Vol. 5 Num 979 Fri. March 02, 2007  

Ilias Kanchan: An actor fighting for safe roads

It has become a status symbol for artistes all around the world to give charity and participate in awareness building programmes. However, the level of dedication is different when one encounters near fatal death and loses a dear one. Ilias Kanchan, one of the leading actors of the '80s and '90s, has dedicated his life to spreading awareness regarding traffic and safety rules.

Back in 1989 on a dark misty night Ilias was returning from a film shoot and the road ahead was unclear. His car was about to collide with a van. At the last possible moment he swerved his car to save the van and skidded to the other part of the road, only to be crashed by a car coming from the opposite direction. The accident was serious and the doctors in Bangladesh decided to amputate his left leg and arm. His wife objected saying that for an artist to lose an arm and a leg was worse than dying. His life would become meaningless.

He was taken to Singapore for treatment and returned with all his limbs intact. Once back in the country he noticed incidents which he had taken for granted earlier. Like lack of experience among drivers, fitness problem of the vehicles, careless driving, violation of traffic rules and lack of enforcement of traffic rules by the law enforcers.

"I started thinking about the broader picture as to why things were like this and how it could be improved. A few ideas appealed to me amongst which decentralisation and urban planning stuck on. I figured out that all the rush in Dhaka city was due to centralisation. If the industries and garments were placed out of Dhaka then the mad rush could be reduced."

"Urban planning is another problem" continues Ilias. "Hawkers, vendors and slum dwellers on the streets often distract drivers and pedestrians have no place to walk but on the roads." In Ilias' opinion "Slums should not have been allowed to mushroom in the first place. Eviction now is proving to be highly costly in monetary and humanistic terms."

While Ilias was pondering about such issues, as fate would have it, he lost his wife to a car accident in 1993. She was on her way to Bandarban to meet him. Ilias was engulfed in grief and pain. That's when a journalist friend pointed out that being a public figure he could reach out to millions and spread the message of awareness. "My advisers told me not to as I would become accessible to the public which would ruin my image as an actor. However, I made up my mind and went ahead." On December 1, 1993, Ilias along with his friends and well wishers took out a procession to the Press Club. "My complaint was not against anyone in particular, but in general for traffic rules to be implemented more stringently."

Soon Ilias was traveling to all the districts with his organisation Nirapod Sarak Chai. The organisation now has 65 branches all over the country and they have a 22 point demand list. Some of the demands which have been implemented over the last 13 years are: declaring October 22 as the International Safe Highway Day, removing shops and vendors from the footpaths (gradually being implemented), highway police, research institutes and a traffic council. Some of the demands which are still in the pipeline are: dividers throughout the full length of highways, trauma centers every few miles and traffic training schools for every district.

After 13 years on the roads, Ilias has realised the process is painstakingly slow. He needs support from his fellow country men and requests them to do their bit i.e. to keep driving safe. In his own words, "A few minutes of patience on your side can save a life. I have lost dearly and realise the pain; I don't want others to suffer the same."