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Volume 5 Issue 09| September 2011



Original Forum

Readers' Forum

The Onus is on India to Deliver
--Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan

Rise of Bangladesh:
Lessons in economic diplomacy from India

-- Jalal Alamgir
Conflicts over land and maritime boundaries

---- Syeed Ahamed
On Public Indebtedness
-- Jyoti Rahman
India-Bangladesh Relations:
A Forty-Year Retrospective

-- Ziauddin Choudhury
Photo Feature: The Crime of Negligence
Who is 'Indigenous?'
-- Wasfia Nazreen

Road Kill
-- Syed Zain Al-Mahmood

Combating Highway Terrorism

-- Devasish Roy Wangza

Popular Culture as a Safeguard
against Extremism

-- Fahmidul Haq

Reading Matir Moina: 54
From text to social context
--Zakir Hossain Raju

Muktir Gaan: 59
An End to Revisionist History

-- Naeem Mohaiemen


Forum Home

Combating Highway Terrorism

The battle for road safety will require a multi-pronged approach, posits DEVASISH ROY WANGZA.

The trauma of traffic “accidents”
Like countless other Bangladeshis, I too am saddened, traumatised, enraged and appalled at the untimely deaths of Tareque Masud, Mishuk Munier and their three companions -- Wasim, Jamal and Mustafizur Rahman -- in the recent motor “accident”. Punishment to the driver of the bus, if found guilty (he has been arrested and presumably charged), may well deter a few would-be reckless drivers. But that will not make our highways substantially safer. The resignation of the Communications Minister -- as demanded by some -- will not serve us either. It's not just about roads. There are narrower roads in the UK, with a higher number of cars and fewer accidents. Some of our South Asian neighbours fare much better than us in this regard. The answer lies elsewhere.

A tribute to Tareque and Munier
I wish to pay a small tribute to Tareque Bhai and Munier Bhai -- and countless other victims subject of senseless acts on our highways, including the late wife of actor Ilyas Kanchann -- by sharing some thoughts on how we may reduce highway accidents. I have no expertise on highway traffic. However, I have been a frequent user of the highways between Rangamati and Dhaka, via Chittagong and I know what it's like.

Socio-moral responsibilities: Direct civic action by road-users
We may be stricter with our traffic laws and widen our roads and repair dilapidated ones. We can take other developmental measures. But that will be inadequate to deal with this menace -- and many of our other political and social ills as well -- without fundamental societal changes combined with penal and developmental measures. This is because it is common knowledge that the vast majority of motor accidents are caused not by engine failure or bad roads or even bad weather (at least by themselves), but by human error based upon reckless driving. Ultimately, the question is one of collective moral and ethical values, and the corresponding responsibility to act.

Only a miniscule percentage of the vehicles that ply on our roads carry a sole driver. The overwhelming majority of vehicles carry several passengers, whether it is a bus, scooter (“CNG”), van, microbus, SUV or even motorbike. Even trucks carry passengers beside the driver or up on the deck or 'carrier'. In most cases, the passengers condone the drivers' recklessness. In some cases, they themselves directly prod the driver to speed. In others, they indirectly encourage, or passively accept, the driver's rash 'overtaking'. In yet others, passengers are secretly pleased when their driver has 'jumped' the queue in a jam. Unfortunately, few demonstrate the moral courage necessary to take an ethical stand and confront the driver of their vehicle, or other drivers flouting traffic laws and rules. I am sure that many of us have seen countless wealthy and university-educated Sahebs and Begums, comfortably ensconced in the rear seats of their vehicles, while their chauffeur broke the law, nonchalantly, and with not a murmur from his bosses. And, what are the solutions?

One such way is to mount a campaign to raise awareness among road passengers to assert themselves (even as 'backseat drivers') and prevent drivers from driving recklessly. School, college and university students could hand out leaflets and flyers and stop truant vehicles on the road, when they slow down at a jam or at the red light and politely but firmly admonish the drivers, and/or the passengers and shame them. Non-governmental organisations, including hopefully-to-be-created road safety citizens' groups can do likewise. The concerned government agencies and local government bodies could lead, or join in.

Examples of civic action by citizens
Let me share a few real-life incidents of civic action that helped curb speeding or lessened road jams.

