Saturday, June 9, 2012

Deaths on roads: No signs of respite
"As I See It" column
The Independent
June 9, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Our roads are these days in control of killer drivers. The government has surely gone both deaf and blind to people’s concerns on the deaths on the road. If it had even minimum sight and hearing ability, it could not have been so immune to the tragedies on the road. Anyone who uses our roads and highways these days does so by daring death. 

One of the strangest things that has happened so far with the tragedies on the roads is the way the Minister for Shipping has backed the right of drivers to drive on the roads with forged licenses and for new drivers to be allowed on the roads without proper tests when the nation is united to bring these killers on the road under a legal framework. 

The Minister backed his support for the drivers because he felt that he owed their association loyalty for his connections with it. No one has contested how a Minister can have connections with a pressure group! It is not that he just has connections with this pressure group; he has placed his loyalty to this group ahead of the oath he has taken as a Minister even to the extent of fighting for the “right” of its members to drive on roads with forged driving licenses and without tests.  

For a government that makes such a huge cry over its love for the law and the constitution, it is unbelievable that it stands silently where a Minister says publicly that the interests of the pressure group to which he belongs is more important than the oath he has taken as a Minister! Under such a situation, the thought to ask a few legitimate questions just falls out of the window. Nevertheless such question lingers in the minds of the people.  Can a Minister publicly claim connections with a pressure group? Is there no legal conflict in doing so?

These questions are nevertheless important  because the families of victims of road accidents cover every aspect of Bangladesh and can be left unanswered only by an insensitive and irresponsible government. There is no place in the country that has not had road death victims. Such fatality has not distinguished between the rich and the poor though on balance, deaths on roads have occurred much more to the poor than the rich; or between religion and any division that one would wish to consider. At this rate, it would not be too long before it covers Bangladesh right up to the family level.  

The problem of road accidents is today a major issue of concern of people in the country. It is of course unfortunate that the government is either oblivious of it or does not know what to do with it. The Minister of Home who has her own ways of upsetting people, has used road deaths to cover her own Ministry’s public criticisms when she said that the law and order situation in the country is far better than before  because there far more deaths on the roads than due to law and order situation! What do you do with a government that gives such an explanation as an excuse to avoid responsibility? Or a government that is so immune to public concerns that cut deeply across the country’s absurd political divide? 

Nevertheless, the government and its ministers notwithstanding, and notwithstanding their strange conflicting and contradictory statements in public on their jobs and jobs of their colleagues, there is an angle to these road accidents that needs to be considered to deal with what has today become a reality in our lives; that no one can go on the roads confident of coming back home safe and alive. The drivers of course are the major culprits. The new Communications Minister upon assuming office from his predecessor who was forced to leave on public wrath over his inability to provide safe roads has acknowledged about the unbelievable number of drivers with forged licenses and the need to correct the situation. Unfortunately, neither he nor has anyone else in government spoken on the condition of our roads and its relation to deaths on the roads. 

We have been independent for over 40 years. All past governments have claimed credit for connecting some parts of Banagladesh with Dhaka. This is of course true for today; there is no part of the country that one cannot travel to by road. What these governments have not said is the type of roads they have built. Consider Dhaka-Chittagong highway. It connects the national capital with the business capital of the country; a vital road by any description. Yet after 40 years of independence, this is still a one lane death trap where people, goats and cows share it with the fast moving traffic! In fact, the Shipping Minister was correct when he said that all the intelligence that the driver, licensed or otherwise, needs to drive on our highways is to be able to distinguish the goats and the cows on the road! He must have been trying to say that human beings, using their god given intelligence, would in any case move away from the traffic that goats and cows cannot! 

The legitimate question is whether these governments had any vision when they built these roads/highways? Of course, when these roads/ highways were built, the traffic was insignificant and even the one lane so called highways that were built were reasonably safe. Unfortunately, the roads/highways did not keep pace with the humungous growth of transport and people’s usage.  In fact, the roads have deteriorated and have gradually become the death traps they are today. Therefore, unless the roads/highways connecting Dhaka with the divisional and district headquarters are made into modern highways with lanes and dividers, the deaths on the roads will increase.  

Thus those who are creating public awareness on deaths on our highways must pressure the government to modernize the national highways as a first step. Unfortunately, the last Caretaker Government left the Dhaka-Chittagong four lane highway unattended when all it had to do is go ahead and build it. In 3 years of this government, there have been tall claims but no major headway in building the Dhaka-Chittagong highway. At this rate connecting Dhaka with the rest of the country with modern, safe highways is something that the country cannot even dream at this stage! 

In this unfortunate state of affairs on our roads, those using it are also responsible for the deaths. The passengers in the bus must come into the act and ensure that they refuse to travel on a bus where the drivers drive dangerously. The police must straighten the truck drivers from dangerous driving. Those riding in personal cars must caution their drivers to drive carefully. Unfortunately, the bus passengers are as much part of the problem as the solution for they seldom caution the drivers because they are more interested about travelling to their destinations than the dangers. The police, in its present form, would surprise everyone if it acts positively to caution the truck drivers and others using the road for the nexus of misdeeds on our roads are sources for their corrupt fortunes. 

The country is thus entrapped in a vicious circle of death with its roads and highways with little sign in the horizon for reprieve because of a variety of reasons to which all governments including the present one and the people have contributed to varying degrees. There is nothing on the drawing board to suggest that even a start is being made to deliver the country from the hell in which it is at the moment with its roads and highways. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

No comments: