My road trips in Bangladesh

by Habib Siddiqui | Published: 00:00, Oct 07,2018

 
 

A file photo shows severe traffic congestion at Fatehpur of Feni on the Dhaka-Chattogram Highway. — New Age

I HAVE returned to the United States from Bangladesh after staying there for nearly three months. During my visit there, I lost three close relatives; the most devastating of which was the loss of my brother-in-law Bahar who was married to my sister. He will always be missed in our family. He was a social worker who had affected the lives of so many who would always miss him dearly.
Bahar died shortly after returning from Chennai Apollo Hospital in India where he had undergone cancer treatment. Contrary to the false hopes given by the hospital doctors, his case proved to be incurable. The hospital programme coerced him into buying an expensive and lengthy treatment programme that obliged him into buying very costly medicines that were simply wasteful, leaving a sense of being robbed monetarily. Soon after returning to Dhaka, he was admitted to Combined Military Hospital in Dhaka where he died on July 27 before the Friday prayer. Before his burial in his ancestral land in a suburb of Comilla, three funeral services were held in Dhaka, Comilla city and his village, attended by thousands of people who knew him. I was able to see him alive a day earlier but could not speak with him when he was already in the intensive care unit. While those who attended his funeral prayers were ordinary masses, some dignitaries did attend the services, showing Bahar’s connection at all levels of society.
The distance between Dhaka and Comilla is only about 100 kilometres. But the highway was so congested that it took us nearly four hours to reach Bahar’s ancestral home, outside the Comilla city, just before sunset. After his burial, hoping to return early, we left around 9:00pm. However, because of the terrible traffic congestions and gridlocks at multiple places, we reached Dhaka after 5:30am. It was an awful experience for all the passengers that night!
In the past 20 years whenever I visited Bangladesh, I have avoided travelling between Dhaka and Chattogram by road and the experience in July this year once again proved that my decision was rather wise. And this is a sad commentary given all the government publicity and hoopla about miracles in the road communication sector inside Bangladesh under the current administration. Truly, if the communications minister had put more time into ensuring the success of the government projects than badmouthing opposition parties, passengers would have benefited and thanked the government. But the reality of a daily commuter in Bangladesh is quite different than those portrayed by the government.
I could understand why passengers condemn, cuss or curse the government for its massive failure in the public sector where corruption is so rampant. I was told by many contractors that more than half of the allotted fund for construction projects ends up being gulped by government agencies and politicians before they see it. I am told that less than a quarter of the allotted money is spent on the project, thus leaving the newly constructed roads and highways quite vulnerable. That possibly explains why in a report on June 20, 2017, in which the World Bank presented a list of infrastructure cost, especially in road construction, it shows the cost of per-kilometre road construction is $2.5 million to $11.9 million in Bangladesh, which is the highest in the world. This cost of construction is simply mind-blowing given the fact that the labour cost in Bangladesh is one of the lowest in the world. (A four-lane highway costs $1.1m to $1.3m a km in India and $1.3m-$1.6m in China.)
Most of the large government projects these days are given to the Chinese contractors who continue to make a very bad name for themselves in the construction sector. They have been accused amongst other things of unfair price-gouging, dragging and slowing down projects to maximise their gains. Thus, within a very short period, these newly constructed roads and highways are inundated with potholes. Most Indian convoys of lorries that are using Bangladesh as a transit to move their goods are overloaded, beyond the design capacity of the roads and highways being built, compounding the problem further. Unless such abuses of Indian lorries are stopped, it would be impossible to stop the premature destruction of the roads and highways. I am also told that Sheikh Hasina’s government’s more-than-generous policy with the Indian transport of goods and materials has had a very negative impact on the Bangladesh economy.
One of my nephews works with the Rohingya refugees for an international NGO. He lives in Cox’s Bazar, only about 150 kilometres south of the port city of Chattogram. Cox’s Bazar beach, long known for fishing and tourism, is sandy and has a gentle slope with an unbroken length of 120 kilometres; it is the longest natural sea beach in the world. He and his wife insisted that I visit Cox’s Bazar. Since I have not been to the area in more than four decades, I could not reject their invitation. We left very early in the morning by a car to avoid heavy traffic, but still it took us nearly five hours to reach the town.
I recall that in the 1970s, when I travelled with my parents and siblings, it took us only three hours to reach Cox’s Bazar from Chattogram. These days, the traffic on the road connecting the two cities has grown several folds while the condition of the road has deteriorated severely, and as I have noticed elsewhere, it was full of potholes, some as deep as a foot. In order to skip some of these deep potholes, drivers were often driving on the wrong side of road, thus, making the entire travelling experience a very risky and tiring one, taking away all the charms out of visiting scenic Cox’s Bazar.
After spending some hours in the city, we planned on going towards Ukhia, located further down south. Bangladesh Army engineers have done a superb job in connecting Ukhia and Teknaf to Cox’s Bazar town with a scenic two-lane road that goes by the shoreline. However, getting to that Marine Drive meant driving through a two-kilometre road connecting Marine Drive to Cox’s Bazar town that was full of potholes. It was one of the worst roads I have ever travelled in my life. What concerned me most is that nearly half the traffic on that road were composed vehicles belonging to the UN and NGOs, local and international, that are trying to provide material help to the persecuted Rohingya refugees settled in Teknaf and Ukhia camps. What impression are these foreign visitors making about Bangladesh, the host country of the Rohingya refugees? Surely, a very bad impression!
Any local administration concerned should have realised the importance of that connecting road and made sure that it remained functional. Sadly, the local municipality has miserably failed in that vital task and is leaving its visitors with a very negative impression about the local government. Such an oversight from municipal and government authorities is simply inexcusable when hundreds of thousands of foreigners are visiting Cox’s Bazar to provide the necessary material aid to the most persecuted Rohingya who had fled to Bangladesh to escape genocide in Myanmar.
What was supposed to be a short ride took several minutes and my body was aching from the bumpy ride over the potholes in a car before we entered the Marine Drive. After a few minutes of ride along the scenic Marine Drive, we stopped by the coast of the Bay of Bengal to enjoy its natural beauty. Before sunset, we headed back home for Chattogram city. The ride took longer time and we arrived in Khulshi after five hours and a half.
On our way back home at night, I noticed that more than 80 per cent of the trucks and buses were operationally unfit (most did not have tail lights, brake lights and signal lights) and should not have been permitted to drive on the roads and highways. The potholes were making everyone’s drive a dangerous one, let alone a difficult one, especially for those unfit buses and trucks, driven sometimes by reckless drivers who seemed to care less about saving lives.
As I have already noted in an earlier article, roads and highways in Bangladesh remain some of the most dangerous in the world. The government of Bangladesh needs to make its communications system safer for its passengers and every citizen failing which more people will die by traffic accidents. It can start that process with the much-needed fitness tests on trucks and buses and road repair/maintenance jobs. Seemingly, road repair or maintenance work is not a priority or profitable enough business to the greedy ones who have had illicitly made millions from the misery of passengers compared with a full job on the roads when they could have a bigger share of their hari-loot! This vulture-like attitude of corrupt government officials, politicians and their clients is not only unhealthy, it is simply suicidal for a poor country like Bangladesh.

Dr Habib Siddiqui is a peace and rights activist.

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