First, on speeding. Some relatives of mine used to frequently take night buses to transport their children to and from faraway schools before and after vacations. They used to ensure that they got seats in the front of the bus, stayed up all night and periodically pleaded with, screamed at, or otherwise threatened, the driver (but not with physical violence), whenever he (it's seldom a she) drove recklessly. Sure, they were exhausted the following day. But they and their children lived to tell the tale.

Another occasion involves myself. I was in a CNG-autorickshaw on VIP Road in Dhaka and found that the driver would not stop driving dangerously fast even after repeated entreaties. I then instructed the driver to let me off immediately and threatened him that I would not pay him a single paisa if he did not stop right then. He slowed down! I reached my destination safely and paid him the full fare.

On several other occasions, particularly before Eid, I have come across highway jams that were exacerbated by vehicles breaking the queue and creating new traffic lanes at will (real paint-marked highway lanes to them are mere aesthetic embellishments caused by artistic members of the R&H Department!). In some cases I got out, spoke to other passengers, urged them to socially confront these truant vehicles and threaten them with reporting the matter to the police and/or shame them (if they are “shame-able”, of course). In most cases it worked. The success rate mattered on our numbers and the presence of younger proactive citizens. In one or two cases, I saw organised students' groups force queue-breaking vehicles' drivers reverse back to a position in the jam, way before the position that they had started from. Just desserts!

Direct civic action II
To come back to specific suggestions, a second way to deal with the menace may be to create a national-level Road Safety Society, with sustained proactive programmes on research and strategic interventions and follow-up measures. We can't afford to be only reactive to major events for a short while -- like in the case of the landslides in Chittagong in 2008 and 2011 and the sinking of un-riverworthy vessels -- and then forget about them for the rest of the year. The proposed campaign can be strengthened by the participation of national-level popular personalities, social-workers and other change-makers. Road-users could identify themselves as members of such society by taking out a handkerchief, or a small badge or other motif or legend, and rally other passengers to take action, firmly, collectively, without violence or any other infringement of the law, and confront truant drivers, passengers or even police personnel. A road jam, for example, provides ample time and opportunity for that. If the offending driver speeds up, a passenger in that bus can call the nearest police station or highway patrol (these numbers can be made available to them at the bus station as a mandatory requirement).

Many of the aforesaid measures may not apply, or apply in the same measure, in the case of trucks (lorries), since most trucks have few or no passengers. In such cases, the deterrent measure might have to focus on fines and seizure or detention of the vehicle. The owners of the transported goods would in most cases not be happy in the case of delay of their goods.

Penal sanctions: Incarceration and hefty fines
The penalties for reckless driving can be made more painful, through higher sentences of imprisonment and higher monetary fines, including through summary powers to mobile courts and police officers. I once asked a Scandinavian diplomat in Dhaka, how come traffic laws were not broken frequently in her country? She told me simply: “We can't afford to pay the fines!”

Of course, we will have to deal with the other menace of corruption by law-enforcers. If the penalty has a strong enough sting to it, including a hefty monetary fine, the potentially guilty drivers will not be let off the hook so easily. If our law-enforcement personnel act honestly and efficiently, they will prosecute the offending drivers. If they are less-than-honest, they will most likely help themselves with some form of a monetary 'gratification'. And if the fine is high enough, the gratification level will also be correspondingly high, and hurt the driver's pocket, and in certain contexts, the owner of the vehicle as well. I don't wish to encourage such acts of corruption, but such a development is likely, if not inevitable, and we have to account for it.

Mobile courts and patrolling
The aforesaid measures may be complemented with a higher incidence of mobile courts with summary powers, of fine, tow-away, seizure, etc., if not imprisonment. Perhaps this is an area where civil administration officials can be given some magisterial authority (although I do think that the divestment of other magistracy powers from them was a right step). In addition, we need to increase highway patrolling through both the central Highway Patrol Police and the District Police. They can make do with locally available vehicles and a higher number of patrols and permanent roadside posts. This might also lessen the risks of other crimes on the highways and the harassment of peaceful demonstrators by overzealous baton-happy members of our law-enforcing friends.

Identity of vehicles and drivers
The government ought to make it obligatory for all owners and drivers of public transport to distribute leaflets to all passengers with details of the vehicles' registration, road tax, fitness certificate, insurance and identities of the owner and driver (with a copy of his licence), without transgressing the right to privacy of any. Alternatively, or in addition, photocopies of the concerned documents and the telephone numbers of highway and district police may be publicly displayed in the offices of bus companies. Most of the aforesaid measures may apply equally to riverine transport.

