Battery-run rickshaws, vans, easy bikes are seized and dumped in Bata Gate area in Gazipur by the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway
Al Amin

Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Indian TV journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, in a TV talk show, asked journalist P Sainath - why have thousands of people been walking home from Ghaziabad railway station even amid this dangerous pandemic? Don’t they have fear of contracting Covid-19? Sainath, in answer, said, Rajdeep, you have asked the wrong question. The question should have been – why have so many people come to Delhi and Mumbai leaving their croplands in villages? Why could the farmers of Bihar, Jharkhand or Punjab not survive by resorting to agriculture? Why were they forced to come to the cities leaving their homes behind? It is important for the media to find the answers to these questions.

For the few last months, Bata Gate and the T&T ground in Gazipur has become a dumping ground for seized easy bikes. Nearly 6,000 motorised rickshaws and easy bikes are kept at those two dumping stations. That means drivers of 6,000 engine-run rickshaws, vans and easy bikes have no sources of income for the last few months. Gazipur Metropolitan Police said to have seized the vehicles due to unbearable traffic jam. Amid this, however, there are allegations that police have been taking money to release the engine-run vehicles.

But the strangest thing is from the very outset the media has been supporting this seizing instead of highlighting the unjustness of the step against the poor people. The media is not raising questions on why the police are not detaining the people who import spare parts of the easy bikes. Why there is no ban on upscale showrooms where the parts of easy bikes are being sold rampantly? What is their understanding with the administration? What is the amount of “underhand dealing” between them?

It is the task of the media to observe, dive into the depth of any problem, analyse and raise these uncomfortable questions. But what has the Bangladeshi media done regarding easy bikes in the last few years? They have been carrying out reports depicting the battery-run vehicles as “villains”. It is said that easy bikes create traffic jams, consume electricity, and it are illegal.

Avoiding the infrastructural reasons of traffic jam the experts have identified, it is being tried to depict easy bikes as the “main villain” of traffic jam. Are the easy bike drivers responsible for the mega traffic jam created due to the ongoing mega projects in Gazipur for the last years? An easy bike driver is being shown as the person who “eats up” electricity avoiding the reality of massive plundering in the power sector in the last one decade. That means without touching the powerful authorities a large number of newspapers and TV channels of the country passed their verdict against the people who do not have any work otherwise.

We can’t overlook the fact that the media’s position is not against the influential spare parts’ importers, not against upscale showroom businesspersons, not even against the company that announced to bring several thousand easy bikes in the market every month. Media has taken stand only against the lungi-wearing easy bike driver!

What would have been the role of “mass media” if they were “mass media” in the true sense? Why this proliferation of easy bike? Why has it spread across the country? Who have been buying it and why? Why has the demand risen so much? Why the local production has increased? Why the import has risen suddenly? Wasn’t there any alternative? The answer to these questions would have revealed a rather sorry picture of socio-economic reality of villages and cities in Bangladesh. To understand the fast growth of local easy bike industry, we have to ask first why people come to cities leaving villages, why do they return to village again and then why do they come to cities again and drive auto-rickshaw.

Why don’t they work as farmhands?

One of the allegations against the easy bike drivers is these people spoil the system in cities whereas there is shortage of farmhands in villages. This is true that every year a shortage of farmhands appears during the harvesting season. But does this in any way suggest there is work abounding for them to survive?

We must not forget the demand of farmhands is not there round the year. For example, labourers are required for transplanting paddy during the rainy season; three-four people get the work for each bigha land. But they don’t have any work as farmhand in the next five months. How would they survive that time? The people, who advise the easy bike drivers to be farmhands do not have any headache for that.

This is also true that there is shortage of people during the harvesting period in winter. One of the main reasons of this is the brick kilns start productions at full swing after the rainy season of four-five months. Besides, there is the work of tree felling in the dry season. Several sectors of village economy remain active concurrently for a few months.

There will be shortage of labourers when harvesting, tree felling and operation of brick fields start simultaneously. It is true that getting labourers become tough then even at a rate of Tk 900 per day. But that is for four to five months only. The city dwellers, who allege “why don’t the easy bike drivers work as farmhands in villages”, do not even know that a large part of the village labourers, who remains jobless for six months of a year come to cities in search of work and work as easy bike drivers.

Why don’t they join apparel factories?

A shortage of workers has been going on in the apparel industries since last year for several reasons. Firstly, a large part of the skilled workers who went to villages did not return to cities. And, those who returned did not join at apparel factories.

