Sunday, March 28, 2010

Death in Dhaka


The government is making efforts to make the capital's roads safe for the citizens, but it is turning out to be an uphill task as the drivers and pedestrians are flouting traffic rules

Last week, two deaths, one in downtown Dhaka, another in Gazipur, have outraged citizens. In both the incidents two five-year-olds were run over by a speeding microbus. The incidents are eerily familiar: The children were at a busy intersection and were crossing the street when the buses, disregarding the red light, sped fast; the children died on the spot, the bus-driver tried to flee only to be apprehended later by an angry mob.

Dr Charisma Choudhury, Assistant Professor, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), thinks that drivers regularly cross the speed limit and there is no one to bring them to book. "Whenever they see that the street is free they try to pass the traffic lights as early as they can. They don't really care if the light is red, green or yellow."

To make it even worse, driving licenses are up for sale at the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) office in Mirpur. The unscrupulous officials at the BRTA, in connivance with some driving schools, offer two packages for would-be drivers. To drive a private car or a motorcycle, all one needs to do is to give Tk 7000 to a BRTA officer and the license will be delivered within seven working days. No test will be taken; the applicant will need to sign two papers though.

"There is another package for bus and trucks. The cost will be Tk 5000 higher," says a BRTA clerk. He says that in both the packages, no driving test will be taken. "It's for busy people like you," he says.

It is indeed a small wonder that the streets of Dhaka are flooded with under-aged drivers. Those who cannot pay the rather hefty fees (for a license government charges less than 2000 Taka), can get a forged license. "You can also get a forged license if you want; it will cost Tk 3000. But do remember that these licenses are fake, you cannot renew them; your name will not be in our book," the BRTA clerk says.

His boss, Assistant Director of the BRTA Mohsin Ashraf, however, claims that no such thing happen in his organisation. "There is a board magistrate on the driving board, there is also someone from polytechnic and two police inspectors along with two BRTA men. The question of any foul play does not arise," he says.

He claims that licenses for driving heavy vehicles are not even given by the BRTA. "These licenses are obtained either through the brokers or different labour unions," he says. He claims that 'heavy licenses' are given only after an applicant proves that he has driven a light and a medium-sized vehicle for three years each. He, however, admits that the government, because of labour strikes and negotiations with the labour leaders, is sometimes forced to issue 'heavy licenses' to the union leaders. "It's a long process," he says.

Charisma thinks it is difficult to enforce traffic rules when those who were supposed to be enforcing the law are themselves breaking it. "Many violations that have the potential to cause accidents remain fully overlooked until there is a fatality," she says.

To make matters worse, there are about one million vehicles clogging the streets with only 2,265 police personnel to man them. According to a Daily Star report 180 new vehicles are introduced to the city every day and only 730 traffic policemen were hired in the last six years.

Charisma says that footpaths are not pedestrian-friendly, neither are the footbridges. "Going up the stairs is a universal problem, which planners in the neighbouring countries are also facing," she says. She thinks that when dusk falls sometimes the footbridges become unsafe.

A walk into the footbridge at Farmgate reveals that, after nightfall it becomes a haven for prostitutes and drug peddlers. Presence of criminals and other such elements in footbridges and underpasses dissuades the pedestrians from using them, which in turn make jaywalking rampant.

Charisma says stringent laws need to be enforced to make the roads safe. "It is true that severe punishment of a driver after an accident can make other drivers more careful, but penalties for smaller violations can play an even bigger role," she says.

The deaths of two children on the streets of our capital should come as a big wake up call for our policy makers. History, however, suggests otherwise. Our bureaucracy grinds slowly, and, like the streets of Dhaka, it, too, is prone to accidents.