Our trans-port sector can never become what it really is supposed to be—an important people-friendly service provider. That is unless the sector is freed of the political grip influencing, running and shielding it. And that, perhaps, is a tall order.
Like everything else, this sector was under state control soon after liberation, but only for a short while. Given the galloping need for intra-country connectivity and the gradual decay of the railways in spite of the occasional attempts to resuscitate it, and clogging up of the major river routes, road transport became the preferred and the most used mode of travel and transportation of goods. The gap in the market—due to the government being unable to meet the growing demands in this sector—was filled in, naturally, by private operators. And that is when the control of the transport sector devolved on the private operators. This is where politics and economic interests colluded to exercise paramount control on it. Like most institutions, private service providers and practitioners, this also came under the pervasive and harmful political control.
The fact that all the major political parties have more than one of their members at the helm of the controls of various organisations of bus and truck owners, drivers and workers, leaves no scope for guessing why the private operators have used the roads and the highways in the manner as they did. One would not be remiss in thinking that such an attitude is engendered by a feeling of complete impunity. And if you are wondering why none of the major political parties has come out with any statement on the strike and the way it was enforced, you should stop wondering. On the other hand, it would have been too much to expect the ruling party to come out with anything stronger than the whimper we heard from the mouth of the road transport minister. It was quite comical that while the minister was requesting the transport workers to call off the strike, he appeared to be oblivious of the fact that it was actually one of his cabinet colleagues who happens to head the transport workers' association and was responsible for calling the strike.
During the 48 hours that the transports were off the roads, it cost the lives of at least three children, and as per FBCCI, the economy Tk 7,000 crore, not to speak of the unspeakable torment that commuters had to endure, which defies monetisation.
There are a few fundamental questions in this regard that someone in the affairs of the state must answer. Does the shipping minister's holding the position of the executive president of Bangladesh Sarak Paribahan Sramik Federation (Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation) create a case of conflict of interest? And is there a case for the court to take suo moto cognisance of such a grave matter? There is a clear conflict of interest since he, as the head of the federation, is its chief bargainer with the government on issues concerning the workers' body. A rather ludicrous situation. One cannot believe that this essential fact has escaped the notice of the policymakers of the government.
Without going into the irrationality of the transport workers' demands, which wants to do away with many provisions of the new Act, one would ask: Why did the transport workers call a strike to change the provisions of the newly enacted Road Transport Act at all? Didn't anyone tell them that the head of their federation had not only approved the proposed Bill in the cabinet but also voted for it in the floor of the house to consecrate it as a law, and a poor law too? So, if anybody, it was him that they should have held to account.
For 48 hours, people were held hostage to this syndicate which was blackmailing the state to allow their current impunity to continue. Any political programme which lacks popular support generally has to employ the instrument of force and coercion to impose it, as we saw the transport workers do, which drew the ire of helpless commuters. It was the antithesis of the students' programme for safe roads. Can one ask if the police had done its duty to help those drivers whose faces were being smeared by burnt engine oil by the strikers? Although a case has been filed on October 31 for the death of one of the babies, has anyone been arrested so far for their role in the death of at least three children because their ambulances were barred from running? Does the transport body bear no responsibility for the three deaths since he heads the federation that called for the strike? Will the police act with the same swiftness as they did to hound out leaders of the students' movement from their houses, to arrest the culprits in this case too?
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.