Several ministers are contradicting each other over the issue of amending the Road Transport Act 2018. According to the road transport and bridges minister, it was just a rumour that the act was being amended. As per the home minister, however, recommendations are to be introduced regarding the demands of the 'stakeholders', after reviewing similar laws in the neighbouring country. The home minister heads a sub-committee formed to supervise the implementation of the act.
The demands of the transport owners and workers include making all offences under the Road Transport Act bailable, cancelling the provision to fine a worker for a road accident, and lowering minimum educational qualification required for driving licences, and so on. The law minister and the railway minister are both members of the sub-committee. Reports appeared in the media that the acting president of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation and the president of Bangladesh Road Transport Owners Association participated in the sub-committee's previous meeting. The home minister said that their recommendations will be presented before the National Road Security Council.
The act was introduced following the death of two students in a 2018 road accident. They were waiting on the ‘safe' footpath for a bus to return home after college. A reckless bus driven by the assistant of a driver ran them over. Such incidents took place earlier and continue. Students broke into protests following the incident and the people too had support for them.
Demonstrations continued from 29 July through 8 August last year. The government met the demand to introduce a road transport act to rein in the situation. The act was passed rather hastily and on 8 October a gazette notification was issued too. But a provision was included saying that the date of implementation will be determined by the government. This left many apprehending that it may not be implemented in its original version. They feared that the law was simply passed to tackle the protests, but that the final version would not fulfill the actual demands.
It’s not unnatural to have loopholes in the law as it was passed in a hurry and amendments may be required too. But it could be reviewed during implementation after being passed in the parliament. The presidents of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation and Bangladesh Road Transport Owners Association were members of the parliament as well as ministers when it was passed. They didn’t say anything at the cabinet or in the parliament opposing the act then. Also, they are not the sole stakeholders of the transport system.
Who is to represent the passengers and pedestrians? If it is assumed that the ministers and the MPs represent all, then the owners and workers need no separate representation. On a large scale, perhaps, there is no organisation to represent the passengers and pedestrians, but there are a few. The civil society also may participate. All of them can be included in the amendment process.
The home minister has said that they took the stakeholders’ demands and neighbouring country’s law into consideration. The transport owners and workers are a crucial part of our society, but many among them are not sensitive towards the passengers and pedestrians. They even overlook the existing laws. The regulatory organisation, Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, cannot control them. The role of its officials and employees are even questioned in some cases. The responsibility basically lies with the police and they are well aware of the sensitivity of the transport sector. Some police officials even have secret understanding with them. Many stand to benefit from this ‘golden goose’. They are backed by political godfathers too.
The similarity with the laws of the neighbouring country should be scrutinised. According to the BRTA documents submitted to the High Court on 23 July, the fitness certificates of 479,325 vehicles among the registered ones were not updated. A lawmaker told the parliament on 6 February that there were 3.8 million registered vehicles and two million drivers in the country. Who drive the remaining 1.8 million vehicles? Does any state of the neighbouring country have such a scenario! Can this not be called anarchy in the transport sector? Then why should we review their laws to introduce our own ones? A strict law is required to save the sinking transport sector and the law awaiting amendment offers that scope.
Some steps have been taken to solve the drivers’ licence crisis. These include issuing driving licences for the next phase to drivers who have experience of driving light and heavy vehicles for at least a year. Despite inadequate experience, this remains a better option. This would regulate the unlicenced drivers, those with fake licences, or the assistant at-the-wheel too. There is no scope to turn this into a permanent system as there’s no alternative to experience. This system will be in effect till 31 December. This will not suffice for the 1.8 million drivers. All those drivers are there and are driving vehicles on the streets. The strict provisions of this road transport act would contribute to bring them in the process of being licenced. This is to see what amendments are introduced. If no amendments are carried out, then why has not the law been implemented till now?
If the government had taken a strict role regarding the discipline of the transport sector, the basic spirit of the law could yet be upheld introducing a number of marginal amendments. The owners and workers of the transport sector must understand that the sector is not above the government. They cannot call strikes every now and then with the people at stake. If this was not the actual scenario, then the law would not be in its present state after being passed.
How can this sector demand that all the cases be bailable? This is against the basic spirit of the law. Though it’s called bailable, the court can grant bail under specific conditions as with penal code cases. The drivers can demand the fines to be lessened, but why do they demand revoking the provision altogether? How far can the conditions to issue licences be relaxed? Those who are receiving licences in the country are little educated. Educated persons are required in this sector. The rate of education has risen in the country. The owner has to bear partial responsibility if he assigns unlicenced drivers.
Much has been said and written about mismanagement of the sector. People are dying on the roads every day. Reckless drivers run over the traffic police and flee the scene. If the Road Transport Act is amended, the basic spirit should not be compromised. Delayed implementation means ignoring the law.
*Ali Imam Majumder is a former cabinet secretary and can be contacted at email@example.com. This piece, originally appearing in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Nusrat Nowrin.