In an interview with Prothom Alo, transportation and safety expert and professor of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology Md Shamsul Hoque has talked about existing mismanagement and disorder in transport and communication sector of the country. He also suggested some possible way outs. Mizanur Rahman Khan has taken the interview.
Prothom Alo: How different is the version of casualties on roads given by the police and that by the newspapers?
Md Shamsul Hoque: Two versions are polar opposite. While police say 10 people are killed a day on average on the roads, the newspapers say the number is double. World Health Organisation (WHO), on the other hand, maintains the number to be as much as 30. I think the WHO statistics are accurate. Even our newspaper version of the casualties is not correct. Police stations keep records of the deaths on the highways only. The financial losses incurred by casualties on the roads amount to Tk 200 billion annually. This is an indicator of poor road management of the country.
Prothom Alo: What is the main obstacle to road management system?
Md Shamsul Hoque: Lack of scientific outlook in road management. Highways are needed, but we have a few or not at all. Vehicles need to be safe and fit but we lack that too. Also, mental competence and fitness of the drivers are very important while they are driving on highways. Our drivers seriously lack in that aspect. That is why the local people do not like speeding vehicles and put up speed breakers on their own. We need to correct our systems. But there is no indication of that.
We are seeing a lot development work on highways nowadays. But, infrastructural development and system correction are two different things. We are going through infrastructural development without any effort to change the existing faulty system. Development work will not resolve road communication problems. These development activities would fall flat.
Prothom Alo: Do you see any change after removing Shahjahan Khan from his cabinet portfolio and making him convener of the road transport development committee?
Md Shamsul Hoque: I do not see any change. But we know that the government doesn’t lack recommendations. We form committees and resort to foreign experts for suggestions which result in taking up new projects such as constructing new flyovers, transforming single-lane highways to double-lane ones and double-lane highways into four-lanes ones. Despite all the development work, unnecessary sharp turns in the highways remain same. Buildings and supermarkets alongside those turns just stand as they are. So, the system remains faulty.
Prothom Alo: Can you specify a bit more?
Md Shamsul Hoque: We have to give utmost importance to public transport and pedestrians to make roads of Dhaka city safe. A total of 54 per cent of the victims of road accident are pedestrians. We have to make our footpaths pedestrian-friendly and decrease the number of small vehicles from roads. It is important to promote big vehicles capable of commuting more passengers. Seven flyovers are doing half the work and remaining half have become a thorn in flesh. Flyovers have increased the number of small vehicles on the roads. Our experts are famed worldwide but we are not using them. We are rather implementing projects based on presentations given by foreigners. We can say we are suffering from project-jam.
Prothom Alo: What is the difference between the scenario of traffic jams before and after construction of those seven flyovers?
Md Shamsul Hoque : Urban planners worldwide know that flyovers do not help in decreasing traffic jam. We constructed seven flyovers spending a whopping amount of Tk 60 billion. The average speed of vehicles in Dhaka city was 25 kilometers per hour when that project was initiated in 2004 on suggestion of a US company. The speed has decreased to only 6.4 kilometers per hour in 2015 according to Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) estimation. I assume that the speed has decreased further. Flyover ramps have shrunk the roads and footpaths.
Prothom Alo: Does it mean that those are not being of any use?
Md Shamsul Hoque: Of course. We are heading in the wrong direction. Foreigners evaluate a project after its completion to see if it does fulfill the desired goal. They do it to learn from their mistakes. But we do not evaluate any of our projects following completion and we do not want to learn. Not only that, we have not taken any steps to increase the speed, rather have done everything to intensify the problem further. It has already become too late even if we now understand the mistake. A master plan on highways, local roads and connecting roads should have been taken 20 years back. As a result, metropolitan cities including Dhaka are experiencing perennial traffic jam. So many infrastructures have been built surrounding the roads that it has become impractical to remove all those illegal structures.
Prothom Alo: Your comment is frustrating. Will metro rail give some respite? At least will it increase the speed to 25 kilometers per hour from 6? What does your study indicate?
Md Shamsul Hoque: It will give some comfort to people of different regions. Those who live in Shewrapara, Senpara Porbota will reach Bangladesh Bank in 37 minutes. Passengers aboard MRT would not experience any traffic jam. MRT will provide some sort of reliability. Unlike flyovers, it will not encroach upon roads or footpaths. People will use escalators, lifts or stairways. The main feature of MRT is it will not create any pressure on the transport system.
Prothom Alo: Can we hope that the traffic jams will disappear?
Md Shamsul Hoque: I would have been happy to give you that guarantee but I can’t. Traffic jams would not just dissipate with the introduction of MRT. It was one of the many solutions of the problem. A holistic plan is needed which we seriously lack. Mismanagement on roads will not stop unless the present system of providing driving license changes. Say for example, making fit drivers require outsourcing but it is not in the government’s plan. Construction of BRT and MRT costs USD 30 billion but it will only solve 17 per cent Dhaka city’s transport problem, says JICA estimation. Solution of 40 per cent problem depends on public transport system such as bus. Otherwise, the indiscipline in public transport would persist. But the government fails to change the scenario.
Into its third consecutive term, the government knows very well that who will resist any reform in this sector. I asked the ministers to take measures at the first night of their third term. I had more expectations from a mature government.
Prothom Alo: Give us some hope. What is the way out?
Md Shamsul Hoque: Our prime minister is now in a position to do near impossible things. Some might say she is authoritarian. But she can deliver.
Prothom Alo: Can you tell us about the priorities which she can identify through this interview?
Md Shamsul Hoque: To bring order in this chaotic sector, the prime minister should select a special team of technical advisors. Bangladeshi communication experts are working in high positions in the US, UK, Australia and Saudi Arabia. They will come back if prime minister calls them. Proper research, planned implementation of projects and creating a maintenance based system should be prioritized. BRTA should be forced in controlling drivers and giving permission to new vehicles. Only 5 companies should be given permission to run buses. We need authority of five owners instead that of five thousand drivers. No countries of the world think twice about return of investment in education and communication sector. The prime minister should take initiatives to ensure sustainable development in 2030. There is a golden opportunity before her.
Development activities worth billions of taka are being carried out at the prime minister’s behest, but system is not being amended. All activities bound to slow down if transport sector remains dysfunctional. There is no one to show prime minister real scenario and tell her the truth. It is a big problem that the prime minister is flanked by non-technical people. The prime minister was made agree that a ramp of Mouchak flyover be constructed at Karwan Bazar. Incidentally, I examined and found out that movement of 1,900 vehicles would be hindered in an hour by this decision. The prime minister agreed to the technical report.
Prothom Alo: Did you ever meet prime minister?
Md Shamsul Hoque: The prime minister’s charismatic leadership is hypnotic. I have given presentations five times in her presence. To ease the pressure on roads, it is necessary to build a ring road in Dhaka to improve communication of eastern and western side. Surprisingly enough, while the communication system is based on ring roads worldwide Bangladesh is opposite.
Prothom Alo: Is sustainable development possible with such a shabby picture of the capital city?
Md Shamsul Hoque: Impossible. We have to follow the paths New Delhi, Islamabad, Putrajaya and Naypyitaw followed. A total of 7000 acres of land in Purbachal were used only to make some people billionaires instead making it a capital. Putrajaya, with the same amount of land, had been made a capital city. It is imperative to decide on a new capital right now.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.
Shamsul Haque: Thank you.
*This interview, appearing in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Galib Ashraf