Published in The Independent
M. Serajul Islam
Dhaka city, like most cities in our region, is literally flooded with auto rickshaw that is a principal mode of transport for Dhaka’s citizens who do not own a car. The auto rickshaws are fitted with meters and therefore under the law, the auto rickshaw drivers must charge passengers by meter only. The law notwithstanding, the drivers decide at will on whether or not to accept payment by meters. Invariably, during rush hours, the drivers make the choice not to carry passengers on payment by meters, charging substantially more than the payment would be by meter.
People of Dhaka are literally hostage to the whims of the auto rickshaws who carry out their unlawful acts right under the nose of the police who prefer to look the other way. With the situation being as it is, the authorities are now considering enhancing the fare of the auto rickshaw ride, the third time in the last few years. In return, the auto rickshaw owners have promised that they will “try” and ensure that the auto rickshaw drivers would accept payment from passengers by the meter.
I am not sure whether there is another capital city where those who run public transport on meters have the cheek to tell passengers that they can either accept their offer to travel at prices negotiated by them that is much higher than by the meter or go to hell and get away with it. Auto rickshaw drivers have been doing this as the rule rather than the exception for a long time. The authorities, without going to the basic issue first which is to ensure that the auto rickshaw drivers dare not demand fare outside the meter, are in the process of accepting their demand for enhancement of rates. In return, they are accepting a feeble assurance from the auto rickshaw owners that they will ensure that the drivers accept fare by meter. One does not need a crystal ball to predict that like the dog’s crooked tail, the drivers will accept fare by meter for a short time and then get back to their nature of blackmailing the passengers.
By the look at the auto rickshaw drivers, it is not hard to say that despite what they do with their passengers, they by no means make a hefty sum at the end of it. However, going by the huge number of auto rickshaws plying in Dhaka, the business must indeed be good. Therefore there is a group that is making a good profit out of it. Before the fare is enhanced, the authorities must first make a professional study of the business and ensure that it is, first, not enhanced to an extent that will make it difficult for those who use auto rickshaws who are all people with fixed income; and second, that some of the benefit goes to the auto rickshaw drivers so that they are not tempted to blackmail the passengers when the demand is greater than supply as it is during rush hours. Whatever decision the authorities take, they must first ensure that the auto rickshaw drivers accept fare by meter reading or face the law because their arrogance to refuse payment by meter it is a matter of showing the thumb not to the passenger but more seriously, to the law; a tendency that is in many ways at the root of our failure to achieve sustainable development.
We are indeed a nation quite inclined to break the law when we have power in our hands. The case of the hawkers in Gulistan proved the point. In their greed to make quick money on occasion of Eid, they took over even the busy road, caring only about their interests. The hawkers have already “established” their right to say damn to the law by claiming their “right” over the foot paths which should be called by some other name like leasing property of the law enforcing agencies for nearly all of Dhaka’s so called foot paths are under occupation of the hawkers or being used as storage areas for construction materials. All these flagrant violations happen with ok
the police watching, like illegal parking under police watch. In our country there was once a saying that if the tiger catches a human , he finishes his prey in one grab but if an individual falls on the wrong side of the police, he suffers the same fate but with 7 times more pain. Very few individuals take our police lightly. Hence, there is no reason to believe that the hawkers violate the law over space on foot path and the roads without connivance. There is a nexus between the hawkers and the police as there is a nexus between the police and those who park illegally in no parking areas.
The problem will of course not go away merely by increasing fares with a promise from owners and drivers for accepting payment by meter or beating up the hawkers. The problem is very deep rooted in the way we are as a nation. When we stand alone, we accept whatever is dished out to us, even injustice but when we get together, we swing like the pendulum and prefer to take the law in our hands instead and break it with impunity. Rationality is not our national trait. In between, we have the problem that those who work for public are paid horrendously low salaries and thus always in the lookout for the extra buck to keep body and soul together; only once they start doing so, they become slaves to greed.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and can be reached on email firstname.lastname@example.org