Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) had formed an eight-member committee on May 2, 2017 to submit recommendations for bringing city buses providing the so-called “seating service” under a legal framework. The committee came up with seven recommendations on seating-service buses and 26 overall recommendations on public transport system in late October 2017. Unfortunately, we have not yet seen the implementation of those recommendations in the absence of policy formulation for the sector.
In the meantime, another Ramadan has begun with the city bus services charging their customers as they see fit. It is ironic to see that bus companies feel free to offer seating service whereas no bus company has obtained any license from the authorities to that effect. The chaos that exists in Dhaka's bus services came to the fore thanks to a survey carried out by Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity (Bangladesh Passengers' Welfare Association) last week. What we gather from the survey is that commuters are undergoing a lot of hardship as nearly 96 percent of public buses reach their destinations keeping their doors locked. The situation is worse during rush hour between 7am and 11am and the bitter experience is repeated from 2pm till 11pm. Commuters are barred from getting on or off the buses that are operating on the basis of “seating service”. And in the name of offering such service, bus companies are overcharging their customers. This is putting extra pressure on the people of lower-income groups who must travel by bus to get to their destinations as it is the only transport they can afford.
The survey was conducted among 310 public buses at several points of the city for six days to assess the sufferings of commuters, and 82 percent of all passengers expressed dissatisfaction at these irregularities taking place, particularly in the holy month of Ramadan. While bus operators are overcharging people for the much-vaunted seating service, the survey revealed that 28 percent of bus passengers actually have to travel standing up inside these buses. This speaks volumes about the lack of sincerity and measures by the authorities to bring to heel a chaotic public transport system where owners of private bus services do what they please.
So, a full year has passed and still we have no separate guidelines for seating service. The government backed down last year in the face of bus operators withdrawing their buses from the streets after a drive by the authorities with mobile courts. In the meantime, passengers are left to endure the illegal practices of bus operators charging fares much higher than the government-fixed rate charts. Some of the recommendations that had been put forward included a bus company keeping some of its buses under the seating service with separate fare rate, stoppages and colour for the service. BRTA had also recommended the establishment of a modern control room system to monitor all public buses and new air-conditioned buses with separate fare rates, relocating inter-district bus terminals outside of Dhaka, setting up city bus terminals, and strict enforcement of traffic rules.
The BRTA organised a stakeholders' meeting on February 14 this year which brought together leaders of transport owners and workers and came to the conclusion that all the recommendations submitted by the committee would not be implemented right now. On April 17, BRTA sent several recommendations to Dhaka Metro Regional Transport Committee (MRTC), which is the authority governing route permit for Dhaka city. So, in essence, what the BRTA did was wash its hands off the issue and we are now told that MRTC will hold another stakeholders' meeting “soon”. Given the rate at which these meetings take place and the enormous political influence transport associations wield in this country, one should not hold one's breath for any decision to come anytime soon.
It is deplorable that the authorities have kept such a nagging problem on hold for so long. Millions of people are being held to ransom by a coterie of transport companies who are intent on fleecing commuters. And knowing that complaints against errant bus operators go nowhere, bus owners feel free to charge whatever they want. Now, had the BRTA recommendations been taken into cognisance as good practices, bus operators would have to earmark separate buses for the seating service as per MRTC guidelines. They would be easy to spot as they would be coloured differently and these buses would actually be newer and better equipped to serve premium-paying commuters as opposed to the rickety, rundown buses we have today. While building separate bus terminals will take time, surely the authorities can now take measures that will bring some relief to commuters who are being taken for a ride.
Syed Mansur Hashim is Assistant Editor,
The Daily Star.