Ilias Kanchan, a star from the film industry and lifetime member of Nishcha, Nirapad Sarak Chai, a organisation campaigning for road safety, talks about the situation of traffic safety in Bangladesh and his own personal story and involvement in this campaign in an interview with Nahid Riyasad
New Age: It’s been nearly 25 years since you have started your journey with Nirapad Sharak Chai movement. Tell us about the journey.
Ilias Kanchan: It all started in 1989, right after the enormous success of my movie — Beder Meye Josna. I was taking a driving on a highway during a dark, rainy night. I failed to spot a rickshaw-van due to the darkness, only saw the driver. To save the man, I swiftly took a turn and the slippery road made my car skid, subsequently hit by a bus. Should there be a reflector sticker on the van, this could have been avoided. A ligament of my left hand was torn; my right leg suffered at least three fractures. I was given primary treatment in the local health centre and shifted to Dhaka. Here, doctors wanted to amputate one of my legs and an arm, but my wife protested. She urged the doctors to save my leg or else, not save at all. It was the tenure of HM Ershad, his health minister visited me that night and the president came next morning. I was sent to Singapore, where the doctors treated me well, thanks to the government recommendation. During my recovery period, I thought about initiating a movement to ensure road safety, but that remained in thoughts only.
Four years later, in 1993, I lost my wife in a tragic road accident, I waited no more. I had to take stand against the road fatalities. The journey, however, despite my stardom, has never been easy. At the very beginning, when I started to share my thoughts with close friends in the film industry, they rejected the idea instantly. They were giving lame reasons — I will be losing fan base, my popularity will wane and so on. I paid no heed to their comments, now here we are.
During this journey, I have been offered party nominations for parliament election, even ministry. I refused that path to keep my credibility intact to my audience, thus I am not associated with any political party. To take my initiative on road safety to higher authorities, I have also maintained a relationship with all the road and transport ministers.
I have seen liberation war, and also saw that surviving freedom fighters had died in road accidents. That gave me immense sorrow. This is why I have started my movement on December 1. The journey has come here today — we have offices in 118 areas of Bangladesh and six countries.
New Age: You have mentioned, you lost your wife Jahanara Kanchan to a tragic road accident. Instead of seeking legal redress, going to court, you have started this road safety campaign. Why is that?
Ilias Kanchan: My wife’s life was lost on the road. She died even before receiving any medical attention. No amount of legal prosecution or punishment will be able to bring her back, bring my son’s mom back. This idea triggered me and I thought, I could use my stardom to raise awareness. By doing so, I might be able to prevent future deaths. This is why I took on the movement rather than seeking legal redress. However, the lengthy legal process and the hassles were also on the back of my mind.
New Age: We have lost many national heroes in road accident, to name a few, Alamgir Kabir, Tareque Masud and Mishuk Munier. Had this journey helped you to deal with your loss?
Ilias Kanchan: No road accident casualties are expected. We have a tendency to judge the gravity of an accident by the number of casualties. I want to say even a single person is very important to a family, that person might be the bread earner. Off course, the film industry has lost some great names to road accidents. My road safety movement helped me to cope with the losses and gave me strength to make roads safer for ordinary people.
New Age: You have been actively running a nationwide mass campaign for safe driving, you even distributed leaflets on roads, making public statements in press conference. What has been the public response?
Ilias Kanchan: To be honest, the initial response was not great. Journalist community supported me strongly, and they did help me a lot in this process. Transport workers saw my movement suspiciously. At first, they thought, I was meddling with their bread and butter. I have already mentioned my colleagues’ and relatives’ response. They had had really hard time accepting me on the road rather than on the screen.
Another kind of response is worth mentioning; at the very beginning the average notion of road accidents among the people was that the mishaps are caused by god; thus we are not in a position to reverse them. I argued that the road accidents are manmade and can be avoided; god has nothing to do with this. For my stand, I was even labeled as a non-believer. We have overcome that stage fortunately; now people at least see them as accidents and know they can also be prevented.
New Age: In 2009-2016, according to BRTA statistics, at least 19,588 people lost their lives and 13,020 more sustained injuries in 20,461 accidents across the country. Despite mass campaigns road fatalities are on the rise. In this situation, where do you see the success of your campaign and where do you think its falling short?
Ilias Kanchan: I have different things to say both about the number of incidents and the allegation of increasing road mishaps. In the case of number, government documentation only shows a fragment of original number. In 2013, we started following daily newspapers for road accidents and in our book, at least 8,000 people have lost lives on road, whereas, it was only 2500 in the government document. Since 2013, the number of casualties is nose-diving and the numbers are decreasing. I would argue that different initiatives from the government — four lane highways, compulsory test when renewing a license, are playing a role in decreasing the number of road accidents. The numbers of road accident, however, have decreased compared to 1990s, considering that roads, cars and people have increased in number.
We have also seen governments trying to take steps against the guilty drivers from time to time but they always step back due to large protest from worker’s associations. Given the large number of transport workers, implementing the existing laws are rather problematic.
New Age: Proper training is a vital thing for drivers. Even after being properly trained, drivers as well as pedestrians seem to be very indifferent about road safety and safe driving. How should we approach this mentality?
Ilias Kanchan: A majority of the victims of our road accidents are pedestrians and transport workers. Despite this fact, they seem very indifferent about their surroundings. You will see people casually walking in the middle of the road talking on the phone, crossing roads right beneath a foot bridge. These are serious flaws in our collective public psyche which makes the situation even more dangerous. To tackle this mental state, creating awareness is the only solution. I have been urging the government to include road safety issues in school curriculum which will help them understand the gravity of the matter at a very early age.
New Age: Even after having maximum number of unnatural deaths, road safety issues never got importance in government agenda. How do you think the government should address this issue and what initiatives they should take?
Ilias Kanchan: The government has the key to solve this issue, though not overnight. The thing I have done personally and through my campaign is creating awareness about road accidents and changing people’s mindset to combat the situation. Now, imagine, what a large force like government could do should it have good intention? The government should carry out more programmes and campaigns about road safety. Driving license distribution and the driver’s training process should be more rigorous and fair to ensure road safety. Media should also play its role with the government in order to raise awareness. I think, the government coupled with other stakeholders can bring a substantial amount of change in this field. I have urged both the government and opposition party to work on this issue together, because, ordinary people’s lives are at stake here, who belong to every party, race, class and religion.
New Age: As you know, most of the transport company owners have affiliation to the ruling party. The laws made in the parliament are more partial towards protecting the interest of the transport owners rather than the public. What can be done to reverse this situation?
Ilias Kanchan: This culture of political ownership of companies is nothing new in Bangladesh. In fact, this is the reality of every sector. The thing is that with the change of a government, the public vehicles just get a new company and name; workers and their mentality remain the same, as a result road safety remains a concern. The ownership is usually kept by a very small group of people. The culture has become something like that which should be broken. Otherwise, that same community will rule the roads thus perpetuating the same culture of accidents and mismanagement on the streets.