Abrar was crushed to death under the wheels of a bus. The news of his death hit the headlines and was accompanied by many other reports that day. Prothom Alo reported on the first page about a mother, Elora Parveen, being killed along with her six-year-old son Sajib Ahmed, by a truck while going to visit Jaflong. On 19 March Prothom Alo reported that 11 persons had been killed in various road accidents around the country. The ‘march of death’ has almost become a cliché and we have become hardened to such news.
Seven people were killed in brushfire in the hills. Within a day, another person was killed in the area. There are killings all over. According to official reports, 35,982 persons have been killed all over the country from 2010 to 2018. It would seem callous to reduce this to a mere statistic, but it is the age numbers. The annual rate of killings stands at 3998, nearly 4000.
Then there are the deaths caused by poor medical treatment, workplace accidents, drowning, ferry capsize, etc.
It was around 2002 that deaths caused directly by the state began. Over one and a half decades have passed since then, but such killings continue. Of course, the state denies responsibility. These deaths are attributed to heart attacks, crossfire, gun fights, encounters, drug dealers killing each other in clashes and so on. The ‘titles’ of these killings merely change.
Then there is more. This writer may have not have a large family, but it is not too small either if you count the domestic help, drivers and other assistants. Over the past three months at least one person or the other among them has been coughing. That means visiting the physician, prescriptions, medicines, and so on. Dhaka’s air quality is now the worst in the world. Added to that is water pollution, sound pollution, all sorts of environmental hazards, and adulteration of eggs, milk, medicines and more. The deaths caused by such reasons do not make newspaper or TV news headlines. It is neglect by the state, or in some cases with direct connivance of the state, that these deaths occur, but remain unaccounted.
The state at times conducts various ‘drives’. There is the drive being carried out on the banks of Buriganga and Turag. They must have been in deep sleep all these years, but at least their slumber has been broken for some time. There is the drive against adulterated food. We consume rotten toxic food and the state pockets the fines.
I can’t resist coming up with a recommendation about the drive against adulterated food. A notice should be prominently displayed for two weeks or a month in front of the concerned establishment, announcing that it has been fined x amount for selling or producing adulterated food. If not, we read about all this in the papers and forget about it in a day or two while the state walks away with the fines. We suffer and the state benefits.
It is clear that the state is no longer ours. It belongs to a specific group. This group’s identity and face changes from time to time, but at the end of the day, the state belongs to this coterie. It is a limited number of individuals of the ruling class who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the mega projects and the development economy which revolves around these big projects. This is true in many countries and now is very much true in ours. The number of wealthy in our country is increasing rapidly, while people who cannot have three square meals a day are the highest in number too, with the exception of perhaps a handful of other countries.
The students have raised justified demands following Abrar’s death. Abrar himself had raised similar demands as an active participant of the safe road movement about eight months ago. It is clear that the students will not be satisfied with verbal commitments. They want to see tangible and immediate measures to prevent road accidents. Their demands reflect the demands of each and every citizen of the country.
People are being killed every day. It is the protestors who can awaken the slumbering state. This is a movement to save lives. Our lives cannot be in constant threat – going on an errand to the shops never to return, leaving for the office but never coming back home, becoming a corpse before reaching school or college, or even being killed as part of a wedding entourage, all the hopes and joy being transformed into grief. Steps must be taken.
However, given the position where the state has reached, it may not take any effective measures. The institutions which are to take these measures are almost crippled. When a state is focused on appeasing a certain clique and stoking its power, it loses its ability to serve the people. Maybe our state has come to that point. It has seemed to have a genuine intention of setting things straight during the last movement for safe roads when very young students took to the streets. However, it has all been reduced to eyewash – occasional traffic weeks and checking the papers of a few vehicles. After all, anything more than this may put a dent in the coffers of the ruling coterie.
The roads must be rendered safe. Significant changes are needed for this. A peaceful and organised movement is required to clamp down on those unjustly reaping benefits from the transport sector, aided and abetted by the state. The movement against such violence cannot be a violent movement.
It has always been the youth, the students, who have been the drivers of change in this country. It is possible to ensure safe roads. Other countries have traffic too, have buses and trucks, have pedestrians, but their roads are safe. We read that a foot over-bridge is being constructed in Abrar’s name. All well and good, but an over-bridge here, an underpass there, painting zebra crossings and hurried haphazard measures won’t bring safety to the streets. Those who are illegally minting millions from the roads must be reined in. The students can do this. Such deaths can no longer be tolerated.
* Dr Shahdeen Malik is a lawyer of the Supreme Court and teaches law at the University of Asia Pacific. This piece appeared in Bangla in the print version of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir.