The students’ movement is not over. In fact, they're just getting started.
Mainuddin Ahmed Durjoy took part in this year's SSC exam, and he had been waiting for his result. But on Monday night (Nov 30), his wait was ended for good when he was run over by a speeding bus - of Anabil, a well-known operator in the transport sector - in Rampura, near the eponymous bazaar in the area. Hours later, streaks of his blood stained the dark concrete and pooled in a corner, following the slope of the road. It all testified to a gruesome and gut-wrenching end to innocence, and all the promise his young life held.
For the near and dear ones, coming to terms with a death such as Durjoy's must be nigh impossible, no matter where or when it occurs. But coming at the particular time that it did, this was like lighting a match inside a gas chamber. The 'accident' had occurred around 10.45pm. Within half an hour, the entire area had turned into something resembling a warzone, as an agitated public took over the streets and one by one torched 8 buses as they arrived to cross the area.
For weeks, students like Durjoy, including some of his friends, had diligently participated in a stand off with the transport operators like Anabil, after a roundly criticised step taken under the Energy Division to hike the price of diesel by Tk15, almost 23 percent, in one go had led, within days, to government-sanctioned hikes in transport tariffs - only for some reason these hikes were disproportionately larger than even the diesel price hike, let alone proportionate to the actual hike in their overall cost. On paper, the bus fares in cities were hiked by 28 percent. In reality this translated often to passengers paying 40-50 percent more than they did previously. But they were helpless to accept this.
The BRTA itself set the new rates in a meeting to readjust the fares following the hike in diesel prices. It then sent the rates to the Road Transport and Bridges Ministry that published a circular on the new fares within hours, all on November 7.
According to the Passengers Welfare Association, a consumer advocacy group for the transport sector, in the absence of any passenger representatives at the meetings that took place on or before November 7, the bus owners misguided the BRTA officials and cited many extra expenses, ultimately hiking the fare way more than necessary.
It wasn't before another ten days or so had passed that students availing public transport caught on to the fact that even after the disproportionate hike, the bus operators were realising extra fares from them by discarding the traditional 'half pass'- the unwritten rule of allowing students a 50 percent discount on the fare. Now armed with a fare chart from the authorities that made no mention of any student discount, conductors were charging students the full, hiked up fares.
"It is not possible for us to take half fares. The government does not give us any benefits and we can't afford the losses. We will charge according to the fare-chart the government has fixed," said Bus Owners' Association joint secretary, Samdani Khondoker, when it first started getting reported in the media.
Md Sarwar Alam, director at Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), said: "Our fare is still the same. Bus owners allowed half-fare before as a tradition, but for some reason they are not allowing this now. We can't force them, but we are trying to resolve this issue as soon as possible."
Students in the capital first started to stage demonstrations demanding half bus fares from November 18, when they blocked roads in the Nilkhet and New Market areas. In the face of the owners' refusal to compromise, it became a daily thing in different parts of the city, and within five days, there were reports of as many as 30 buses having been vandalised by agitating students. If you were following the developments, you could sense this bad blood building up between the two groups as a stalemate persisted, day after day.
The buses were not allowing the students to pay half fare and treated them badly when they asked about the facility, said the students. This was used as a pretext often for vandalising the buses.
All through this time, the government sat back and let the situation fester, preposterously claiming that its hands were tied when it came to imposing a policy of discounts on the pricing strategy of a private company. Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader, one of the ruling party's most powerful position holders as general secretary, said that.
The dam breaks
Mainuddin's (Durjoy) death and the scenes it triggered came at a time when things were already going from bad to worse, and worser still, almost on a daily basis. triggered a widespread protest, like one that took place in 2018- popular as students' movement for safe road, and it continued around the capital, and it also started to spread all over the country in the last couple of days.
Four days before Mainuddin's death, another student - Nayeem Hasan of Notre Dame College -was killed by a city corporation garbage truck in the Gulistan area of the capital. When it hit Nayeem though, the garbage truck was being driven, not by one of the city corporation's fleet of drivers appointed for the role, but rather one of the part-time cleaners on its books, who didn't even have a driving license.
The deaths occurred at a time when the students were demonstrating demanding half fares on public buses. The recent hike in bus fares - which is supposed to be around 27 percent for diesel-powered vehicles, made it tough for the students to commute to schools and colleges.
After a few days of the demonstration at some important points of the capital, the government only approved half fares for the state-run BRTC buses, but the demand was to ensure the half-fares for all public buses. Since it was not met, the students were demonstrating around the city and announced they won't leave the street until their demands are met properly with a gazette notification.
But right after the death of Mainuddin, at least eight buses were set on fire in Rampura by a group of agitators. Students who arrived at the scene had almost no qualms about distancing themselves from the arsonists. And surprisingly, it worked for them, though partially, as the leaders of the bus owners announced half-fares for students in the Dhaka Metro area. But the demand was to ensure half-fares all over the country, so the students did not leave the street, they rather issued a 96-hour ultimatum that expires on Sunday, December 5.
