Reflecting upon the irresponsible and rather cruel responses, at the death of two teens at road accident and the following protest by students, from the highest responsible authorities as that of the ministers of the shipping and road transport and bridges ministers, Saiyaara Amin explores into a deeper problem in the manner our government is managing the transport labour force.
‘A road crash has claimed 33 lives in India’s Maharashtra; but do they talk about it like the way we do?’ said the shipping minister Shajahan Khan after the tragic death of two college student in Dhaka. This comparison implies that a representative of our very nation is telling us to compare ourselves with one of the vilest sides of another nation. This was an indication to the youth to equate their own country with the worst of another, which is, needless to say, disheartening and demotivating to everyone trying to develop Bangladesh.
On 29 July, college-going students Diya and Ragib lost their lives to the negligence of a speeding bus driver who was competing with two other buses to get to passengers first. Regarding their deaths, the shipping minister offered the reporters a grin, on which he later commented, ‘My fault is that I smile. People and God love those who smile…however, if you consider my smiling an offence, I won’t smile anymore.’
Amongst many deeper contexts to be encapsulated, one is a general explanation about why there would be a smile of this sort during such a grievance. When you’re unaware of the reason why a person is smiling, you can assume the three: they found something humorous, they’re happy, or they’ve gone insane. So which of these was our minister feeling?
More than thousand people have faced death in our country this year due to reckless driving and oblivious attitude of the drivers on the roads. To what does Bangladesh owe this form of street-killing? Cars, trucks, and buses without route-permits drive on the road, enabled by bribes to the traffic police and other authorities; it implies that vehicles that may have dysfunctional brakes are also on the road.
The transport labour force of our country is a major one, and the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority takes advantage of this huge group: taking bribes from the huge number of labours in order to get a driving permit. In conversation with a Pathao driver who went to government office to apply for a renewed license on August 3, it was learnt that he had been asked to deposit an amount to the bank, alongside bribe to the officers there. When he refused and stated that he wants to opt for the interview and regular application process, it was said to him mockingly to ‘keep roaming around’. The road and transport ministry must have also turned into a form of corrupt business organisation, for which when we are on the road our lives are in the hands of drivers who are barely qualified.
On the note of drivers’ qualification, Shahjahan Khan, who is also the executive president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers’ Federation, stated, ‘If a driver can sign this name, they can understand traffic signs and signals, can tell cow from a goat and has good driving skills, what is the problem in giving him a license?’ After this statement, the nation understood that the majority of the drivers who have been certified under this mere qualification do not even hold the power to read signs such as, ‘School ahead, drive under 30 km/hour.’
Thousands of students, most in their adolescence, have been protesting on the roads, fighting against this corrupt traffic control system, and fighting for their safety. On the August 4, amongst the countless drivers whose licenses students have been checking for validity, one belonged to the Chief of Bangladesh Police Bureau of Investigation, whose driver’s license had expired. Thus this corruption can be seen also at the top-level sectors of the country, to which we had handed our safety. In the current system ruling Bangladesh, the law enforcers break the law themselves.
Who is to blame? These drivers, who are on a run to ensure even a single day’s meal? These helpless transport labours have nothing else to fall back on. Our government calls themselves ‘labour-friendly’ — if so, the right to a smooth and systematic working environment for these labourers is yet to be fulfilled. By easing out these licenses, the authorities also keep the transport labour force on his side to control political situations when necessary. This broken system has lost the trust of the youth, which justifies every demand put forward for safety on the roads.
The slogan which spread like wildfire during this teen protest is, ‘If you are scared, then you are dead. If you are protesting, then you are Bangladesh.’ This reminds us of the Liberation War of 1971, where our country was born out of the bloodbath and martyring of 3 million people. Even then, the Bangladeshis were unarmed in the battlefield against the Pakistanis yet never backing off, and on the 4th of August in Jigatola, the student protestors were unarmed against the ruling party activists, yet standing their ground.
Alongside road safety, another measure that has turned into a historical dream due to the lack of measures for its execution is the stopping of child labour. This is entailed by the same problem, the same void in the system — what are these families to do to survive in a country with such extreme inflation, where the minimum price of rice is now 50 taka per kilogram? If the families of these drivers and children labourers cannot ensure financial security, where is their fault? These people cannot work without bribing the authority, and they cannot survive without finding their own work. When bribe is taken from the helpless transport labours, they end up following this corrupt system simply because they are too weak to lead their own system. They fall in this vicious black hole of a broken regime, and against this death-coop they are helpless.
Among recent announcements from the government regarding the attacks on demonstrating students on the 5th of August, Awami League General Secretary has defended the assault carried out on the unarmed students that it was the students who attacked first. ‘Will we kiss them if they advance towards Awami League office?’ remarked Obaidul Quader to reporters at a programme. The answer is simple: if the youth in its entirety comes forward trying to bring a change to the corrupt system, trying to accomplish what is actually the responsibility of the state, then yes. You embrace them, for they are the ones fixing what has been broken by you.
Saiyaara Amin is a student of Scholastica
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