Developmental measures: Decentralised and outsourced highway maintenance
With regard to developmental measures, I have little to add to what has been said by several citizens over the past few weeks, with many of which I agree. These include the construction of wider highways with multiple lanes and road dividers, better road maintenance and repair, and discouragement of the growth of market centres hugging the highways and so forth.

Although it is primarily the responsibility of the government to construct and maintain roads, some of the maintenance and repair work can be outsourced to private companies for different sections of the highways. This can be financed from the government's treasury through indirect taxes. Alternatively, different sections of the highways' repair and maintenance can be funded by a direct tax, levied through toll stations from actual road-users of that particular stretch of highway.

I believe that such a practice exists in France and in several other countries of Western Europe.

Traffic in Dhaka and other cities and towns
Regulation of traffic in Dhaka and other urban centres could benefit from voluntary citizens' groups, including adult students, assisting traffic police at major jam-prone areas, particularly at rush hour. I have seen such volunteers, including old men, help enforce one-way systems in Dhanmondi very effectively. I don't know why such practices don't continue for long. Trucks enter Dhaka city much too early. At my suggestion, in 2008, the government put back the time before which trucks were forbidden to enter the city. I don't see why that time can't be midnight or thereabouts. Parking of buses and trucks in undesignated places is allegedly accelerated by “rent-seeking” by law-enforcers and local “mastans”, which too can be addressed, if not eliminated. Finally, the number of vehicles on certain portions of the city, and at certain times of the day, can be decreased through a road tax system. This has been done in Singapore. We have successfully made several major roads in Dhaka off-limits to rickshaws. We can continue this trend, and include three-wheelers as well. We should compensate this by offering more buses, trains and other public transport systems services. However, I would not support taking rickshaws off from other roads, especially in residential areas and other fringe localities, for environmental reasons and for the freedom it allows our women, children, the elderly and even some differently-abled citizens, to travel freely, independently and without fear. These measures may apply in all our metropolises and other smaller urban centres.

Morality, ethics and responsibility revisited
Flouting rules, whether legal -- e.g., traffic laws -- or social -- e.g., jumping a queue before a lift or a bus stop or at the airport -- is a common occurrence in Bangladesh. We have all experienced such events. I was once outraged at a parent-teacher meeting in an elite school in Dhaka, when I found that my place in the queue had been surreptitiously 'overtaken' by another parent. This gives us another lesson on “social class and morality”.

Have you noticed how city drivers honk when caught in a jam, as if the vehicle in front was intentionally sitting idle, whilst clearly seeing that the supposed idler vehicle was neither a helicopter nor a hovercraft? Have you also seen drivers at a traffic stop that take their cars so far front, and on to the zebra crossing, that they can't see the lights when they turn green, and move only when the car in the rear starts honking furiously? I used to have great fun, stopping my car behind such vehicles, but with enough distance to enable me to drive away at the green light, leaving the in-a-hurry but traffic-light-blind driver behind me!

I could go on. Let me come to the question of social class, gender and morality. Just compare the times you have been cheated by a rickshaw-puller with the times you have been cheated by an auto-rickshaw driver or yellow cab driver (in the metropolises). The bigger the vehicle, the higher the level of moral degradation of the person in charge! And although in several contexts women tend to be more honest than men, this doesn't hold true always. The queue-jumper at the school I mentioned was a woman. However, despite the sexist stories of “women drivers” (meaning “bad” drivers), I actually think that on average, women drive more safely than men, and hence, are better drivers.

All is not lost. Our present Education Minister provides a good example by queuing up in the Bangladesh Secretariat before the lifts, thereby preventing his overzealous bodyguards from manhandling other lift-users. I think that instances of flouting of social rules in some contexts at least, are gradually getting fewer. Queues at bus stops are more regulated than they were a decade ago. As a law student in England in the1980s, I was once acutely embarrassed to read a newspaper article with the headline “Bangladeshi students demonstrate for the right to cheat”. We've come a long way from that. Nowadays, more and more people protest against anti-social behaviour, whether it concerns queue-breaking, or discrimination based on gender and class, and to a lesser extent, where it concerns ethnic or religious affiliation. We can and must do the same in the case of violation of traffic laws. As I said earlier, ultimately, we must own up to our responsibilities as citizens and promote social mores that respect the rights of others not to be cheated or otherwise deprived of their rights.

Devasish Roy Wangza is the Chakma Raja and Chief of the Chakma Circle in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, an advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

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