Passenger safety restricted to law, not roads

Rape and robbery took place in this bus which has started out from KushtiaFile Photo

Transport owners and workers cannot shrug off the responsibility for robbery and rape taking place on buses. Along with the road transport act aimed at the safety of passengers, the government has issued all sorts of directives to this end, but these are totally ignored. The law enforcement has failed to ensure that public transport adheres to the law. Questions have also arisen concerning the government's political will in restoring order to the roads.

One of the main conditions to getting permission to operate buses on the inter-district routes is that the buses must only stop at the fixed stoppages in the district sadar or district headquarters. Passengers can't be picked up randomly along the way. However, passengers will be able to alight where they need. According to the road transport act, all bus drivers and workers must have appointment letters and be paid monthly wages. Most transport companies do not heed this clause of the law. The bus owners run their buses on a contractual basis with the drivers. That is why the bus drivers and workers pick up passengers randomly wherever they can in hope of making more money. It was in doing so that that on Tuesday night the robbery and the gang rape of a woman took place in Tangail on an Eagle Express bus.

Transport sector experts, analysing the accident, said that there were no safety measures for the passengers on the Eagle Express bus. The bus was violating the laws and the regulations. The bus started out for Narayanganj from Daulatpur in Kushtia on Tuesday evening. After crossing Bangabandhu Bridge late at night, the robbers got on the bus at three different spots in the guise of passengers. They tied up the passengers at gunpoint, blindfolding and gagging them. The robbers were in control of the bus for three hours. They took away the passengers' mobile phones, money and other valuables. The rape took place then too.

According to Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), there is no permission for buses to take the route from Kushtia to Narayanganj via Pabna, Natore and Sirajganj. Eagle Express is using these routes without approval. Transport sector exports also find it abnormal for the attention of the police not to be caught by a bus running three hours in control of the robbers.

BRTA sources said that Eagle Express's route permission was for the Dhaka-Pabna route. However, it was operating buses along the Kushtia-Narayanganj route.

Eagle Express owner Solaiman Huq, speaking to Prothom Alo, said he took the route permit for Kushtia to Chattogram but takes the bus only up till Narayanganj. When it was pointed out that there is no Kushtia-Chattogram route on the BRTA list, he had no reply. About picking up passengers along the way, he said the drivers and the workers were doing this to make a profit. Then when it was pointed out that the drivers and workers were supposed to be salaried, he said most of the buses run on contract.

When robbery and other crimes increased on the roads in the nineties, the government had directed that steel bars be installed, separating the driver from the passengers. This barrier is still seen in some of the long-distance buses, but once the passengers enter the bus, the barrier is not kept shut. If the Eagle Express bus had this enclosure, the robbers wouldn't have been able to take over the bus from the driver.

In 2005 the Highway Police unit was formed for safety on the roads. Basically, this unit takes action when any major accident takes place on the highways. It assists the police in catching the criminals when robbery, rape and such crimes take place on the highway. But the highway police are not very active in setting up check posts or strengthening patrolling along the highways. They say they have inadequate manpower and equipment. The highway police has near around 3000 members at present.

Additional superintendent of police Md Shamsul Alam Sarkar of the highway police unit, speaking to Prothom Alo, said, after the Tangail incident, it was through cooperation with the local police that the criminals could be caught. When asked why robbery and rape was not coming to a halt on buses, he replied that such incidents of rape and robbery do not happen all the time. Initiative is being taken to increase the use of IT to thwart such incidents.

No tangible efforts for passenger safety

Dhaka Metropolitan Police had spoken of setting up a special device in every bus at the beginning of this year to bring bus robberies and other crimes under control. The buses would be fitted with certain buttons. If there were any indications of robbery or any other danger on the bus, pressing the button would alert the police super of the area where the bus was located, the bus owner and the national emergency service number 999.

DMP commissioner Shafiqul Islam in February has told the media that they wanted to catch every robber. Once the technology was in place, the safety of the passengers, transport owners, drivers and bus assistants would be ensured. But no progress has been made in this matter, according to police and transport owner sources.

When the highway police unit was launched in 2005, a video of the passengers would be recorded at the start of the long-route trips. That is not carried out anymore.

If a bus is allowed to stop at 3:00am in the night to pick up passenger, naturally robbers will enter the bus, not good people
Mozammel Huq Chowdhury, secretary general of the passenger welfare association

Secretary general of Bangladesh transport owners association Khandakar Enayet Ullah told Prothom Alo, if video recordings were made of the passengers at the start of the journey and before the end, robberies would decrease. The recording could be done even during the journey break when the bus halts at a hotel. He said the number of robberies had decreased. If passengers were not picked up along the way and the number of highway police and check posts could be increased, then the robberies would decrease even further. He said the owners' association would extend their cooperation to the government in this regard.

Rape and sexual harassment on buses

Bangladesh Passenger Welfare Association has records of rapes and sexual harassment on public transport from 2016 to 2019. After the corona outbreak, the records were no longer taken. According to the organisation, in those four years, 134 rapes, 42 gang rapes and 91 incidents of sexual harassment took place on public transport.

Over the past few years, bus robbery and rape in Tangail has created alarm around the country. A young girl was raped on 25 August 2017 on a bus en route Mymensingh from Bogura. She was then killed and her body disposed of in the Modhupur forest of Tangail. The bus driver and assistants were involved in the incident.

Secretary general of the passenger welfare association Mozammel Huq Chowdhury told Prothom Alo, if a bus is allowed to stop at 3:00am in the night to pick up passenger, naturally robbers will enter the bus, not good people. If passengers are not picked up from other than at the designated stoppages and if the highway police step up their activity, robbery and rape would decrease. He said, the transport owners and workers do not heed the law. The law enforcement and BRTA do not carry out their duties properly. That is why the inevitable occurs.