The question is why so. It is being said for long that the demand of apparels has increased but jobs in the sector have not increased to that ratio. Rather, the condition of labourers has become more precarious. The poverty, lack of savings and amount of loan of the apparel industry workers was revealed during the pandemic.

It is the skilled workers who say that they can’t survive in the areas near Dhaka with the salary they get at the apparel factories. They also said it is not possible to continue work at readymade garments factories on the salary they get due to increased house rent, transport cost, hiking of gas and electricity prices regularly, and inflated price of food stuffs. That’s why the skilled workers said they have been trying to change their profession.

Many of the easy bike drivers in Gazipur said they worked in apparel industries before. They have borrowed money and bought the easy bikes as they lost jobs due to automation at sweater factories. Even the workers of 26 jute mills across the country, who were getting their money after losing jobs, were buying easy bikes as they could not get opportunities in any other sector. That means workers who were sacked, seasonal farmhands, or apparel workers who could not run their family expenses due to low wage – all have been surviving because of the easy biking. But is the Bangladeshi media that has been trying to portray the easy bike as “villains” did try even for once to understand and unearth this rather precarious social-economic reality?

Are the drivers solely responsible for such rise of easy bikes? Has the expansion of this industry happened by itself? Purchasing power of working class people has decreased; they can go to workplace spending only Tk 5-10 instead of taking a rickshaw ride for Tk 30; they can transport goods to market; they can whisk off their ailing parents to hospital; so, is there no role of this demand of the poor people in the expansion of easy bikes?

A country where nothing like the public transportation for the poor has been created, must the poor people who too are helping other poor arrive in their destination bear that responsibility? We accept they don’t understand social reality, but do they not understand ‘supply and demand’ either?’

Company’s ads in form of news

The media is apparently angry at traffic congestion. But look at the media that are running news that easy bikes cause accident and consume electricity and again a portion of them are also publishing long stories lauding the ease bike built by a new company. It looks like news, but this, in fact, is advertisement.

It is very normal that news will be published on a local company bringing new easy bike in the market. Who does not want the progress of the local industry? But this ‘news’ does not only praise the product of the company but also spread massive publicity against local mechanics living in villages across the country.

The main aspect of this news is how bad these locally and foreign-made ease bikes are, how much these vehicles pollute environment and how much electricity they consume. But, the same media is forgetting to ask their famous question completely; old easy bikes cause traffic congestion, will there not by any traffic jam by new easy bikes? Where will these 100,000 easy bikes of this new company run? Will these vehicles be operated on Mars?

The advertisement that looks like news also tries to hide another imformation, and that is the price of a local easy bike is Tk 100,000 to 200,000 whereas the price of easy bike of the new company is Tk 600,000, and it is possible to get a construction job with this amount of money in Jeddah or Kuwait. Now tell me if the old easy bikes of Tk 150,000 ply on the street, who will purchase the new easy bikes of Tk 600,000? Nobody will buy it. So, what is the way out? Though it is unbelievable, it is true that a writ was filed with the High Court on behalf of this new company on the allegation of stealing electricity so that movement of easy bikes stops on street. The court also orders no easy bikes will move on highway.

Now do the math. The new company has started producing thousands of easy bikes setting up its factory in Hotapara of Gazipur and these vehicles will be available in market soon. On top of that, it will also be app-based service and that means you will buy a vehicle for with Tk 600,000, but the company will keep a portion of driver’s income. The company by any means wants to ensure that this vehicle moves on streets uninterruptedly. But will it be sufficient to run this vehicle on the lane after investing Tk 600,000. If this vehicle cannot be operated on highways, who will purchase it? Will there be the return on investment by driving these vehicles in lane?

So, what is the conclusion then? Old ones are being seized and roads are being cleared so that vehicles of these companies can move on roads without facing hassle. That is why administration has been managed beforehand, and the rise in arrest and torture as well as writ at the court signal such message. Drivers will have no alternative but to charge more after making such a large investment amount of money and daily deposit to the company. Now the question is whether this affordable transportation liked by the poor will remain the transportation of the poor because of the trap of pro-affluent technology and torture of the pro-rich government, but many media are busy ensuing easy ‘entry’ of the new company to the market instead of raising these very necessary questions

Hearing the poor subjects have no bread to eat at home during the French revolution, Queen Marie Antoinette said, let them eat cake? Likewise, the publicity of the media against 4 million easy bikes is, “Easy bike owner do not get rice to eat, why do they not eat cake then?”

The writer is a development researcher.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Shameen Reza and Hasanul Banna