Friday, November 30, 2018

A traffic legend

Can’t say I wasn’t warned. Friends who’d been to Dhaka before told me not to make elaborate plans; the traffic wouldn’t allow me to get around much.

I thought, but traffic is pretty bad everywhere. Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru... How much worse could Dhaka’s traffic be? Well, let’s just say that it lived up to its reputation.

I was participating in the Dhaka Literature Festival and discovered that the tiniest commute required a few hours of traffic time. It took an hour to drive a stretch that one could walk in 20 minutes. When the car did move, it didn’t move smoothly. Other writers, especially those who were not used to the chaos of the Subcontinent, were made nervous by the jerky, forward-sideways style of progress. Coming from India, I knew there was little danger at those speeds.

However, speeds are not always so slow and there is always some danger. Dhaka discovered this in recent months, after an accident led to a major political confrontation. The city was brought to a standstill by teenagers, after two school students were killed through rash driving and several were injured.

Accidents are a major cause of death in South Asia. India reportedly witnesses 400 fatalities every day, and road accidents are one of the top 10 causes of death in the country. But in Dhaka, something else was brewing. Students weren’t just protesting the deaths of two kids. They were also reacting to everything else that’s wrong on the road. Nobody observes any rules; there’s no lane discipline. There aren’t enough state-owned buses. Private transporters, many of them politically connected, don’t train drivers properly. Most bus and car drivers are very poorly paid and have no job security. Many of them don’t even have licences.

Children were trying to shame the police into doing their job. They turned out in school uniforms and set up ‘check points’ where they checked licences, scolded traffic violators, demanded that the traffic cops take action. Soon, the movement got bigger. University students joined the protests and now the government became anxious. College students tend to be more politically aware.

Perhaps, the government was afraid that opposition parties would capitalise on the student agitation — and there is a lot to be agitated about — or perhaps the leadership just didn’t know what to do with their demonstration of anger. The outcome, anyway, was the police aggression. Some ‘clashes’ were reported, but some of the violence was allegedly caused by youths affiliated with the ruling party. Photos and videos of the attacks were a further embarrassment for the government.

Again, instead of engaging or promising appropriate action, the state tried to stifle all criticism. Photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested and charged with making ‘provocative comments’ after he shared a video on Facebook and talked to Al Jazeera about the reasons for the protests. He’s out on bail now, but the charges haven’t been withdrawn.

All that time I was stuck in that infamous traffic, I chafed. Why are we obsessed with motor transport in over-populated cities? Why don’t our governments move to fix problems before the tipping point arrives? Why don’t we incentivise cheap, eco-friendly modes of transport like bicycles? Someone cribbed about cycle rickshaws slowing down Dhaka’s traffic, but that isn’t true. The sensible thing would be to create dedicated cycle and cycle rickshaw lanes to streamline flow, and to make sure that students and the poor don’t get hurt.

All it would take is for the leadership to be open to dialogue, to not panic in the face of criticism, to not suspect people’s motives. They elected you, after all. Didn’t they?

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