Prothom Alo: The new road transport act has faltered at the outset. Isn’t this law realistic?
Shamsul Haque: The reaction to this act is nothing new. Everything has been running unlawfully for so long. The drivers are illegal, the vehicles are illegal, and the routes are illegal. The problems are acute. It is difficult to implement the law when so little is actually legal - no legal terminal, no legal parking, not enough licensed drivers. Yet the responsible authorities are not accountable.
In the past when any move was made to apply the law, the transport drivers and owners simply took the vehicles off the roads and the government would relent. This time too, on the day that the law came into effect, the vehicles disappeared. It was an undeclared strike.
Prothom Alo: The traffic police, the city corporations and BRTA (Bangladesh Road Transport Authority) have taken various measures at various times to bring order to the roads but have repeatedly failed. Why?
Shamsul Haque: Over the past year all sorts of initiatives were taken. BRTA even took steps to prevent the hike in bus fare, the police said that the bus doors would have to remain closed, it was said that the ‘laguna’ vehicle would not be allowed on the streets. Not a single initiative came into effect.
This time it was the owners and drivers of the covered vans that resisted the new law the most. The vehicles are completely illegal. Other than BRTA registration, these have no legality at all. The original vehicles have been illegally converted into these covered vans and no measures have been taken about this. There are now around 22,000 such vans in the country and the import and export sectors are using these vans too. There has been huge investment here and now how can action be taken against this? BRTA must be held responsible.
Dhaka city lacks the facilities for a proper transport system. There are no bus terminals, no layover terminals. There are no truck terminals. RAJUK has not provided these. The new township Purbachal has no such provisions either. How can any law be made effective under such circumstances? The city buses are parked by the side of various roads. If you nab the driver or the owners, they will ask where they can keep the bus then. What is the answer?
Prothom Alo: Are any of the sections in the new road transport act unrealistic?
Shamsul Haque: The act is appropriate to present times. It has no problem whatsoever. It is the system that is faulty. BRTA registers vehicles but there are not enough drivers for heavy vehicles in the country. BRTA simply has given the registration without taking into consideration whether they are enough qualified drivers. It is their responsibility to do so. Drivers with licences for light vehicles are driving heavy vehicles and no action is taken against them.
June next year has been set as the deadline to renew licences. BRTA has a record of the number of vehicles as well as the number of drivers. Why have they not tallied these? The prime minister has said each bus and truck must have two drivers, but nothing is being done in this regard. BRTA must be cleaned up before the roads.
Prothom Alo: The transport owners and drivers have demanded that the accident cases be made bailable and that representatives of the owners, drivers and accident research organisations be involved in the investigations. Is that justified?
Shamsul Haque: In our country, the drivers drive with a lot of risk. Investigations into the accidents must certainly be done neutrally. Neither the police nor the transport owned and drivers should be involved. Investigations into accidents are complicated. A bus or truck driver may be driving according to the rules but a rickety vehicle or a jaywalker may come into the way and an accident occurs. The driver is certainly not to blame then. But generally the driver is blamed.
Prothom Alo: You speak about BRTA’s failure, but does it have an adequate work force to do its job?
Shamsul Haque: It is not possible for BRTA to do its job with its present work force and level of efficiency. It has considerable institutional shortcomings. No initiative has been taken to increase its work force or capacity. When a car is to be given a fitness certificate, up to around 60 factors have to be checked. Can the BRTA authorities actually do that? Many cars are given fitness certificates though they are far from fit.
There are only 100 inspectors in the country. How can so many vehicles be controlled with such a small work force? According to international regulations, a driver has to drive for 35 minutes at a stretch to prove his or her competence. In our country that test in taken in a tiny space in a most unscientific manner. BRTA’s work force and competence must be increased immediately.
Prothom Alo: So will the new road transport act remain ineffective?
Shamsul Haque: The government has compromised with the transport owners and drivers. The government officials themselves seem to be above the law. They drive on the wrong side of the road and get away with it. The law will be applied on the general public who are not a part of the trade unions. Action will be taken against pedestrians and the owners and drivers of private cars. But even that won’t be effective. If the footpaths are not proper or if there are no zebra crossings, people are bound to walk and drive in a disorderly manner.
Prothom Alo: But there has to be a start somewhere. How can this be done?
Shamsul Haque: Order must be brought within the home first and so the BRTC (Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation) buses should be caught first. The drivers’ licences must be checked. BRTC buses cannot be leased out and so that practice must be stopped. Government vehicles must follow the rules. Illegal parking must be checked and that can start with the cars of the government officials illegally parked outside their offices. No VIP or government official should be allowed to drive on the wrong side of the road. That can be a way to render the new act effective.
Other steps include setting up city bus terminals and truck terminals on a priority basis. Order on the bus routes can be ensured through franchises. Traffic signal systems and footpaths must be fixed. These are not difficult tasks.
Prothom Alo: What would your recommendations be to the government about the overall transport sector?
Shamsul Haque: Action must be taken at the very beginning against anything that is illegal. Later when the public gets involved, then it is hard to take action. That is how things stand now. The transport system is a complicated matter in any country and needs constant attention.
This matter needs political priority. More than mega projects, reforms are needed in this sector. This must be recognised as a national problem. The power problem was given due priority and has been resolved to a great extent. The road transport sector needs similar attention. The ruling party’s general secretary is in charge of the concerned ministry of this sector. He has the organisational responsibility of the party. It is difficult to look after the road transport sector while having to take care of such a serious responsibility. This sector demands full attention. The government can consider appointing a state minister for this ministry too.