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The exterior of most of the buses and minibuses in Dhaka looks faded and dilapidated. There are no rear indicator lights. The seats are uncomfortable and the buses are crowded. In summer, the people are packed together, sweating. And it is equally inconvenient in the rainy season and winter. The buses of the state-owned Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC) are in the same pitiful condition.

According to Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), currently about 8,000 buses and minibuses are authorized to operate in Dhaka and its neighboring areas. However, sources say the figure fluctuates. Many companies operate buses more than they are allowed. On the other hand, many don’t launch buses even after getting approval.

According to a 2009 study of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), passenger commute in buses and minibuses more than 5.8 million times a day in Dhaka, which is 67.4 per cent of the total travelling by motor vehicles. Numerous passengers commute on the Mirpur-Gulistan, Uttara-Motijheel, Gabtali-Jatrabari routes. The passengers have to pay considerably more than the fixed fares. Why are Dhaka's buses in such a pitiful condition?

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People involved with the transport sector said the fault lies everywhere, from approving the route permits to the management system in Dhaka. Anyone with political influence can open a company and launch buses on any route. Then the owners of the company begin extortion. Transport owners give the buses to drivers and workers on contract. They then operate the buses on other routes for more money. As a result, new buses also become dilapidated within a few months.

The transport system underwent changes in Gulshan after the militant attack at Holey Artisan Bakery in the upscale area in 2016. New buses, ‘Dhaka Chaka’, were launched. The buses ply at certain intervals and do not race. Passengers are picked up at specific points.

'Dhaka Chaka' buses leave from the end point of Madani Avenue in Baridhara and runs along the nearby Pragati Sarani. On Sunday it was seen that the buses are in good condition. The paint is fine, the lights and indicators are in good shape. Yet the regular buses are in a sad shape, with cracked paint and broken windows. The records of two normal buses and two Dhaka Chaka buses were compared. All were registered in 2016 and 2017 meaning that these vehicles were less than five years old.

Year-old plan to cut routes

The government in cooperation of World Bank took a 20-year Strategic Transport Plan (STP) in 2005. It added the construction of infrastructure including metro rail and flyovers. However, the STP advised modernising the bus system prior to building infrastructure. So, a decision was taken to initiate franchise system for bus routes.

The government is constructing a metro rail line on Uttara-Motijheel route at the cost of Tk 220 billion (Tk 22,000 crore). The government plans to spend more than Tk 1,000 billion (100,000 crore) to build another five metro rail lines. The cost of five flyovers is more than Tk 40 billion (4,000 crore). But the bus system hasn’t been modernized in 15 years.

Road transport and bridge ministry, local government ministry and Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK) implement the development projects in the capital. According to the sources at these organisations, government offices are more interested in projects involving big infrastructures. It makes the public happy. People involved with the projects also enjoy privileges. But modernising the bus system doesn’t require much money. It requires a good will.

Most of the buses and minibuses running in the capital don’t have lights and indicators at the rear. Drivers of the vehicles behind these buses can in no way understand when the buses are going to stop or turn

In 2015, mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation at the time, Annisul Huq, took initiative to reform the bus-management system. The plan had progressed too. The responsibility then fell on mayor Sayeed Khokon following the death of Annisul Huq. Sayeed Khokon spent five years holding meetings. Now Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh is the mayor of Dhaka South City Corporation. The last decision is that initially a fund of Tk 1 billion (Tk 100 crore) will be sought from the government for the project. The incumbent mayor wants to launch buses under new method at least on a route by next April.

Buses in a bad shape

Most of the buses and minibuses running in the capital don’t have lights and indicators at the rear. Drivers of the vehicles behind these buses can in no way understand when the buses are going to stop or turn. Buses have no side-view mirrors either.

According to the Road Transport Act, there must be 52 seats in a bus and 30 seats in a minibus. The distance between two seats must be 26 inches. But transport owners of Dhaka place the seats at their will. As a result, passenger sits cramped in the seat.

General secretary of Dhaka Road Transport Owners’ Association, Khandaker Enayet Ullah, said transport business is not profitable in Dhaka because of traffic jams. This sector lacks discipline. Most of all, owners don’t want to take the investment risk, he added

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Willful owners and workers

As per the laws, transport drivers and workers are required to be appointed on a monthly salary. But buses are operated in Dhaka following two methods. The first rule is that bus owners fix the number of trips of and the earning target. At the end of the day, driver and workers get a share. Another one is that owners lease the buses to driver and workers in exchange of a certain amount of money. The owners get the fixed amount while the driver and workers share the rest of the money.

Two bus drivers of Gabtali-Jatrabari route said an owner receives Tk 3000 to Tk 4000 daily, excluding all other expenses. Then they have to earn for themselves and their two assistants. If they start driving early morning, they don’t get to relax till midnight. They have to do everything, preventing other buses, driving recklessly, stopping their buses here and there to get more passengers.

