From Quota Reform to Kishor Bidroho for Road Safety: Social Movements for Justice and Rule of Law

Both political executives and employees in public service must be held accountable for each and every action. That’s the hallmark of democracy. There are formal institutions and stipulated guidelines to make the state actors accountable. For a country like Bangladesh, the effectiveness of formal institutions such as, parliament, judiciary, Office of Controller and Auditor General, Independent Anti-Corruption Commission and so forth entrusted with the vital role of disciplining the actors in the executive branch has waned. Accountability through periodic elections has lost its significance as non-participatory and rigged elections have reappeared on the political landscape. The majority of the civic forums have also been encapsulated by the executive state. What we find in Bangladesh is nothing more than executive despotism. In fact, all kinds of channels through which citizens can ventilate their disapproval of executive actions have been shut down. Under this kind of pathetic situation, spontaneous social movements concerning pressing demands as perceived by citizenry can play an effective role. The glaring examples are Phulbari and Kanshat movements. Of course, there is no guarantee that such social movements generate positive outcomes all the time. But at least, these can expose the ugly face of despotic governments.

One such social movement concerns the quota system in the public employment system. The system is such that there is hardly any space for meritorious young people to join public service. The system works in such a way so as to ensure employment of those loyal to the regime. This is a classic case of positioning client groups in the key public sector organizations. This is against the spirit of natural justice and meritocracy in public sector administration. The students of the tertiary educational institutions have been pressing for reforming this quota system for a while. But the state decision makers are reluctant to restructure the system. State law enforcers and the student activists of the ruling party have crushed the movement. Several student leaders have been detained and are expected to face trial. On occasions, senior executives of the state just provided lip service to solve the problem. Nothing has happened. Though, positive outcomes haven’t come out, there is wide recognition of the demands and public sympathy for the cause has increased in manifolds. The movement may revive again anytime.

The second movement is about the traffic rules and road safety. Improper traffic regulations and their poor enforcement have made the lives of the millions of commuters unsafe. The Bangladesh Road Transport Authority is in charge of issuing the fitness certificate of the vehicles and driving license. Now it has become an open secret that the transport owner association and the transport workers union have just captured this vital state institution; fitness certificates and driving licenses are issued at the whims of the union leaders. It is alleged that transport workers’ leaders generate a large amount of unearned revenues every day from the road and transport sector. It has to be noted here that Mr. Shahjahan Khan, the Minister for Shipping is the central committee leader of the transport workers union. Over the years, mismanagement in the road and transport sector has remained unscathed under the direct patronage of Mr. Shahjahan Khan.

Just a few days ago, two college students were crushed to death by a running bus. This time, the students, mostly late teenagers, have come out of their black boxes and started movement for the exemplary punishment of the driver and safe and sound road traffic management. Students’ agitation was further ignited by the sarcastic laughter of Mr. Shahjahan in front of the journalists. Tens of thousands of students with their school/college uniform thronged the roads in Dhaka demanding the realization of their 9 points-demands, including the resignation of Mr. Shahjahan. It is really a spectacular and unbelievable event in Bangladesh that thousands of teenagers have inundated the roads of Dhaka spontaneously to seek justice for the horrendous death of their dearest fellows. Not only this, the students started policing the road and checking vehicle registration papers and driving licenses. Surprising, the car drivers of a large number of higher public officials failed to show the registration papers, fitness certificates and driving licenses. There were some under aged drivers as well. One estimate suggests that 70 per cent vehicles running on the road are unsafe and a large number of drivers are drug addicts.

Students’ demands include many critical areas that are directly connected to the nature of the Bangladeshi state. First, for a long time, very light punishment for the drivers has been the talk of the down. But a powerful mobilizer like transport workers union under the direct patronage of Mr. Shahjahan succeeded in stopping the reform. Because the transport workers union is one of the vital allies of the clientelist dominant power coalition at this moment. Second, this transport sector is the source of a large amount of illegal earnings through extortion, sale of fitness certificates and driving licenses which are shared by the leaders of the union at different levels. Third, the interests of policemen are also at stake. Given this political economy of the transport sector and the current imbroglio of the ruling coalition, state decision makers are in a delicate situation to undertake radical initiatives for the transport sector. They can’t afford to agitate their vital power coalition ally. Probably, a new law will be enacted. Again, a mere new law is not enough if the government does not demonstrate a serious political will in cleaning up the mess pertaining to the transport syndicate, rent seeking behavior of transport officials and policemen, extortion by union leaders and independent judiciary.

It has not been an easy task of the teenagers. The law enforcers and the ruling party hoodlums are trying their best to crush this movement through terrorization. Because of the repressive nature of the state, social movements on a large scale rarely happen in Bangladesh. Even authorized rights-based NGOs hardly raise any voice against different kinds of anomalies and injustices committed by the state and non-state actors. Therefore, spontaneous social movements remain the main spring of ventilating the injustices inflicted on diverse spheres of society.

The message of this small write up is, when the state actors are strong, social actors through their movements can further sharpen the former’s actions. But when state actors are weak, movements orchestrated by social actors can expose the misdeeds of state actors and their unscrupulous allies and show the path towards justice and rule of law.

Author:  Abu Elias Sarker, Ph.D is an Associate Professor for the College of Business Administration in the University of Sharjah, UAE. Email: [email protected]

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