transport sector operates. And that simply cannot happen as long as you have individuals with a clear conflict of interest leading the discussions on road safety; as long as the interests of transport owners and workers are prioritised over those of the people; as long as corruption is entrenched in government bodies such as the BRTA; as long as we, as a society, don't change our mindset towards road safety and continue to flout every traffic rule in the book; and as long as the deplorable state of public transport in the country doesn't change. Until then, committees will remain toothless, and recommendations unrealistic.
Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.