The Emad Paribahan bus which met with an accident resulting in 19 deaths on the Padma Bridge Expressway did not have any route permit or fitness certificate. Yet the bus would regularly ply the Dhaka-Khulna route. Hundreds of such buses are operating illegally in several south and south-western districts of the country via Padma Bridge. Among them are the buses of big companies including Green Line, Hanif, Sohag, Ena, Unique, Golden Line and so on.
According to various transport companies, the rush of passengers from southern region increased after the Padma Bridge was opened. The companies have also applied for route permits with the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) to run more buses. But BRTA is not issuing the permits due to objections from Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC). As a result, the owners are operating buses on the roads without permission, simply 'appeasing' the police. In the process, unfit buses are also plying freely through this expressway. Besides, reckless speed increases road accidents.
Despite the anarchy, no effective steps are being taken to bring order to traffic on the expressway. While route permits were stopped due to the decision of the city corporation authorities, they say that this is the responsibility of the the police and BRTA. On the other hand, a BRTA official told Prothom Alo that BRTA does not have the manpower or the facilities to check whether the buses on the roads have route permits or whether their permits have been suspened. The police can take action at any time. It is difficult to enforce punishment if the police turn a blind eye.
According to BRTA sources, the Emad Paribahan bus met with another accident in Gopalganj in November as well, that leading to the death of three people at the time. Its route permit was suspended. After Sunday's crash that killed 19 people, its registration was canceled and legal action is underway against the owner.
Sources related to the transport sector said people with political or business influence are operating more buses on this route. Other companies cannot operate without permission which is why there are less options left for passengers. In many cases, passengers have been charged extra fare. The government too is being deprived of the revenue it receives from the bus route permit.
Almost nine months have passed since the government inaugurated the Padma Bridge. It was hoped that the south and south-western parts of the country would benefit immediately from the bridge as there would be no hassle of using ferries. But DSCC wrote a letter to block the approval of buses passing through the Padma Bridge on the pretext that permitting more buses would create traffic congestion on the Mayor Hanif flyover. Following this, BRTA has stopped granting route permits. Letters were exchanged between the City Corporation and BRTA for nearly seven months without any resolution. Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr are around the corner when the pressure will increase on the route. People fear there may be a bus crisis due to the situation.
Before the opening of Padma Bridge, buses were plying on 12 routes from Dhaka's Sayedabad via Mawa to the south and south-west through ferry crossings. There were more than 30 routes from Gabtali to the southern region. After the opening of the bridge, most of the bus routes from Gabtali in 21 districts of the South and South-Western region have changed and buses are plying through the Padma Bridge. Among them most of the buses for Shariatpur, Madaripur, Faridpur, Gopalganj, Barishal division, Khulna, Satkhira and Jashore are moving through Padma Bridge. Those buses include many dilapidated buses.
Transport companies said that most of the companies are unable to operate buses as per demand due to lack of route permits. The owners of the companies that used to ply on the 12 routes earlier are not able to get permission for additional buses.
How the complications began
Chief Executive Officer of Dhaka South City Corporation is the chairman of the committee responsible for development and controlling traffic under Mayor Hanif flyover. As many as 15 decisions were made in the meeting of this committee on 5 September last year. One of the decisions was to write to the chairman of BRTA requesting not to give any new route permit on the Jatrabari-Postogola route via Mayor Hanif flyover. The chief engineer of the DSCC wrote to the chairman of BRTA on 8 September.
The BRTA chairman later sought the opinion of the secretary of the road transport and highways division. The secretary's office advised BRTA to approach the city corporation for permission to ply buses under the flyover. BRTA wrote to the executive director of Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA) on 2 November last year and requested to raise the matter in the meeting of the committee responsible for rationalisation of bus routes in urban transport. DSCC mayor Sheikh Fazle Noor Tapas is the president of this committee. Seven months have passed, but the matter is yet to be settled. Therefore, permission to operate buses under the flyover remained stalled as well.
BRTA chairman Nur Mohammad Mazumder told Prothom Alo that discussions are underway with the DSCC regarding route permits. In the meantime, the law enforcement forces will look into the matter if anybody operates the bus illegally. Meanwhile BRTA will carry out drives through mobile courts.
BRTA sources say that after Padma Bridge was opened, they received around 500 applications for bus route permits. But after receiving the letter from the city corporation, they stopped issuing route permits to these buses. In the past 7 months, about 500 more applications have been submitted. These buses are plying illegally even though BRTA withholds permission.
Managing director of Ena Paribahan and Secretary General of Bangladesh Road Transport Owners Association, Khondkar Enayet Ullah told Prothom Alo that thousands of illegal rickshaws are causing traffic jams in the city. Instead of stopping those rickshaws DSCC has decided to stop the bus permits because of which the passengers are suffering. He claimed they are being harassed because of some buses running illegally. He said, if the city corporation builds a terminal outside the city, their buses will no longer enter the city.
DSCC chief engineer Saleh Ahmed told Prothom Alo, after the Padma Bridge was opened, vehicles from all over the country started taking this route, which became hard to manage. Police department also urged to reduce the pressure which is why it was decided to stop gicing new permission.
He said, the development works under Mayor Hanif flyover will be finished within two months. Some preparatory work is underway. Permission for plying buses under the flyover may be approved then. Asked about operating unfit buses, he said, it is the police and BRTA who should see to it.
Additional Inspector General of Highway Police Shahabuddin Khan told Prothom Alo that reckless speeding is the main reason for road accidents. Police filed around 14,000 cases last year for reckless speed. Police will take stricter actions against those flouting traffic rules including vehicle fitness, speeding, route permit.
Proper use of Padma Bridge
The governmentconstructed the Padma Bridge at a cost of about Tk 328.75 billion. One of the objectives was to make the communication faster with the south through this bridge. Mayor Hanif flyover has been constructed at a cost of Tk 21.08 billion for quick exit and entry from the capital Dhaka. A 55 km wide expressway has been constructed from Dhaka to Faridpur's Bhanga to take advantage of the Padma Bridge at the cost of about Tk 110.44 billion. But now Mayor Hanif flyover is struggling to take the pressure of traffic from Padma Bridge.
There was an initial projection of 23,954 vehicles plying daily on Padma Bridge when it was inaugurated in June 2022. The traffic is expected to increase to 36,785 by 2030. The four-lane bridge has a maximum capacity of 75,000 vehicles per day. At present, an average of 15,000 vehicles are crossing through the bridge daily. The daily toll collection is about Tk 2 billion.
The authorities made an assumption in advance that opening Padma Bridge would create additional traffic pressure in Dhaka. For this, some projects were recommended in Dhaka's 20-year transport plan. Most of these have not been implemented.
Sources in the ministry of road transport say that the alternative roads that are supposed to be built around Dhaka to reap the maximum benefit of the Padma Bridge are unlikely to be operational within the next five years.
Transport expert and director of BUET's Accident Research Institute professor Shamsul Hoque told Prothom Alo that the Padma Bridge was not built in a day. It was necessary to take the matter of congestion in the city caused by traffic from Padma Bridge into account. Bus owners are running buses illegally for public demand. Now nobody is taking the responsibility to look into whether the vehicles have the necessary permits and thus ensure that passengers are not cheated. This lack of coordination is largely responsible for the chaos in the transport sector.
*This report, originally published in the print edition, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Likat