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Road safety: a Bangladesh perspective
BANGLADESH has seen some unprecedented protests in recent days that raised many issues and concerns that have largely remained unnoticed or unchecked until bared open by school and college students who have demanded road safety. It is the first time in history that the government has taken the correct course of action and has brought owners of buses responsible for the death of two students to justice in addition to the drivers concerned. It has often been the case that in the event of an accident, the crowd gets hold of drivers and mercilessly beat them up and damage vehicles to vent their anger. The story unfortunately ends there and no government or regulatory authorities ever take any serious effort to investigate and address the issues centring on road accidents.
There are three conditions to road safety. The first is the condition of roads, the second is the condition of vehicles and the third is the condition of drivers.
Safe roads are dependent on planners, engineers and contractors. Most of the roads in Bangladesh are not properly planned for either lack of skills or other motives. Most planners who often pretend to be planners seldom have the required knowledge of building roads or highways. One only needs to take a survey of Dhaka–Aricha road and the unsafe twists and turns that this road takes making most parts of the road unsafe. It is often difficult for speeding vehicles, particularly overloaded and or substandard minibuses, to maintain control at these points of unsafe road curves. It took many years and losses of many lives for the authorities concerned to realise the wrongs and as a primary safety measure, road dividers have been put at some hazardous road curves to minimise head-on collisions.
The classic example of the pathetic planning is reflected in the flyover in front of the Sonargaon Hotel at Kawran Bazar that had to be partially pulled down to be rebuilt and still it has failed to serve the purpose. It has rather become a bottleneck like the flyover at Bijoy Sarani, commonly referred to as the Rangs flyover. Both the flyovers should have been extended to go across Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue with the first one at Sonargaon Hotel to link Panthapath and the second one at Rangs to link Bijoy Sarani to facilitate uninterrupted traffic flow. The critics tell that these messes are the outcome of both lack of knowledge and more of corruption. The more mess they create, the more is the spending and higher the income of the cabal consisting of politicians, planners, engineers and contractors.
Road construction is supposed to be supervised by qualified engineers and their qualifications become questionable in Bangladesh if one only reviews the condition of roads just a few days after the completion of road construction, expansion or repair. This is an interesting scenario that engineers are seldom found at construction sites rather they spend most of their time, if not entire time, sitting in air-conditioned offices. It is either their lack of skills or knowledge of engineering worsened by corruption that lets any infrastructure project to end up in a poor state while the budget keeps increasing. It is alleged that engineers take a handsome share of the construction budget for keeping their eyes shut knowing full well that construction or repairs of roads do not comply with the least or absolute minimum standard.
The matter that needs attention is the cost of building roads. It is reported to be the highest in the world while the workmanship or quality or condition of the roads is the worst in the world. According to a World Bank report, Bangladesh’s spending on each kilometre of track is higher than that in China and India. Its chart showed that each kilometre of expansion work on the Dhaka–Sylhet Highway cost $7 million. For the Dhaka–Mawa road, it was $11.9 million a kilometre and $2.5 million for the Dhaka–Chittagong Highway. The expansion work of the Dhaka-Mymensingh Highway cost $2.5 million a kilometre. But in India, constructing one kilometre of a four-lane road cost $1.1 million to $1.3 million, including land acquisition. In China, the figure was $1.3 million to $1.6 million. In Europe, the cost for each kilometre of four-lane road was $3.5 million while the conversion of a two-lane road to four was $2.5 million.
Bangladesh’s roads are among the worst in Asia, according to the World Economic Forum. According to the findings, it ranked at 113 among the Asian countries for road quality, only ahead of Nepal. Singapore is ranked at the top in Asia and second globally in terms of road infrastructure. It is followed by Japan and Taiwan which have equally well-maintained roads ranked 5 and 11 respectively. South Korea and Malaysia ranked 14 and 20 respectively also figure in the countries with best roads in Asia. China is ranked 39 in the world. It has good roads because of the rising economy and growing development. China has the longest highway in the world stretching 85,000 kilometres. Brunei and Sri Lanka rank better than other south Asian countries. The condition of Indian roads is getting better with the country ranked 51, ahead of Thailand and Pakistan at 60 and 77 respectively. Bhutan ranked 80 needs to develop the road infrastructure by leaps and bounds. It is followed by Vietnam and Laos that have also not invested much in developing road infrastructure to make travelling easy around the country. Cambodia, ranked 93, has sporadic road development in both rural and urban areas. The Philippines’ roads are less developed compared with those of other East Asian countries. It is followed by Mongolia at 109 and Bangladesh at 113.
The reports clearly reflect the extraordinary cost of corruption in the country. With low cost of living and low wages compared with most countries, one would expect the cost should at least be lower than Europe, if not India and China. It is so obvious that the quality of roads is not comparable to that of those countries, even after spending the highest in the world. It is about time the matter was attended and investigated for the sake of accountability and transparency in the spending of tax payers’ money. It does not require space or rocket science to assess and calculate the actual cost of building each kilometre of road in Bangladesh.
A close study of road accidents will reveal that a few accidents were caused by long haul buses and most of the accidents have been caused by the so-called minibuses, trucks and vehicles of unrecognised shapes and sizes. The issue is the quality and the buses that ply long hauls like Dhaka–Chittagong or Dhaka–Khulna are in compliance with road safety standards and owners ensure that these buses are run by highly professional drivers so that their investments in the transport sector does not end up in accidents. But the local buses, minibuses or the sort of unnamed or unrecognised vehicles often called ‘human haulers’ are just a shameful display of vehicles on Bangladesh roads and a pathetic picture of regulatory body and law enforcement. I doubt if any country in world will allow such vehicles to ply their roads.
The major concern for these vehicles is it is not the vehicles that are unroadworthy but it is the drivers they employ who are underage, unfit and unlicensed. It serves owners two purposes — firstly, they pay almost peanuts in wages and, secondly, they can easily manipulate this huge number of unqualified drivers as bargaining chips with government. The resultant environment is grave in the sense that it has facilitated the growth of a cabal among owners, politicians, regulatory bodies, law enforcers, political activists and poor workers with the latter at the receiving end for any consequence. The existing and developing laws are so unfair that it prescribes punishment for drivers but remains silent on the obligations, responsibilities and liabilities of owners or regulatory bodies who have in the first place facilitated the unsafe road travel and allowed unqualified vehicles to ply the roads and put the poor unqualified drivers or workers at the helm of the unfit vehicles.
In conclusion, it can be fairly summarised that it is the owners and regulatory bodies, including law enforcers, that need to be disciplined and should be the first to be brought to justice before punishment is meted out to poor drivers if we really need to see any plausible improvement in road safety. The drivers will automatically improve themselves if owners do not employ unskilled drivers, regulatory bodies do not issue fake licences and the law enforces do their checking properly to eradicate unsafe vehicles and unqualified drivers.
Khandaker R Zaman was a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport and was a lead consultant for Component IV (Maritime Transport) of Bangladesh Trade Support Programme of the Bangladesh commerce ministry.