The students of Bangladesh, who last year jolted the State to take steps towards making the nation’s roads safer, have this week once more taken to the streets after another student was killed in a traffic accident.
“There seems no end to deaths in road accidents. Once again, a student becomes the victim of reckless driving. What happens to those empty promises [from the government]?” Imtiaz Raihan, one of the students, asked.
Raihan, along with his classmates of North South University came out on the roads in the Jamuna Future Park area of the capital to protest the death of Abrar Hossain Chowdhury, a student of Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP) in Dhaka.
Chowdhury was killed on Tuesday when a bus ran over him, reportedly at a pedestrian crossing in the capital’s Bashundhara residential area. Ironically, the death of the BUP student took place during the Dhaka Metropolitan Police force’s “traffic week”, which was meant to bring discipline to the city streets.
“This speaks of the dire straits of our roads. Even during the traffic week, the bus drivers drive recklessly and kill people. We are no longer safe [on] these roads. This feeling prompt us to go back [onto] the roads again,” said Mitul Ahmed, a BUP third-year student.
Ahmed was among thousands of students who on Tuesday and Wednesday blocked a number of roads in the capital with placards that said “We want justice”—a slogan that gained popularity in early August last year during nationwide student-led protests calling for safer roads.
The 2018 protests, which rocked Bangladesh in an election year, were sparked after a bus ploughed into students from Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment College (SRUCC) in Dhaka while they waited to board another bus. Two were killed on the spot and a dozen others injured.
The protests raged for eight days before the government took a hard line and evicted protesters by force. The Prime Minister Sheikh-Hasina-led government however promised to meet the demands made by the students to make roads safe.
This time, the student protesters called off their protest on Wednesday afternoon after the newly elected Mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) Atiqul Islam promised to meet their demands.
“It is my seventh day as mayor. I’m requesting you not as the mayor but as a brother: please give me some time,” Mayor Islam told the students on Wednesday, He further added that he will also form a committee which will include student representatives.
The students however gave the mayor a deadline of March 28 to meet a list of demands they presented, after which they threatened to return to the streets if the demands are not met.
The agitating students’ fresh demands includied freeing the transport sector from political influence. They also demanded that the licenses and necessary documents of vehicle owners be checked at least once a month, and that drivers involved in fatal accidents be arrested immediately and given maximum punishments possible.
Concerns over unfit vehicles and non-licensed drivers saw demands that they both be removed from the roads. The students also called for the construction of pedestrian underpasses and footbridges and speed bumps at accident blackspots. As well as these demands, the students have asked for better-organized bus stations, separate bus services for students and the dismissal of negligent administrative and traffic police personnel.
Earlier last year, the protesting students demanded capital punishment for reckless driving. In response, the government enacted the Road Transport Act 2018 which provided for five years’ imprisonment for causing death by reckless driving, a punishment deemed too lenient by many of the road safety campaigners.
Mozammel Haque Chowdhury, Secretary General of Bangladesh Passengers Welfare Association said, “The students come out on the roads again out of frustration. They found that there is [a] lack of sincerity among the policymakers in making the roads safe.”
According to his organization’s traffic accident data, at least 7,221 people died in road accidents in Bangladesh in 2018. The victims in 41.53% of the reported cases died as a result of being run over by vehicles while 29.72% of the deaths occurred in head-on collisions between vehicles.
“If the government doesn’t come up with fruitful steps to curb the reckless driving by the drivers, then all efforts to make roads safe will be in vain,” said Chowdhury.
Ilias Kanchan, Chairman of Safe Road Movement, an NGO working on road safety in Bangladesh, claimed there was little chance of any fruitful recommendations on road safety coming from the government. He argued that Shajahan Khan, the former Shipping Minister who sparked last year’s protest for smirking just hours after the two college students were killed, was appointed recently to lead a 15-member committee to recommend measures to prevent road accidents and bring discipline to the transport sector.
“It is hard to imagine any fruitful suggestions from the committee led by Shahjahan Khan as he is the leader of [the] federation of transport workers. He will always try to protect the interests of transport workers rather than [making] fruitful attempts to make the roads safer,” he said.
Dr Shamsul Haque, former director of Accident Research Institute (ARI) of Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology told Asia Times that authorities have taken many steps to curb accidents but those steps cannot yield desired results due to a lack of coordination. “Leaders of transport owners and workers, who have political clout, are creating obstacles to initiatives for reforms and thus the number of accidents cannot be curbed,” he said.