Arafat Kabir is a writer and a graduate student of political science at the University of Utah.
Student protests have a long tradition in Bangladesh. Yet the mass demonstrations that have swept across the country for the past week mark an intriguing departure from the past. This time around, the protesters aren’t airing political demands; they’re fighting for a better road and transport system. But the impact of their efforts might be far-reaching nonetheless, since their selfless activism is giving new hope to the country’s people.
The proximate cause of the protests was the death of two high school students who were killed after getting trapped between two city buses whose drivers were concentrating on competing for passengers. The demonstrators, who overwhelmingly consist of middle and high school students, want to be able to commute to school without putting their lives at risk.
Their demands are reasonable. Bangladeshi traffic and public transportation are a case study in mismanagement. Most drivers lack the patience or proper training necessary for safe driving. They flout traffic signals in the metropolitan areas, making stops almost anywhere along their route. On the highways, they treat speed limits and traffic lanes as optional rather than binding.
A recent survey finds that 87 percent of buses and minibuses break traffic rules. Worse, traffic laws in Bangladesh are either inadequate or nonexistent, according to a study by the World Health Organization. Vehicles that zip along the roads are often unfit. If they don’t cause accidents, their faulty engines belch thick black smoke, exacerbating the already unhealthy air quality in dense urban areas such as Dhaka.
It should come as little surprise that the rate of death from road accidents is high. Anisul Haque, an editor and novelist, likened it to a form of genocide. He was not exaggerating. A report from earlier this year suggests that more than 2,400 Bangladeshis have died in the first six months alone. While there is a conspicuous paucity of reliable measures of economic loss due to road accidents in Bangladesh, the World Health Organization estimates that road accidents eat up roughly 5 percent of gross domestic product in low- and medium-income countries. If the personal, psychological and social impacts of these accidents are accounted for, the figure would be even greater for Bangladesh.
It is no overstatement to say that public transportation in Bangladesh is broken. Decades of malpractice in the transport sector have given rise to a self-help system. In the absence of appropriate legal instruments, both passengers and transport owners depend on unconventional methods to get the best deal. Those accused of hit-and-run accidents offer to pay a negotiated sum only if they’re caught by a mob. This unhealthy culture cannot be a substitute for a minimally functional transport system.
Bangladeshis are understandably fed up. They don’t want empty promises from policymakers; they want to see tangible changes. So when the teens marching in the streets of Dhaka assumed the role of impromptu traffic police, they garnered public support immediately. Prodded by the protests, the cabinet proposed new traffic laws while the police decided to observe a countrywide traffic week to ensure that all vehicles have proper documentation and fitness.
As welcome as all this is, the government should do more to assuage the public’s concerns. The authorities could take legal action against the bus companies whose reckless drivers killed the two students. The cabinet member who controls a traffic labor union, in a personal capacity separate from his ministerial portfolio, should also make sure that his involvement in labor bargaining doesn’t pose any conflict of interest.
Last but not least, the government should have tackled the demonstrations with utmost caution and sensitivity. Initially peaceful, the student protests quickly degenerated into chaos as some government sympathizers responded with violence. Reporters and photojournalists have been brutally beaten. There are reports that the youth wings of the ruling Awami League party have attacked the protesters. Even the vehicle of the U.S. ambassador has come under attack by unidentified miscreants.
The student demonstration is particularly ill-timed for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as Bangladeshis go to the polls in a few months. With the opposition in disarray, another election victory is all but certain for her party. Yet she’s still keen to win solid public support, which now hinges, to an extent, on how her administration deals with the students.
So far Hasina is walking a fine line. She has rejected the idea of blocking Facebook, as floated by at least one member of the government, perhaps assuming that it would further alienate the youths. Although the Internet has been slowed down, people still have access. The best strategy for Hasina and her cabinet would be to express solidarity with the students and demonstrate concrete actions. This would not be a sign of weakness. On the contrary, the government should take this opportunity to hold itself accountable to the people, thus gaining their support.
I experienced a serious accident while in college. A speeding car ran a red light and hit me. I underwent two complicated surgeries. While I lead a normal life today, the trauma still haunts me. I am not alone. There are hundreds of thousands like me. For many, accidents destroy the entire family. The student protests are thus giving victims of this dysfunctional system — as well as the public in general — hope for reform. They should not be allowed to fail.