The new transport law has been watered down quite a bit because of opposition from the transport owners and workers. Even so, the workers called a strike recently demanding amendments to the law. How would you evaluate the new law and the workers’ demands?
Before drafting the new law, a lot of research had been done. In 2010, we did a comprehensive study on this. We analysed the previous law and the best practices of countries around the world. Our transport sector has gone through a lot of changes in the last 36-37 years. And the old law was not enough to bring discipline in the sector—the fines and jail terms were negligible. So, enacting a new law was long overdue. In the draft law, the fines and jail terms were given in such a way so that nobody finds any of the provisions discriminatory.
However, the government has no control over the transport sector and it is basically ruled by a handful of big organisations. The covered van owners have been working as a pressure group everywhere. After a number of strikes were enforced by them, the government was forced to make some changes in the draft law.
Even so, problem was created when the government went to enforce the new law without making the necessary reforms in the system. I would say, such attempts were bound to fail.
The covered van owners and workers had called the strike knowing very well that if they did not run their vehicles, businesses would bear the brunt—because these illegally modified vehicles have become an integral part of our export-import business.
These vehicles are illegal even according to our previous transport law. It is a type of transport which is found nowhere in the world, not even in our neighbouring countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal or Bhutan. This vehicle has been built by modifying a truck. Currently, there are 22,000 such vehicles in the country.
Three years ago, I gave a presentation to the government on covered vans. There were four ministers present at the event, as well as secretaries to the government. But after the presentation, the government only took initiatives to remove the bumper and the angle of the vehicles while they overlooked the fact that the whole structure of a covered van is actually modified, which is illegal as per our law.
The number of covered vans has not increased to 22,000 in a day. When they modified the truck to carry more goods, nobody from the authorities stopped them. When they overloaded their trucks, nobody stopped them. They were emboldened to go on with their illegal activities because of the inaction of the authorities, which also encouraged others to invest in these vehicles.
If all the covered vans are illegal according to the law, isn’t it natural for the owners and workers to call a strike? None of them are foolish enough to run these vehicles and end up being fined or jailed. What I think is, whenever the government will try to enforce the law, they will go on work abstention.
What is your opinion about the nine-point demand made by the transport workers? Do you find any of them logical?
Many of their demands are in fact logical. Whenever any road crash occurs, the blame always goes to the driver of the big vehicle involved in the crash. But an accident does not always take place due to their mistake. Oftentimes, accidents happen when a big vehicle tries to save a Nosimon or Korimon. Unfortunately, the investigation in such cases is carried out by the police, BRTA, and other road authorities. There is no representation of the transport workers.
So, this time the workers have become very strategic. They are saying that they are willing to be sentenced by the law but only after an impartial investigation is held. They proposed that Buet should be included as an investigative authority among others. And I don’t think the government can take this challenge.
Another demand that they have made is, as long as there is no legal parking facility, the vehicles cannot be fined for illegal parking. From 1996, the bus owners have been demanding a bus terminal in Nimtoli, Dhaka, but the government still hasn’t obliged. If the government ever goes on an open debate with the transport owners, I am sure they will lose to the owners.
What do you think the government should have done before enforcing the law?
The government should have enforced the law on a test basis first. They should have started with the BRTC. Had they done so, they would have known by now the loopholes in the system. They would have known that the BRTC buses are parked in front of the secretariat for lack of designated spots; they would have known that many buses do not have fitness, etc. By doing this, the government could have gained some idea of where to start.
But what we are observing now is, the law is being enforced on the weak and the powerless while the beneficiaries of our chaotic transport system remain above it. Reckless driving and jaywalking are only the tip of the iceberg. If we do not see the underlying reasons, if we do not get to the root of the problem, nothing will change. I would say, the government is not on the right track. The way the government wants to correct the system—by holding the drivers and pedestrians accountable for traffic chaos—the problem will never be solved. I think if anyone should be held accountable for the chaos on our roads, it is the BRTA, Rajuk, and the police.
Under the circumstances, is it at all possible to bring order on our roads?
Surely, the chaos on our roads cannot be solved through enforcing the law. The government tried to compensate for their planning deficit by enforcing the law. They should have known that the deficit in planning cannot be offset by anything.
If the new law is implemented, the covered vans won’t be able to ply the roads, the legunas won’t be able to ply the roads, the seating/gate-lock services will not be there. Frankly, I don’t understand how the government will enforce the law.
However, if the government sincerely wants to bring order in the transport sector, it should take some tough and unpopular decisions. As a first step, the BRTA should stop giving registrations to new vehicles, including motorcycles. Since the number of vehicles on our roads are beyond the capacity of our roads, such a decision will surely improve the traffic situation. The government took such an unpopular decision in the power sector. It decided to stop giving new power connections for two years and remained strict about it. Although the government was criticised at first, the decision was later commended by all.
What is more, we need to plan scientifically. We have planned a mega-city where there is no legal truck terminal or city bus terminal. But strangely, we are trying to enforce the law against the vehicles for illegal parking. We always say that our population is big and we have less space, but when we plan anything for the city, we seem to forget this basic fact.
Let me give you an example of proper planning. We always say that the drivers are unruly, that they do not abide by the law and drive recklessly. But what is surprising is that these same drivers become law-abiding citizens when they drive the buses of Dhaka Chaka. Because in Dhaka Chaka, the drivers work on monthly salary. There is no relation between their income and the number of passengers they carry on each trip. So the drivers drive responsibly without being given any special training. This happened because there was proper planning in place.