Safety is a human right. The state is legally and morally obligated to ensure safety for all citizens. The issue of safety has been a bone of contention in almost every sphere of Bangladesh society. The track record of successive governments has been pretty depressing in so far safety is concerned.
The clamor for safe roads has never been taken seriously by successive governments. The spree of deaths caused by the recklessness of unfit drivers, dilapidated road conditions and lax traffic administration have never faced contestation either inside the state apparatus or in wider society except the news coverage by the media outlets and periodic vandalism of aggrieved citizens. Lack of safe roads and transports is a classic case of government failure in Bangladesh. Like many other spheres, living with road accidents is an accepted norm.
Suddenly, the accepted fatalistic norm got a jolt on 29 July 2018 when a speeding bus killed two teenagers on the roadside. The incident ignited dormant anger of the nation and enraged the school children. Tens of thousands of the students swamped the capital and other cities to protest against the shocking deaths of their fellow friends. They were demonstrating peacefully to seek justice. They set a 9 points demand for the government. The most remarkable part of the protest was the way the students took over the control of the roads in different parts of the city and managed the traffic. They checked the relevant papers and found ominous governance in road and transport administration. They unfolded thousands of cases without driving licenses, fitness certificates and registration. Besides these, they found a clear-cut gap between driving licenses and the caliber of the licensees and the fitness certificates and the actual conditions of the vehicles.
Instead of paying a serious heed to the demands of the students, the government has taken a familiar rout of witch hunting and stigmatizing the students as BNP/Jamat forces. Ministers gave assurance to the students to implement their demands but failed to take concrete actions on the ground. Severe mismanagement in the road and transport sector is well-known. Hundreds of media reports were outspread on the unholy alliance between traffic enforcers, transport workers union and bus owners’ association in the past. Mr. Shahjahan Khan has been the ring leader of the unholy alliance. More importantly, nobody trusted the government’s assurance as many assurances given in the past were never materialized. On occasions, some ministers used uncouth language. Evidence was mounting that policemen were terrorizing the innocent students.
Bangladesh Chatro League (BCL) in Action
BCL is an affiliated body of the ruling party, Bangladesh Awami League. The members of BCL have been associated with numerous criminal acts such as, extortion, rape, murders, sexual harassment and terrorization of any protests. They have been doing all these atrocities with the tacit support of their parent organization. Since the beginning of Kishore Bidroho, they again started intimidating innocent boys and girls in different parts of the city. Clearly identified BCL hoodlums carried out the most dreadful attack on peaceful and innocent students on 4 July, Saturday. They harassed and severely injured a large number of young boys and girls. Again, the government is on the denial mode and that, the infiltrators of BNP/Jamat committed the criminal acts to create instability in the country.
The Importance of Mr. Shahjahan and BCL Hoodlums for the Government
A pre-capitalist undemocratic space is a fertile ground for the ascendency of unproductive groups in the polity. The government needs Mr. Shajahan and his goons and BCL activists to neutralize the potential mobilizers threatening the dictatorial nature of the state. There are clear tradeoffs between the government and the gangsters. This phenomenon is not unique to Bangladesh only. They are the formidable forces for the ruling party’s bid to perpetuate power.
The Role of Civil Society
It is really depressing to see the passive role of civil society during this crisis. Particularly, the role of pro-establishment intelligentsia in stamping every incident as a rumor or an act of the anti-liberation forces is really pitiable. Instead of judging the merit of the students’ agonies, they hymn with the pre-determined lyrics. In their view, everything is going well under the incumbent government. There is full-fledged democracy; the country is on the development high way; the conspirators are trying to put the country in the regression mode again. A country like Finland having the top rank in almost every aspects of governance and quality of life is not spared by its intelligentsia. The same applies to Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea.
It’s not Corporatism
In a democratic setup, a tripartite forum involving the government, transport owners and workers union deals with the problems confronting the transport sector. In this case, citizens don’t participate in the forum proceedings. Particularly, in continental Europe, citizens’ representatives sit on the board of the transport department. In a pre-capitalist setting undemocratic setting, the arrangement is informal. Informal ties between the workers union, transport owners’ association and the government agencies dictate the rules of game. With the change of the regime, leadership of the workers’ union and transport owner association also changes. This iron-fisted informal network between the government agencies, the transport workers union leaders and the transport owner association has had horrendous implications for the millions of commuters in the country. The whole population is incarcerated by this dreadful network that results in the deaths of thousands of commuters every year.
A Roadmap to Overcome the Imbroglio
It would be a mistake on the part of the state decision makers to laugh off Kishore Bidroho. A mere lip service won’t help solve the problem. A crisis of this kind can only be overcome if there is political will. Political and administrative leaders must admit that there is a problem. Institutional reforms and their enforcement have to be done whole-heartedly. There are always some direct and indirect costs involved in the process. Best practices in the late industrialized countries suggest that the government must take harsh decisions and break the informal networks surrounding the vital social regulatory regime. The road safety law must take the inputs of the aggrieved parties and other relevant stakeholders. Appropriate provisions recognizing the rights of the commuters and stiff punishment of the offenders must be there. There is no way the government can retain Mr. Shahjahan Khan in the cabinet on account of his extremely bad track record and conflict of interest. The involvement of the representatives of the aggrieved parties must be involved at different stages of service delivery. The role of the representative groups will be to monitor the activities of the government agencies. There is no better option than engaging the aggrieved parties in the service delivery system. This arrangement will help reduce malfeasance in issuing driving licenses, fitness certificates and extracting extortion. On the other hand, corrupt practices in the agencies dealing with roads and high ways must be stopped in order to construct and maintain safe roads. Civic groups must also be involved in monitoring the activities. This monitoring role is meant for exposing any wrong deeds committed by the agency officials or the contractors.
The type of government that Bangladesh has right now is riddled with numerous structural deficiencies which can’t be eliminated overnight. The best option at this moment is political will to promulgate and enforce institutions as objectively as possible in collaboration with the aggrieved students. Every action of the government has both costs and benefits. But maintaining status quo surrounding the destructive informal networks in the road and transport sector for short term political gains is more costlier than enforcing political will for public good. Please listen to our little rebels. Don’t consider them as your rivals.
Author: Dr. Abu Elias Sarker, University of Sharjah, UAE