People suffer as transport owners and workers enforce a strike to meet several demands immediately before the rally of opposition BNP in Khulna
Prothom Alo file photo

Transport owners and workers have been enforcing strikes on various excuses from days before each of the divisional rallies of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Though no strike was called before the second rally of BNP in Mymensingh (the first one was held in Chattogram), transport movement was halted there. Since then the transport owners and workers enforced strikes before the rallies in Khulna, Rangpur, Barishal and Faridpur.

The transport strike has been going on in Sylhet as well, as the party is set to hold a rally there today, Saturday.

Strikes will be called before the next rallies of the de facto opposition in Cumilla, Rajshahi and Dhaka too, think the people concerned.

Out of the six BNP rallies held already, transport strikes were enforced before five. The people have begun analysing how Awami League has benefitted from these moves. Even the ruling Awami League think-tanks have been discreetly analysing these steps.

The ruling party’s general secretary, however, said publicly several times that Awami League did not have any connection with the strikes of transport owners and workers. “What can we do if the owners of nongovernment transports call strike?” the road transport and bridges minister remarked.

Obaidul Quader even said BNP, Jatiya Party, and Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dal (BSD) men are also in the leadership of transport owners and workers.

Do such speeches of the ministers and AL Leaders hide the facts? If Awami League was not responsible for the strikes, it could have stopped these by putting pressure on the transport owners and workers, using the power of the government. Or, the strikes could have been stopped by assuring the owners and workers that they demands would be met. The transport owners’ associations presented different demands to the administration immediately before the BNP rallies. But it was not heard even for once that the administration held meetings with the transport owners to resolve the issues, a normal step the government follows in other times.

Loss dominates profit

Awami League is benefitting from the transport strike before the rallies of BNP, thinks many of the party. Some of the party leaders think there was a huge presence of people at the BNP rally in Chattogram as there was no transport strike before the programme. The presence was not so huge in other rallies - this is the only positive thing, they feel.

But the loss from the strike is too high, they think. Some of the AL leaders said many people joined the rallies riding easy bikes, and other types of local vehicles and private vehicles as there were public transport strikes. Media published reports of this for several days.

They have raised questions whether the BNP rallies could garner such publicity in the media if there was no strike. The BNP activists and supporters became more determined to overcome the hindrances. Leaders, activists and supporters of other areas are becoming encouraged by the media reports about BNP men taking puffed and flattened rice (moori and cheera) with them for sustenance, and took up position at the rally grounds from the previous day of the rally as they have been obstructed. And, it is also not proven that the participation at the rallies was thin due to the obstructions.

Some of them think that another negative factor for the Awami League is holding party councils int some districts on the day of BNP rallies. Many people gatherat the councils of the ruling party without any hindrance. On the other hand, public transport is being stopped so that people cannot join the rallies of BNP. It is normal that people will have negative reactions to such moves.

The most important issue for any political party is public sufferings. The parliamentary election (12th) will be held just after one year. Awami League leaders have been claiming that the people will vote for them to continue the development spree. But the people who would vote for Awami League, have been suffering the most for the strikes and neither the government nor the Awami League has been doing anything to alleviate this. What positive message would they get from this? People from all walks of life including patients, students, offce workers, businesspersons and, above all, the local people, have been suffering the most for the transport strikes. This in no way gives a positive message to the people.

Earlier, a police report said suspending public transport ahead of political rallies decreases the popularity of the government as such action makes the people victims more than the party that organises the programmes. The report was prepared by a department of police ahead of BNP’s divisional rally in Faridpur on 12 October.

The report suggested that public transport can be kept operational ahead of political rallies so that people do not suffer and the support for the government is not dented.

Ruling party men control transport sector

People involved with the transport sector said most of the transport owners and workers are non-political. But the ruling party leaders or the persons they back have been leading the associations of transport owners and workers. Around 80 per cent of the current crop of leaders are Awami League leaning, some assume. It is always the ruling party men who lead the transport sector in Bangladesh.

Mashiur Rahman alias Ranga, who was recently expelled from Jatiya Party, is the president of Bangladesh Road Transport Owners’ Association, a an organisation of the owners. He is known as pro-government politician. The secretary general of the association is Khandaker Enayet Ullah, vice president of Dhaka city south unit of ruling Awami League. Most of the other leaders of the association are involved with the politics of the ruling party. Though Mashiur Rahman is the president, it is Enayet Ullah who is playing the main role in the association.

Shahjahan Khan is the president of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers’ Association, the apex body of the transport workers in the country. He is a presidium member of Awami League as well. It is widely discussed within Awami League that his political clout with the workers played a pivotal role in Shahjahan Khan being appointed as shipping minister in 2014 and later inducting him as a presidium member. Osman Ali, the general secretary of this organisation, is involved with the politics of BSD. He, however, is known as opposing the politicisation of the association. Shamsur Rahman Shimul Biswas is the only BNP man who is in the leadership position of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers’ Association but he does not attend the meetings regularly.

Presidents or the general secretaries of all such associations at the district level are involved with the ruling party politics. Other members of the committees are also of the ruling party men.

People involved with the transport sector said in most of the cases the law enforcement agencies suggested enforcing strike in favour the government and Awami League centring the BNP rallies this time. In some cases, local and central leaders of AL also advised calling the strikes. The actual transport owners incurred losses while the workers lost their income for this.

Reasons of strike

The strikes were called mainly to meet the demands of stopping movement of different types of locally made oil and battery-run auto-rickshaws and goods carrying vehicles and BRTC buses on roads and highways. But in Sylhet, the strike has been called for ensuring the use of grills in CNG-run auto-rickshaws and not giving registration to illegal auto-rickshaws.

Road transport ministry sources said generally the workers’ associations enforce the strikes demanding stopping the implementation of road transport act, excesses of law enforcement agencies and beating up of workers. The administration holds meetings with them and resolves those. But no such urge was seen in the ministry and local administration following strikes called immediately before the BNP rallies.

As per the labour law or road transport act, there is no provision for the transport owners enforce strikes. They can shut their businesses if they want. In that case they have to pay the dues of the workers. On the other hand, as per the labour law the workers can call for strikes to meet their demands. But the demands have to be presented to the appropriate authorities at least 15 days earlier.

Most of the strikes, centering the BNP rallies, were called two to five days before the programmes. Besides this, the movement of buses beginning at least two or three hours before the time of strike is over almost at every time. That means, the strike is ending as the rally of BNP is nearing its end. As a result, the questions is whether the strikes are to meet any demand or political in nature.

This is clear that these politically motivated strikes won’t help Awami League if the voting is held freely and fairly. But that's another matter.

* The analysis has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza