Of all the dysfunctions that plague life in Bangladesh today, none is perhaps more pernicious than the transport sector. Just consider the fact that an average of 20 lives is lost to road accidents every day. This makes it one of the leading causes of death in Bangladesh. The usual reaction from a country where much of life is spent in traffic or trying to avoid it—and trying to not get killed—is supposed to be one of alarm, not one of bureaucratic humbug and reflexive animosity toward corrective measures. It should involve a critical rethink about why existing policies on road and traffic management are not working, and trying to unearth and rectify the problems.
Yet, what we are witnessing is disturbing: transport owners and workers, according to media reports, have stated that they would have to rethink their decision to remain in the business in light of recent High Court orders to transport companies to pay financial damages to the victims of road accidents. Their argument is based on the premise that bus and truck drivers are being unfairly criticised and that the hefty fines being slapped on them are unjustified. The person who issued the statement was none other than Shajahan Khan, a lawmaker who simultaneously holds the position of the executive president of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation. With his twin roles as a representative of the public and a representative of a certain professional group, he represents the Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde syndrome of our transport sector, which has persistently defied calls for reforms thanks to many of its leaders who either hold important public offices or enjoy considerable clout within the government and have a lot to gain from maintaining the status quo—and a lot to lose from challenging it.
The chilling frequency with which accidents are taking place raises a question: can we ever win the battle against the scourge of road accidents? When policymakers are asked about solutions to the country’s notoriously dangerous roads, they recite a familiar litany. Ironically, one such instance was created by Shajahan Khan himself who recently led a 16-member advisory committee that was formed to bring discipline in the chaotic transport sector. The committee handed over a list of 111 recommendations to the prime minister on April 28. The content of the list, one could argue, is basically a tepid rehashing of familiar solutions already covered in the existing laws, guidelines and reports by previous advisory committees. It talked about the formation of a road safety authority under the prime minister’s supervision, which would draw up plans in coordination with the agencies concerned, monitor their work as well as identify accident-prone zones. It talked about allocating funds for road development projects, implementing a franchise system for public transport, setting limits to the economic lifeline of all commercial vehicles, keeping first-aid boxes in all long-distance buses, and giving priority to female drivers in government and non-governmental organisations. It talked about training the drivers, etc.
While these recommendations, if implemented properly, would bring about a drastic change in the transport sector, scepticism about such projects runs deep in Bangladesh where progress has often been stymied by administrative ineptitude and corruption. New projects and initiatives alone are unlikely to tame the rising tide of road accidents. For that to happen, we must take another critical step—establish transparency and accountability as the governing principles of the transport sector.
It would be wrong, in other words, to speak of new projects without setting forth a strict mechanism of accountability to ensure their unbiased and even application. It would be wrong to talk about reforms without dismantling the deep-seated institutional barriers to the reforms being sought. It would be wrong to preach change while indulging conflicts of interests so brazenly manifested by the lawmaker in question and his union colleagues, for whom any well-meaning institutional reform would inevitably mean a threat to their business and political interests. The fact that leaders of transport associations, which want to take no responsibility for the deaths being caused on our roads, are also occupying important policymaking positions shows just how effective their accident prevention strategies will be. It would also be wrong to talk about road safety without talking about issues that are not directly associated with road fatalities but often have an effect on them, such as the condition of roads, lack of public awareness and the overall traffic chaos, especially in major cities like Dhaka.
The idea of accountability and transparency is not an abstract notion. It is a requirement that precedes all other requirements, a force that binds all other functions of management. When we talk about accountability in the transport sector, we mean, first of all, timely assumption of responsibility by the respective departments for any untoward development in the sector. An honest acknowledgement of responsibility on the part of public officials can lead to an honest response and consequently greater public trust. Accountability in the transport sector also means that all related offices and agencies will perform their jobs efficiently, as dictated by the rules and regulations, and without any bias for or against anyone. Accountability also means that no guilty person or party will be spared, however powerful they are, as all are equal before the law. There should be a mechanism to check the performance of the responsible offices from time to time. And no concessions should be given to the transport associations, which already exercise far more power than any representative bodies should in a democratic country.
The fact is, when it comes to rules and regulations in the transport sector, we have enough of them already. Some changes and new initiatives will be necessary from time to time as a way of updating the system in light of changing times, but all our efforts will simply fall flat on their face if we cannot ensure transparency and accountability in the administration.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.