Rare and unprecedented social unrest is taking place in Bangladesh, with mass protests and demonstrations. “We want justice,” is being chanted by students across the capital of Bangladesh, as thousands continue to gather in main public squares.
On 29th July 2018, two schoolchildren in Dhaka, a boy and a girl – were run over and killed by a speeding bus. The driver is thought to have lost control of the vehicle, while racing another bus to pick up passengers. Since then, there have been demonstrations in the capital Dhaka. The demonstrators, overwhelmingly dominated by young people and students, are demanding the government to take action and regulate Bangladesh’s chaotic roads. Bus services in the city and elsewhere in the country were cancelled.
Tens of thousands of schoolchildren in their uniforms took to the streets of Dhaka, blocking roads and intersections, leading to deadlock in the city. The protesters stopped trucks, buses and cars, demanding to see the licenses of drivers and check if vehicles were in roadworthy conditions.
The country’s biggest-circulation newspaper Prothom Alo said 3G and 4G internet services have been shut down for 24 hours, shortly after violence broke out.
The students issued nine demands, including the construction of speed bumps on dangerous roads, the enforcement of laws requiring licences and the death penalty for reckless drivers who cause death.
The demonstrations were largely tolerated by authorities, until police started firing rubber bullets at demonstrators, injuring at least 100, according to students and doctors who treated the injured.
The violence escalated again on Sunday, when a large crowd marched towards an Awami League office and was repelled by teargas and armed personnel, some on motorbikes, alleged to be party activists.
The police have reportedly used tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring scores of the teenagers – although the authorities initially denied this.
There also have been clashes between the protesters and pro-government groups, reportedly members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), a student organisation linked to the ruling Awami League party.
Prominent activist and renowned photographer Shahidul Alam was charged with spreading propaganda and false information on social media, after commenting on the protests on Facebook. His detention came hours after he had strongly criticised the government’s handling of the demonstrations in a television interview with Al Jazeera.
Amnesty International called for his immediate release and a stop to the government’s “violent crackdown” on “overwhelmingly peaceful student protesters”.
Bangladesh has promised to apply the death penalty to people involved in some traffic accidents as it struggles to contain mass student-led protests for better road safety.
Men apparently loyal to the government began attacking demonstrators, media representatives and vehicles, including one carrying the US ambassador.
After initially dismissing students’ concerns, the government sought to appease them, approving a draft law that would beef up the maximum penalty for accidents caused by reckless driving to five years’ in prison, up from the current three.
The law and justice minister, Anisul Huq, said the new law would allow for the death penalty “if an investigation finds that the death in a road accident has been caused deliberately”.
The United Nations expressed its concern over the crackdown.
“The concerns expressed by youth about road safety are legitimate and a solution is needed for a mega city like Dhaka,” the UN resident coordinator in Bangladesh, Mia Seppo, said in a statement posted on Twitter.
The population of Dhaka by itself is a staggering 18 million and is likely to double to more than 35 million people by 2035.
Congestion is a major problem in Dhaka. In the last 10 years, the average driving speed has dropped from 21 kilometers per hour to 6 kilometers an hour. If this continues, it risks to drop to 4 kilometers per hour by 2035, slower than the average walking speed. Congestion in Dhaka wastes 3.2 million working hours per day, which is billions of dollars every year.
Bangladesh’s transport sector is widely seen as corrupt, unregulated and dangerous.
Bangladesh Passengers Welfare Association (BPWA) in their annual report for 2017, said as many as 7,397 people died in road accidents across Bangladesh. Another 16,193 others were also injured in 4,979 road accidents throughout the year
Every day at least 64 people lose their life, while 150 others are injured across the country. This year, between January 1 and April 20, 1,841 people were killed and 5,477 more injured. Of those injured, 288 were maimed.
According to the Revised Strategic Transport Plan (RSTP) of 2016, Dhaka’s residents make around 30 million trips every day. Of them, some 47 percent involve buses, 32 percent are made in rickshaws, while nine percent are carried out by private cars that occupy 76 percent of the streets. Public transports use 7 percent of roads.
The response of the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina has been full of arrogance and utter disregard of the problems on the shoddy road networks in Bangladesh. Hasina is shaking on her throne with these protests and has warned that a “third party” could sabotage the protests and put the safety of demonstrators at risk. She said, “That’s why I request all guardians and parents to keep their children at home. Whatever they have done is enough,” the prime minister said from her office.
Hasina has suggested her political rivals are using the protests to whip up public anger against the government, ahead of a general election due in December 2018. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, has denied involvement.
Of course, Hasina has ignored the fact that there are severe problem with the transport system in Bangladesh and is more concerned about scoring political points for the upcoming elections.
Detaining Shahidul Alam, a prominent photographer at his house, by 30 to 35 plainclothes police officers indicate the type of government Hasina is operating in Bangladesh. Alam’s arrest came shortly after he gave an interview to broadcaster Al Jazeera about the protests, saying that they were driven by “larger” factors than road safety alone.
He pointed to “the looting of the banks, the gagging of the media, the extrajudicial killings, disappearings, bribery and corruption,” according to Al Jazeera.
Further to all of this, a highly insensitive and disgraceful comment by Shajahan Khan, a government minister with ties to powerful transport unions, was relayed to the people of Bangladesh that further exposed what the government thinks of these protests.
Khan dared question why there was such anger over the two Dhaka children but no reaction when 33 people were killed in an Indian bus crash the day before. There have been widespread social media demands for the minister’s resignation despite his subsequent apology.
The language of Hasina and her ministers is from their heart. They are intent in tightening any type of political expression in Bangladesh, regardless if it is asking for justice for children that are mowed down and killed by lack of traffic regulations. The bus crash symbolises much more than road safety. These protests are venting anger at the huge problems in Bangladesh, which include wide scale corruption, lack of investment in public services and incompetency in government.
Powerful officials operate private bus companies and rely on bus and rickshaw drivers for political support. Their loyalty is being questioned and also why they give no value to human life on the streets of Bangladesh. Transportation companies have been accused of bribing the police to avoid investigation even of deadly accident. This is the norm in Bangladesh, which is now being challenged by young people in their thousands in Dhaka.
Road safety may have been the trigger for these protests, however the resentment towards the government and poor management runs much deeper. It does seem that the young people of Bangladesh will no longer tolerate neglect and inadequate governance in their country anymore. In the zeal of the youth in Bangladesh, positive change will be made.