No real move to stop unfit buses

In 2009, the government announced that no unfit vehicles would be allowed be to ply anymore. Obaidul Quader made the announcement three times after becoming the road transport minister in 2011. The tenure of the government came to an end but the announcement remains a mere announcement.

The new government came to power after the election of 5 January 2014. Obaidul Quader got the same portfolio in the new cabinet. He then reiterated his plan to remove unfit vehicles from the road. The tenure of that government came to an end. Obaidul Quader had a similar responsibility after the government was formed once again in 2019. But the condition of the buses has not improved.

Chairman of BRTA, Nur Mohammad Mazumder, said BRTA mobile courts continue the drive to stop the movement of dilapidated buses.

Efforts are underway to strengthen its activities. A new system to operate buses will be launched on a new route soon on a pilot basis, he added.

Cheating on seating

According to the terms of the operating permit for public transport, no bus and minibus is allowed to carry passengers beyond seating capacity without a few exceptions. However, a provision of the registration states that if authorities concerned want, buses can carry 10 more passengers standing. In that case, the ceiling of the bus will be 6ft high and the space inside it will be 18in wide.

But no bus in Dhaka follows these rules. Double fare is charged in the name of ‘seating’ service while local buses remain crowded.

All of a sudden, BRTA started a drive on April 2017 to stop the seating services. Then owner and workers cut down on their buses trips. BRTA formed a committee to put forward recommendations on the matter. The committee submitted its report after six months proposing to separate fares for seating and local buses. But it wasn’t implemented.

Either the government is not interested in low-budget projects or they have become hostage to the transport owners. It is high time to modernise the bus system in the big cities including Dhaka. Spending money later will be of no use
Moazzem Hossain, professor of civil engineering, BUET and transport expert,

In the city of traffic jam

According to a 2018 study of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology’s (BUET) Accident Research Institute, the average speed of vehicles in Dhaka is 5.5 km per hour, which is walking speed, while the financial losses stands nearly Tk 370 billion (Tk37,000 crore) annually due to traffic jams.

Most of the buses can’t travel to the destinations back and forth more than five times due to traffic jams. Passengers don’t get buses during the peak hours.

A study released by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) and Brac University last year highlighted the bus crisis in the capital. It said there are 30 buses per 100,000 people in Dhaka. But more numbers of buses ply in the cities, including Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hong Kong and London, where there are metro rail facilities.

On the one hand, buses are not being used to their full capacity since vehicles have got stuck in traffic, but on the other, the number of buses are also less in proportion to the people. As a result, commuters in Dhaka have to face quite a struggle while travelling to or from office.

AC buses gone

Air conditioned (AC) vehicles are plying in Dhaka under ride sharing services. Commuters are seen standing in a queue for long to get into AC buses in Gulshan. BRTC’s AC buses brought from South Korea had attracted a good number of passengers. But AC buses on Dhaka streets are not available despite having demand. AC buses had been launched under the name of Trans Millennium, Nirapad and Road Star in the capital after 2000. But they didn’t last.

Transport owners say AC buses are not so sturdy and costlier. Less costly buses don’t last long. Besides, many don’t dare launch expensive buses fearing the race among buses.

Extortion and frequent changes in decision

There was no organised system for bus companies in Dhaka before 2001. Individuals would buy buses and then transport passengers. So they became victims of extortion here and there. Operation of company-based buses had been encouraged during the tenure of the 4-party alliance government after 2001. So, leaders and influential people of the ruling party rushed to form companies. If an influential individual or a political leader launched one or two buses by opening a company, other bus owners would operate their vehicles under it. In exchange, owners of the company would receive large amount of money.

Transport sources said, 'toll' is being realised in the name of gate passes, travel costs, route cost, office management, etc. The amount of 'toll' varies based on the company, from Tk 700 to Tk 1700 daily.

However, companies had set up counters on the intersections in Dhaka during the 4-party alliance government. Passengers would stand in a queue to get into the buses. The practice died after Awami League formed the government in 2009. But operation of company-based buses and extortion continues. Now lawmakers and leaders of Awami League dominate the list of the initiators of the companies.

Professor of civil engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology’s (BUET) and transport expert, Moazzem Hossain, told Prothom Alo that people of Dhaka will be benefit from metro rail, being built at a cost of Tk 1,400 billion (Tk 140,000 crore), after 2030.

On the other hand, it would be possible to modernise the bus system in the country’s 10 big cities including Dhaka by spending Tk 50 billion (Tk 5000 crore) only. It will take maximum one year. But the government isn’t going for it. Either the government is not interested in low-budget projects or they have become hostage to the transport owners. It is high time to modernise the bus system in the big cities including Dhaka. Spending money later will be of no use, he added.

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

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