Bangladeshi students mass on the streets of Dhaka after two pupils were killed by a bus in front of their college. Photo: AFP/Khandaker Azizur Rahman Sumon/ NurPhoto
Bangladeshi students mass on the streets of Dhaka after two pupils were killed by a bus in front of their college. Photo: AFP/Khandaker Azizur Rahman Sumon/ NurPhoto

Recent student-led protests for safer roads in Bangladesh appear to have failed in driving home the point, with this year’s Eid-ul-Azha holiday seeing no let-up in the number of accidents and casualties.

According to data compiled by the Bangladesh Passenger Welfare Association (BPWA) which keeps track of road accidents, at least 259 people were killed and 960 injured in 237 road accidents in 13 days from Aug. 16 to 28 during the Eid holidays.

People started leaving the cities for their homes in the country on Aug. 16 and started returning two days after Eid on Aug. 22 and continued coming back until Aug. 28.

Sparked by a road accident that killed two high school students, tens of thousands of students from different high schools and colleges in Bangladesh held massive protests on road safety for about a week in early August.

They controlled traffic and later braved police crackdowns and assaults, allegedly carried out by the ruling party’s student wing. But the reason they protested has remained largely unaddressed, even as the country gears for a general election this year.

Right after the protest, on Aug. 6, the Sheikh Hasina-led government quickly passed a draft Road Transport Law – which had been in the making for years before it went to Cabinet. That law, like a number of others before it, had lots of provisions to keep roads safe, but many doubted the law would be enforced.

Plans on paper

While road accidents in Bangladesh have continued to rise, most plans for safer roads have not been implemented. Road accidents kill 12,000 people and injure 35,000 each year, according to the Accident Research Institute (ARI) of the state-run Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

In 2011, after renowned filmmaker Tareq Masud and journalist Mishuk Munir died in a road accident, a high powered nine-member government committee issued a number of recommendations to make roads safer. One was to form a Road Safety Fund by allocating 1-5% of funding for any project for construction of roads and highways. According to the recommendation, this fund could be used for road safety awareness programs and research.

Now more than 300 road construction projects are ongoing, under the supervision of the Roads and Highways Division. The cumulative value of these projects comes to Taka 450 billion ($5.6 billion). If only one percent of the worth of all these projects could be allocated to the Road Safety Fund, it would have about Taka 4.5 billion ($56 million). However, no such fund has been formed.

Another major recommendation was to train drivers properly and streamline the process of issuing licenses, seeing Bangladesh’s roads and highways are flooded with unskilled and unlicensed drivers.

According to statistics available from the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), there are 2.6 million registered vehicles in the country. However, only 1.7 million driving licenses have been issued by the agency, indicating there are almost 1 million drivers without licenses. Five years ago, there were 1.4 million vehicles and the number of license holders was 998,000.

In 2012, the government planned to introduce driving courses in technical schools and colleges under the Vocational Education Board. The communications ministry, which has now become the Ministry of Road Transport Bridges, made that plan in line with a suggestion by the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority [BRTA].

But from 2011-12, several BRTA drives found that about 80 unauthorized driving schools across major cities were churning out hundreds of poorly trained drivers.

Seven years later, the problem is still there. BRTA director Mohammed Nurul Islam said there are 41 BRTA-authorized driving schools in the country, including 26 in the capital Dhaka. “But these numbers look small in front of hundreds of thousands of candidates,” he said.

Fixing responsibility

Dr Shamsul Haque, the former Director of the Accident Research Institute (ARI) of Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology, told Asia Times the government was lagging behind in forming committees and making recommendations.

“Accidents happen in Bangladesh almost every day, but some accidents create a bigger buzz in the media. Immediately after those the government takes some measures to stem the public outcry, but in the longer run it tends to forget about its commitments,” he said.

Dr Haque told The Daily Star: “There are many players in the road transport sector, but Obaidul Quader is the person to be held accountable” for road accidents. Quader is the Minister of Road Transport and Bridges. He is also the Secretary General of the ruling Awami League.

Quader headed or was a member of almost all the important councils and committees formed to ensure road safety. He headed the Road Transport Advisory Council (RTAC) and the National Road Safety Council (NRSC) – two of the councils in the transport sector.

Records show that both councils had been discussing similar issues and making identical decisions, including removing unfit vehicles, barring drivers with fake licenses, pulling slow-moving vehicles off highways, preventing the modification of vehicles, controlling overloading, stopping reckless or wrong-side driving and introducing a monthly salary for drivers and workers.

But none of those decisions were implemented “either for a lack of political will or due to opposition from beneficiaries of road irregularities within the government’s power circle,” said the report.

Later both the councils became dysfunctional and a special cabinet committee was formed in 2013 with 10 cabinet ministers to coordinate the implementation of the decisions made by the two councils. Quader was put in in charge of this committee too. After only two meetings, the ministers delegated the responsibilities to their secretaries, who have not held a single meeting.

“As the Secretary General of the ruling party, Quader has lots on his plate. I am not saying he should resign but the government should be more serious about implementing the road safety plans. Otherwise people will loose trust that anything actually could be done to avert road fatalities in the country,” Dr Haque said.

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