Sometimes it is much quicker just to step down from the vehicle and walk. But is it? Given the recent statistics -- road accidents claim 413 lives in November alone -- there is all reason to have qualms to walk to work (or to school or the mall or home -- wherever) through the bumper-to-bumper traffic. If you manage to avoid being hit by a garbage truck, you quite possibly will have to wade through piles of rotting garbage to reach your destination. (The garbage trucks seem to be more interested in removing students from the streets that garbage).
We brushed the cobwebs off our PCs, sterilised our laptops and clutched our mobile phones like the proverbial last straw. It wasn't easy
Let's face the facts. We inhabit an uninhabitable city. Dhaka is on the verge of demise, surviving on life support or sheer stubborn will power. Dhaka isn’t letting us down. It is we, its ungrateful denizens, who are letting down our dear Dhaka. But, to borrow words from Vladimir Lenin, what is to be done? (Given the fate of his convictions in the face of perestroika and glasnost, perhaps he may not be the best example to follow!)
Jokes aside, a way ahead must be found if we are to survive, if our beloved city is to survive.
Is metro-rail the answer? Are elevated highways the answer? Flyovers, underpasses, the tangled web of infrastructure that we weave? All this is undoubtedly impressive infrastructure that even a cynic will admit may provide a partial solution to the problem, with an emphasis on ‘partial’.
Then there are the obvious remedies – decentralisation, industrialising non-urban areas, ensuring employment in backward rural regions, overseas employment and migration and so on and so forth. Yes, all of these are pragmatic remedies requiring strong doses of political will and commitment. We are all familiar with the jargon – good governance, innovation, strategic planning and a host of other terms used by politicians, political scientists and the public, ad nauseam.
All of these solutions are plausible with careful planning for the future, no doubt, but what about now? We need to go to office now, we need to go to school now, we need to live now, we need to survive now. But how?
Perhaps we can take the biggest lesson taught to us from the biggest plague we know – Covid-19. When Covid-19 hit, we were in total panic. We ran around in circles, alarmed, scared and confused. When the initial shock subsided, we managed to calm down a bit and to think of ways to live with the virus (while research was being carried out on vaccines and treatment of the patients amid the surmounting tragic deaths). The biggest lesson we learnt at the time was STAY AT HOME.
Of course, online shopping can never give you the shot of adrenaline got from haggling over the price of hilsa in the smelly fish market or making the shop attendant drag down all the saris off the shelves in Gausia, but you can do that occasionally
We brushed the cobwebs off our PCs, sterilised our laptops and clutched our mobile phones like the proverbial last straw. It wasn't easy. In a country like Bangladesh which has one of the slowest internet speeds in the world and with no work-from-home experience whatsoever, it was a challenge in no uncertain terms. But we did it and we did it well.
Most offices, business firms, media houses, NGOs, all sorts of enterprises and institutions, even government establishments, managed to a great extent to run remotely, without physical attendance at the workplace. It wasn’t ideal, but it served the purpose well. And in the bargain, we saved time, money and fuel on commute, and stayed as much protected as we could from the deadly virus. Businesses too saved on electricity and other utility costs to a great deal.
But we are social beings. Isolation took a toll on our mental health, along with redundancies, salary slashes and the all pervading sense of gloom and doom.
Then as fatalities fell and the number of Covid cases dwindled, we gradually emerged from hibernation. Bedecked in full battle dress – face shields, masks, gloves and even PPEs – we began to attend office in person. Now most of us just wear masks (along with our normal clothes of course!), or hang the masks around our chins or one ear, or don’t even bother. Life is almost back to normal. But with Omicron (the latest variant of novel coronavirus) lurking around the place, the fear of having to learn the entire Greek alphabet up till Omega has put us on guard again. We are not panicking, but we can’t help but be perturbed.
Back to the topic of traffic. If we could take some lessons from the Covid experience and apply it to our daily traffic trauma, perhaps the troubles would ease to some extent. We need not work full time from home, but perhaps take turns in working a few days a week from home, easing up the roads for each other. Can we not work out a plausible and efficient system where we can partially work from home and save ourselves from that other virulent malady called ‘traffic’?
And it is not just about office. Can we not shop in the comfort of our homes? Online sales of groceries, clothes and all sorts of products have proven to be quite a success during the pandemic. And if we are alert enough to avoid being duped by the likes of evaly, we can easily stay off the streets. Of course, online shopping can never give you the shot of adrenaline got from haggling over the price of hilsa in the smelly fish market or making the shop attendant drag down all the saris off the shelves in Gausia, but you can do that occasionally. We can just try to cut down our jaunts outside for the noble cause of saving our city.
For the children and youth, online education admittedly hasn’t been a success, no matter what anyone may claim. On top of that, education is more than just calculus and Shakespeare. It is also about socialising, independence, interaction and more. So schools can open, classes can be held (of course, depending on the state of Covid-19 and its variants). But commute solutions can be worked out, car pooling, school buses and so on, so the children can reach school and return home safe and sound.
This is not a curfew. The working class people who need to go and earn a living of course will go. They must be given priority. It is just a matter of planning and thinking ahead – thinking of a city we will leave behind for our children and theirs.
The bottom line is, the less we are obliged to go out, the more we can save on time, energy, money, and gain a bit of mental peace.
We are not advocating isolation. We just want Ashok to be able to reach home in half an hour instead of three, to be able to pay a 70 taka fare instead of 250. Is that too much to ask?