It is my great pleasure to be back in Dhaka for professional purposes after having lived overseas for two decades. Staying at my brother's home in Mohammadpur, I had the luxury of time to choose a peaceful place to live in, where I could be productive over my two-year stint in Bangladesh. I rented an apartment on the fourteenth floor of a newly built tower on Asad Avenue with the hope that noise pollution would not be an issue. Frustratingly though, I experienced just the opposite.
It is so bad that ear-piercing honking of buses and trucks wakes me up in the middle of the night. I took this pain as my fate. If millions of Dhaka dwellers can tolerate the endless noise emanating from buses and trucks, why can't I?
The High Court's recent verdict that there can be no honking or speeding after 10pm is a signal of progress; it shows that we have begun to realise the value of civil rules that must be in place if we want to be developed one day. Effective institutions are a precondition for development, not the other way around.
We failed to implement land reforms; we distorted market reforms. Can we at least ensure that the “horn reform” does not meet the same fate before we become a middle-income country? Simply raising per capita income isn't enough for development. Had it been the case, global migrants would gravitate only towards countries like Qatar. Real development comes with improvement in the quality of life that constantly strives to minimise pollutions of all kinds. And the High Court's order is a significant addition to civilised institutions that care about health hazards in a bustling city.
Police officers patrol the roads and highways in all developed countries where 99 percent of drivers are duly licensed through adequate training. And the penalty for wrong driving doubles during the holidays when people tend to rush to their destination. Unfortunately, our transport sector leaders fail to even understand the justification of punitive acts and hence always attempt to oppose “heroically” any righteous punishment for wrong driving. They define all accidents as common human errors. If these leaders win, we can never be a safe nation. Bus and truck drivers alone will take all responsibility for population control in Bangladesh as they kill thousands of innocents on the roads. The noise pollution caused by them is aggravating insomnia, hypertension, stress, and cardiac problems among urban dwellers.
During the mid-1990s before migrating to Australia, I joined a fancy driving school in Sukrabad with the hope of learning at least one skill that would be useful in securing my family's bread and butter overseas. The instructor advised me to use the horn whenever I need to do so. But the need never ended. I got a sense of being the “king of the road”.
Understanding my desperate need for a license, the school issued me an international permit which the Sydney's motor vehicle authority brushed aside as trash, much to my dismay. They did not give a care in the world about an overseas license regardless of its “international” status. All they seemed to care about was how safely a person drives and whether he or she abides by the rules.
I grudgingly admitted myself into a driving school and the Australian trainer found all my maneuverings potentially dangerous. The first thing the trainer told me to do is to stop honking—a habit I picked up during my driving practice in Dhaka. Bangladeshis usually get their license in Sydney in the first or second test. I, however, failed a glorious three times. I kept on changing trainers. My last trainer attributed my repeated failures to the wrong lessons I got in Dhaka. Over the years of my living abroad, I gradually developed the skill and found driving to be sheer pleasure—now that the bad habit of continuous honking was gone.
When I was a student in Binghamton, a city in upstate New York, my next-door neighbour was nice enough to give me a half-broken car to help us run errands within the town. After two months, I went to an automobile workshop to get the annual fitness certificate for the car and the mechanic diagnosed multiple problems for the vehicle—one of which was a dysfunctional horn. I argued that I did not need the horn anyway. But he insisted that the horn be fixed as it is required by law for the horn to be functional.
Our lack of care for the enforcement of rules stands in stark contrast to the above-mentioned examples. Dhaka will not turn into a peaceful city overnight. Buses in Mohammadpur will continue to honk their pneumatic horns unnecessarily as they drive past Asad Avenue after 10pm. But at least now the drivers know that they will be penalised if caught in the act. Every law creates an incentive for proper behaviour if the examples of punishment are there for them to see. Thus the benefits of laws depend on how sincerely the government enforces the rules. The transport sector in particular can never be streamlined without a model of constant punishment—no matter the level of development the nation achieves.
Biru Paksha Paul is associate professor of economics at SUNY Cortland.