After two years of the untimely death of two school students by a rashly driven bus on the Airport Road in Dhaka on July 28, 2018 that sparked the nationwide students’ protest, the situation is worse, at least statistically, writes Nahid Riyasad
THE youth movement for road safety 2018 was a major protest against the corruption prone, ineffective and perilous road transportation system of Bangladesh. After two years of the untimely death of two school students by a rashly driven bus on the Airport Road in Dhaka on July 28, 2018 that sparked the nationwide students’ protests, the situation is worse, at least statistically.
Nirapad Sharak Chai, a platform to make the road safe, published a report on January 4, 2020 that showed deaths on roads has radically increased in 2019. They prepared the report through a yearlong newspaper survey, therefore their report excludes unreported incidents.
The photos that took over the social media during the protests in the first week of August 2018 showed that school students in uniforms have installed some sort of order on the roads and restricted any vehicle without license. They checked every car and driving license, neither any minister or police officer was spared. Entire nation paused to think, why a trained traffic police department of police cannot emulate the performance of teenagers?
The movement prompted the government to quickly enact a new law streamline the transport sector — the Road Transport Act 2018, but it has not been fully implemented. The transport sector continues to remain a deadly affair. Six months after the raging student movement, the death of Abrar Ahmed Chowdhury, a student of Bangladesh University of Professionals is a testament to the fact.
On March 19, 2019, Abrar was killed by a bus while it was trying to flee another accident scene that was the driver was responsible for. The driver in question was reckless and did not have a license.
Later as the students again took to streets, it was revealed that the vehicle had faced legal action for at least 27 times before it came to take Abrar’s life. The then mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation, Atiqul Islam, promised a foot-over bridge in front of the Bashundhara Residential area, where the accident took places.
Cornerstone was laid on the very next day and it was opened on the first week of September, 2019. Photos of it appeared on social media showing thousands of people creating heavy load on the bridge. However, after a week of the operation, the bridge was closed down by the authorities and remained closed since then.
This has been the nature of government respond to road safety concerns. It acts to quell protect, to deflect media attention, but not with the attention to make roads safe for public. The fact that a total of 4,79,320 vehicles, according to Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, are plying the road without fitness certificates proves this point.
Similarly, the Road Transport Act 2018 was passed on September 19, 2018 replacing the Motor Vehicles Ordinance 1983, but remained unimplemented until November 2, 2019, even then it quickly relaxed the enforcement. Many argued that government has bowed down from strict enforcement in face of pressure of transport workers and owners’ federations. Since the enactment of the new law, transport workers and owners are opposing it for being ‘too harsh’ towards the drivers. They soon went on transport strike which added another layer of suffering to the already aggrieved public.
The government’s undue bias was demonstrated in the differential treatment of student movement and transport workers strike. It was widely reported how many transport organisers have vandalised vehicles and harassed public during their strike in November 2019.
In contrast, the youth movement for road safety was largely described as peaceful, the violence was used to quell the protest by law enforcement agencies and what now is known as the helmeted goons.
During this period, at least 100 people most of who were students, were arrested in at least 52 cases filed with 15 different police stations. Later, during the police week 2019, highest number of police officials in the history of Bangladesh, 349 to be precise, were rewarded by the prime minister for their valiant work on the line of duty. Among them, nineteen were recognised from Dhaka division — for their outstanding performance in quelling student protests.
It is in this context, students during the movement blamed a syndicate of ministers, law enforcers, trade unions and extortionists for intentionally sustaining chaos in the sector for their own interests. In what follows, Transparency International Bangladesh executives also demanded that the then state minister for shipping and local government be removed from the government as they hold position with executive president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers’ Federation.
His role with the federation is in direct conflict with his role as a cabinet member. Many thought that student movement provided the government with an opportunity to undo the syndicate that has been unlawfully controlling the transport sector, but the government seemed to have missed the opportunity.
In few days, it will be two years since the deaths of two college students in Dhaka and subsequent youth movement for road safety. Students are still occasionally taking to streets with the same demands.
On July 24, a group of students painted the speed breakers in colour in front of the girls’ college intersection of Kaliganj, Jhenaidah. According to local sources, these speed breakers have long been the reason for road accidents at the busy intersection of the town. A group of local youth raised money and took initiative to paint the speed breaker. The residents of the area gave the supports they needed to complete the work. Recently the same group of young locals repaired a number of pot-holes in the nearby roads.
On July 25, Nirapod Sarak Andolon, a platform for young road safety activists, organised a press conference at the Crime Reporters’ Association to commemorate the memories of the movement and talk about the aftermath of the protests. A number of students who actively took part in the protests and faced police and Bangladesh Chhatra League brutality, shared their memories.
In the press statement, they said, ‘the demand for road safety in this country is not new. Students who died on road in July 2018 were not the first to go, there were many before and after them. In the face of police brutality and rampant arrests, we have returned home empty handed with our dream of safe road for this country unfulfilled. But we pledge to continue this struggle for safe roads.’ The youth led initiative in Jhenaidah indicates that the amber of hope is still beaming.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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