Green vegetables
File photo

We boarded a vegetable-carrying truck at Baya Bazar of Paba upazila in Rajshahi around 6:00pm on Tuesday. After travelling around 250 kilometers, we reached Dhaka on Wednesday morning.

It was surprising that the police did not stop the truck at any point of the trip, though there are strong allegations of extortion from goods-laden vehicles on the highways.

When asked, the truck driver revealed more surprising information that extortion is now being collected on the basis of monthly contract made between the two sides.

According to the trucker, they are provided with a card after paying Tk 2,000 in extortion. The police let the trucks go without any harassment if the cards are presented before them.

But when a driver fails to show the card, he often has to go through unwanted hassle, even after having all legal documents of the vehicle, added the driver.

He showed the extortion card and said it works at 310 spots on the highways across the country. Even then, some policemen collect a small sum of money from the truckers for having tea.

The Paba upazila of Rajshahi is familiar for vegetable cultivation. To know how the low-priced vegetables of Paba become costlier before reaching Dhaka people, we started the journey towards Dhaka on the vegetable truck.

Some 8 tonnes of vegetables, including raw papaya, ladies finger and malabar spinach, were on the truck operated by a driver and an assistant.

Before starting the journey, we learnt prices of the vegetables from the local traders. Each kilogram (KG) of ladies finger was selling at Tk 22-25 while papaya at Tk 14-15 per kg and Malabar spinach at Tk 12-15 per kg.

The truck started journey in the evening and gave a break at Baya Bazar after crossing several kilometers. There, a new driver hopped on and drove the truck to Dhaka.

It took around an hour to cross Amchattar and Belpukur of Rajshahi and enter Natore.

After travelling half an hour more, the truck reached Natore bypass intersection. There are allegations that the police regularly collect extortion stopping trucks at Amchattar, Belpukur and Natore bypass intersection.

The investigation report, released by the Department of Agricultural Marketing in February, also said that the police collect extortion from vehicles at these three points in addition to some other spots on the highway.

But the reality was found to be in stark contrast to the scenario painted in the allegations and in the investigation report as the police did not stop the truck at any of the spots.

Asked about the issue, the driver disclosed detailed information about the extortion card. He was carrying two cards – one was attached on the wind shield of the truck while the remaining one was in his pocket.

In further scrutiny, it was seen that the card in his pocket was printed with the truck’s registration number and an issue date. The opposite side was printed with the name of a transport agency -- Satkhira Transport Agency – and contact numbers of the truck and the agency.

The Satkhira Transport Agency plays the role of mediator between the police and the transport traders for extortion, revealed the driver.

The agency authorities make a deal with the police and arrange cards for the trucks. Even, the driver showed a list of areas where the police would not harass the truckers as per the deal.

Some 310 areas, to be more exact, names of police stations, police outposts and police boxes were mentioned in the list.

He claimed that the owners pay a monthly extortion of Tk 2,000 for each of the trucks under a central arrangement, to steer clear of harassment by the police on the highways.

A new card is issued each month once the extortion is paid through mobile financial services. The deadline for extortion payment is the fifth day of a month.

Even, there are arrangements to avoid cheating by the truckers. The contact number mentioned on the extortion card is replaced with a new one each month.

If a driver does not pay extortion and face the police with the old card, he cannot seek help from the kingpins as he finds the contact number printed on the card switched off.

When contacted the Satkhira Transport Agency through the given number on Wednesday evening, the man on the other side asked the caller’s identity first. He was repeatedly asking, “From which driver did you get this number?”

The man at one stage cut off the line failing to glean desired answer from this correspondent. However, he called back few moments later and repeated his previous query.

The man also claimed that he has no connection with the Satkhira Transport Agency and started hurling abuses at one point.

An entity was found in Satkhira in the name of Satkhira Transport Agency. When a Prothom Alo correspondent contacted the agency, one Sheikh Boni, identifying himself as the owner’s son, said their business was shut down three and half years ago.

The business leaders at a view exchange event organized by the Federation of Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FBCCI) on Saturday alleged that the essentials’ prices are going up due to hidden extortion collected by the police on the highways and by the influential quarters at the kitchen markets. The extortion has been quite similar to toll collection.

Asked about collecting extortion through card, spokesperson for the police headquarters and additional inspector general (AIG) of police Md Kamruzzaman told Prothom Alo, “I am not aware of the issue. Steps will be taken after investigation, if a complaint is lodged through the IGP complain cell or AIG (media).”

Earlier on 2 April, the police headquarters issued a directive asking the police personnel not to stop goods-laden trucks on the highways without certain allegations.

People familiar with the goods transportation sector said extortion is now taking place all over the country on a monthly basis without stopping vehicles on the roads.

It seems that the influential people operate their own transport companies and allow the general owners to run vehicles under the companies. They collect a certain amount of money from the general owners, distribute it among the police and other influential quarters, and also keep a big portion of the money for their own.

Md Rustam Ali, the president of Bangladesh Road Transport Owners Association and the general secretary of Bangladesh Truck-Covered Van Owners Association, alleged that the truckers become subjected to cases containing fines of Tk 20,000 to Tk 25,000 in failure to show a particular card. Extortion is being carried out across the country through this card system.

It is worth mentioning that around 1.5 lakh trucks and covered vans now ply on the roads.

Price in Dhaka market 

The fare of the truck we embarked on from Paba in Rajshahi was Tk 17,000. It means that each kg of vegetables was carried to Dhaka at a cost of little more than Tk 2.

While visiting the Karwan Bazar kitchen market on Wednesday, each kg of ladies finger, which was at Tk 22 to 25 in Paba, was selling at the Dhaka market at Tk 60.

The price rose to Tk 80 when this correspondent visited the Hatirpool kitchen market, few kilometers away from the previous one. In the same way, the consumers were counting Tk 40 to buy each kg of papaya, which was selling at Tk 14-15 in Paba.

Loading goods from Kanchpur of Dhaka, the truck departed for Rajshahi on Wednesday evening. The driver talked to this correspondent in the night and disclosed that he had to pay Tk 60 in the name of the Dhaka South City Corporation and Tk 400 to the transport association and linemen at various spots while leaving Dhaka.