Mozammel Haque Chowdhury, Secretary General, Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity, talks to Naznin Tithi of The Daily Star about loopholes in the Road Transport Act and why anarchy on our roads continues with more and more people falling victims to road accidents.
Has there been any noticeable change in our transport sector after last year’s road safety movement?
After last year’s countrywide road safety movement, we hoped that there would be some significant changes in our transport sector because of the big promises made by the government. But unfortunately, the government could not keep its promises, and so no substantive changes have been made.
According to the WHO, every year 21,000 people die in road crashes across the country and every day 150 people fall victim to road accidents. We have found in our study that the majority of the victims are schoolchildren. So, I think there should be specific programmes focusing on the safety of the schoolchildren on roads.
Every year, the government observes the National Road Safety Day. A seminar is held and some posters are put on display at different points of the city. That’s all. I think this day should be observed with more seriousness, with an aim to create awareness among the people and other stakeholders in the transport sector about road safety. For creating awareness among the schoolchildren, the government can arrange debate and essay competitions in schools on this day.
The government has undertaken some big projects for infrastructure development with an aim to reduce traffic jam. Quite a few bridges, overpasses and flyovers have been built and the construction work for some others is underway. Also, under these projects, some of the two-lane roads have been expanded to four lanes. However, many important issues that should have been given priority were ignored. In a densely populated country like Bangladesh, emphasis should be given on improving the public transport system. For example, we need to increase the number of public bus services which can carry a lot of people and can reduce traffic jam as a result. But we don’t see any steps to develop the public bus services. Instead, what we are observing is an alarming rise in the number of small vehicles such as Nasimon, Karimon, Easy bikes, motorcycles, etc. In Dhaka, more than 300 motorcycles are being registered each day. The increased number of small vehicles have not only been causing more small-scale road accidents but are also increasing the traffic congestion on the roads. Sadly, the government does not have any policy to control the number of small vehicles.
Also, on the one hand, the government has been saying that the vehicles without fitness certificates will be withdrawn from roads, while on the other hand, opportunities have been created for these vehicles to run on the streets. A decision was taken to withdraw 20-year-old buses from the roads some 12 years ago, which is yet to be implemented.
There were some specific directives from the PM about making our roads safer. Are any of those directives being enforced by the transport authorities?
Among the six-point directives given by the PM in 2018, only one is being implemented to some extent: keeping the doors of running buses shut. But it is being enforced only in Dhaka and when there is a traffic sergeant present on the road. However, only a few of the buses follow this rule. There were three other important directives from the PM—mandatory use of seatbelts by the passengers, keeping a replacement of the drivers in buses, and ensuring a break for the drivers during long-distance trips—which have not been implemented.
The Road Transport Act-2018 is yet to be put into effect allegedly due to opposition from the transport owners-workers. There is one particular provision that the transport workers are opposing. Is there any justification for their demand to amend the provision?
According to the law, the maximum punishment for killing a person by reckless driving is five years’ imprisonment. It is a non-bailable offence. The provision will only be applicable if a driver kills someone deliberately. The transport workers have been opposing this provision and creating pressure on the government to reduce the punishment to three years’ imprisonment and to make it bailable. They are misinterpreting the provision, saying that they cannot drive with a death warrant hanging over their heads.
There is no justification for their demand because the law only gives five years’ imprisonment for a crime as serious as killing a person. There is no provision of death penalty in the law for deliberately killing a person. With a little background check, the necessity for this provision in the Act will be clear to you. There was an incident in Gazipur where a woman resisted when a trucker was trying to drive his vehicle through her land. She stood in front of the truck and told the driver that she would not let him drive through her land because it will damage it. The driver told her to move away but the woman did not comply. So, he ran her over with his truck, killing the woman instantly. This is an example of a deliberate murder in which a driver killed a person using his truck. There were two more murders like this. When the court gave its verdict in the case, the transport workers called a three-day strike across the country, bringing the whole country to a standstill.
Of the six members of the committee that formulated the Act, four of them were influential leaders of the owners’ and workers’ association and also members of the ruling party. So, the Act is already in favour of the owners and the workers. Now a committee has been formed to amend the law. We do not know what changes are being made because the process is not transparent and the government has not yet revealed anything to the public. Since the law has been passed in parliament, any amendment to the law can only be done there. Therefore, we are not clear whether the committee has been working according to the law.
Did you, from Bangladesh Passengers’ Welfare Association, give any alternative proposal to the government regarding the law?
We had given the government some proposals to make the law people-friendly. We have been talking about reforms in the transport sector for long. We have been saying that people must have a say in this law because it is they who are the victims of anarchy in our transport sector. If the people’s voices are not heard and their participation is not ensured in the various transport committees, enforcing the law will not help develop our transport sector and the anarchy and mismanagement in the sector will continue.
The transport sector has become a big hub for extortion; thousands of crores of taka are being extorted from this sector every year. Extortion in the terminals has been encouraged through this law. Currently, to bring a new bus on the road, the owner has to give a huge amount of bribe to the local transport committees. We demanded that all kinds of extortion, including at the terminals, should be stopped. But our demands were ignored. We have not been given any scope for a bargain in this law.