On Tuesday, the Dhaka Road Transport Owner Association announced that they will take 50% fares from the students who have a uniform of their respective schools or colleges or who carry an ID card.
It seems that the students are not willing to leave the street with only an assurance of the half-fares or the demand of safe road. They also came up with a new 11-point demand charter on Tuesday.
The protesting students are also demanding to ensure that the trucks, garbage trucks, and other types of heavy vehicles would operate only at night- between 12am and 5am, and all the drivers should be tested for dope on a regular basis with the proper counselling to make them drive safely.
Nadimur Rahman Jewel of Dhaka Imperial College and Sohagi Samia of Khilgaon Model College announced the demand charter on behalf of the protesting students. (see the Box item below)
They also demand to ensure compensation for the families of those who have lost their lives in road accidents, ensuring safety for women in public transports, providing compensation and rehabilitation for the passengers and transport workers who have been living a miserable life after getting injured in road accidents, and they want the assurance of half-fare for students around the country in a gazette notification.
The government is yet to say anything about the demands of the students. Obaidul Quader, the Minister of Road Transport and Bridges, on Wednesday said that he suspects doubts the Rampura incident is planned mayhem. He also said that an inquiry is needed to see if the Rampura incident was a move by the Jamaat and BNP activists.
"Was it just an accident or it was planned?" Quader questioned while addressing the media on Wednesday at his government resident. "Neither fire brigade nor police or army can reach a spot as quickly as the buses were set ablaze (in Rampura). How did the young students reach there late in the night quickly?"
Those questions are likely to remain unanswered, blowin' in the wind as the bard may have said. Meanwhile, even if you don't see much disruption in the streets today, don't jump the gun to conclude the hordes of young girls and boys in school uniforms we got so used to seeing on the streets in these last couple of weeks have called it off.
In fact, towards the end of their demonstration in Rampura on Wednesday, the agitating students, displaying admirable maturity, announced that in light of the HSC examinations set to start the next day, they would be limiting any disruptive activity that usually forms part of their programme of protest. Instead, they would only form a human chain on the side of the road for one hour. Clear and precise instructions were issued on how this would be done without obstructing vehicular movement on the street.
"We will not leave the road until all of our demands are fulfilled. We want road safety for everyone," Shohagi Samia, one of the leading voices in the movement, reiterated during Wednesday's programme at Rampura, while declaring the limited programme for Thursday. In the event, the police did not allow them.
About 20-25 students tried to form a human chain on Rampura Bridge at noon, but they had to leave as police took action to break them up. At around 2.15 pm, a procession of more than a hundred students from Rampura Bazar gathered on the bridge and started chanting slogans like "We want safe roads," "Movement cannot be stopped with police" in protest against the police's obstruction.
Shohagi Samia said, "We wanted to form a human chain in limited scale. But we were not allowed to stand. We conserved our strength and returned with the procession."
At that point they were at least able to observe two minutes' silence, in memory of their mates Nayeem Hasan and Mainuddin Durjoy victims of the road accident.
"Our programme cannot be foiled. We will not be stopped by police filing cases."
From 'half pass' to 11 Points
From what started as a demand to reinstate the half pass system, the students' movement has evolved to one seeking a better, safer environment on the country's roads, for which they have placed the following eleven points as essential:
1. Justice must be served for the 'murders' of Notre Dame College student Nayeem Hasan and Rampura Ekramunnessa High School student Mainuddin Islam Durjoy, victims of brutal structural killings on the road. Their families must be properly compensated. Pedestrian or 'Foot' overbridges must be constructed for pedestrian crossing in the areas adjacent to Gulistan and Rampura bridges.
2. Half pass for students in all public transports across the country has to be ensured with official notification. No time or day can be fixed for the half pass. Extra bus fares will have to be withdrawn. The number of BRTC buses on all routes has to be increased.
3. Free movement of students and courteous behaviour to female students have to be ensured in public transports.
4. Strict action should be taken against the owners, drivers and employers of the vehicles without fitness and license.
5. The number of traffic police on crowded roads has to be increased as well as ensuring traffic lights and zebra crossings on all roads. Effective measures have to be taken against bribery and corruption of traffic police.
6. In order to stop reckless competition among the buses, one bus on one route should be introduced and daily income should be distributed equally among all the transport owners according to their shares.
7. Identity cards and appointment letters have to be ensured for transport workers. Contract-based appointments must be cancelled. Instead of providing buses on contract basis, the entire transport system has to be streamlined with a ticket and counter system. Restrooms and toilets should be provided for the workers.
8. The working hours of drivers should not extend more than 6 hours at a stretch. Each bus should have 2 drivers and 2 assistants. Adequate bus terminals need to be constructed. Transport workers need to be properly trained.
9. The road transport law needs to be reformed after taking the opinions of passengers, transport workers and government representatives, and its implementation has to be ensured.
10. For the movement of trucks, garbage trucks and other heavy vehicles time should be fixed from 12am to 5am.
11. Effective initiatives need to be taken across the society to eradicate drug addiction. Regular dope tests and counseling should be arranged for drivers and assistants.
Additional reporting by Saif Hasnat.
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