Dhaka is one of the world’s fastest growing megacities and the 20th by population size. It is also one of the few where the public transport system isn’t all that public. City dwellers lament the lack of a subway or a rapid transit train. Buses, the other common form of public transport, resemble packed cans of sardines and aren’t for the faint-hearted.
Almost all the buses that run the gauntlet of the city’s congested roads have a beat-up look. This comes from frequent collisions with each other as drivers compete aggressively for passengers. Inside, passengers stand shoulder to shoulder, breathing the fumes of other vehicles. To get on a bus, commuters have to elbow each other and engage in a ritual that looks like a rugby scrum.
There are few air-conditioned buses with decent seating on the city’s roads. This chaotic situation means that going to work on buses is a challenge for middle-class commuters on the best of days. Against this backdrop, the announcement by the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority that bus companies could no longer offer a ‘seating service’ – a system where passengers are assured of a seat at a slightly higher fare – came as a surprise to many.
The BRTA this week ordered all bus companies to go local, and started an enforcement drive against any special bus or minibus service in the capital under the name of ‘seating’, ‘direct’ or ‘gate locked’ services.
Critics say this has left middle-class commuters in the lurch. The poor condition of the bus services has already forced many middle class families to buy cars, worsening Dhaka’s chronic traffic congestion. Now, the ‘go local’ directive has made it much harder for commuters to go about their daily lives.
On April 4, transport owners decided not to operate any special ‘seating’, ‘direct’ or ‘gate locked’ services and remove additional seats, rooftop carriers on buses from April 15. The owners said they had already formed five vigilance teams to monitor buses in the city.
BRTA director (enforcement) Nazmul Ahsan Majumder said they would operate five mobile courts help the transport owners as the objective of these vigilance teams matched with the BRTA’s aims.
Transport owners also agreed to put up government-fixed fare charts inside the buses. There has been little debate centred on why bus companies cannot provide different grades of service to commuters.
Fully knowing the predicaments of what April 16 was in store for public bus commuters, 35 year old Nazmul Ahsan, an office executive, had planned to take the 7:30 bus instead of the usual 8am Labbaik Paribahan, which helps him commute from Shyamoli to Sayedabad, where his office is located. He assumed it would help him avoid the morning “mad rush” which has prevailed in Dhaka for several decades now. In light of the government announcement that all “seating” and “gate-lock” buses would be disbanded and transformed into local buses from that day, with “local fares.” Nazmul thought that by taking the early bird, he could avoid the jam that awaited what he called “D-Day,” but was he wrong.
He joined hundreds of other fellow bus commuters who planned ahead exactly like he did, only to find that the number of buses were far and fewer in numbers. The ones which arrived at regular intervals were already packed to the tilt, no way he could even grab a rail and hop along. This dilemma did not end right there.
He did manage to board a somewhat-packed Labbaik bus after forty minutes, only to scuffle with the bus conductor, regarding the fare. Not only was he hanging on to a safety rail along with scores of other office-goers and students, but he was dumbstruck to find that he also had to pay the “seating fare” despite the buses going local capacity-wise.
Drivers and transport workers said that they had received directives from their respective owners to accommodate every bus to maximum capacity. But no directive was given regarding the price. Old wine indeed comes in new bottles.
To top everything off, a vigilance team was stationed at almost every major intersection of the city, led by an executive magistrate from Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), members of Dhaka Sharak Paribahan Malik Samity and other law enforcement officials, whose job was to oversee whether the buses were complying with the government directive or not, whether the buses had proper papers and fitness and such. This led to some transport owners withholding their fleet from the road, causing an “artificial crisis” of bus shortages in the city, adding more misery to the commuters.
Predicaments hurting credibility of new rule
While welcomed by the common people, abolishing the “seating” and “gate-lock” services did not entirely solve any of the problems the policy-makers thought it would. Passengers alleged that the buses, which provided “gate-locked seating service” at higher fares, now stop randomly to pack the vehicles with excessive passengers but also retaining the previous fares.
While it is mandatory now for all buses to hang the BRTA-directed fare chart for the passengers to see, the charts are being withheld so that passengers are duped into paying pre-April 16 fares.
“We have hung the rate chart as per government orders,” said Rafiq, a bus conductor, while ambiguously pointing out in a direction that leads to the gear box of the bus. Upon further investigation, no paper was found. When cross-checking for fare discrepancy, Rafiq told this correspondent that they have reduced the fares, usually by Tk 5 per route. “The previous rate for Shyamoli to Malibagh was Tk 25, from today (April 16) it is Tk 20,” Rafiq countered.
Mrinmoyee Mintu, a passenger of Dishari Paribahan from Mirpur-1, said the fare up to Shahbagh should be Tk 16 as per the fare chart. But even on April 16, the service providers took the previous fare Tk 25.
Abir, another passenger, said fare of Hemayetpur from Mirpur-1 should be Tk 20, but passengers are still paying the usual Tk 25 at Shuvo Jatra Paribahan.
“The government usually thinks that their job is finished after publishing such gazettes, but we have to face the public ire, while counting the losses for complying,” Rahmatullah, one of the 38 owners of Labbaik Paribahan retorted.
“I have to keep many overhead costs in mind when I dispatch my buses on the road, 5 among the 145 buses operating from Labbaik Paribahan. After investing an initial capital, I have to bear the maintenance costs, fuel costs, fines imposed by the traffic police, staff wages and more. After all that, I have my share of the income, which is not enough to conduct a healthy business.”
“This new rule, tagged with the vigilance drives, is choking the public transportation owners. We used to provide a premium service when only the seats would have to be filled in order to proceed at a considerably higher rate, which was accepted by most of the passengers. Now that there will be no seating services, people will find it difficult to even step inside a bus. It is not everyone’s cup of tea to elbow their way into the bus,” Rahmatullah said.
But when asked about withholding a section of the buses to create an artificial crisis, he told Dhaka Courier that it is misconstrued as some of the buses are being renovated for a newer look, so that they are not fined for fitness lapses.
He is a proud member of the Dhaka Sharak Paribahan Malik Samity, which comprises of 150 transport companies, who operate 4500 buses in the city.
Meanwhile, Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader recently said the government and the members of bus owners’ associations would strictly monitor the drives to ensure that these illegal “seating” services never resume in future.
Drivers are refusing to drive vehicles because of scuffles with passengers, said Bosumoti Paribahan Director Khandaker Monir Ahmed, to explain why there were fewer buses. “Many drivers have not got out because of yesterday’s fights. There were more fights in the morning. Some owners have pulled their buses because of these low fares.”
“After much explaining, we managed to get some of our workers to continue working. We told passengers to follow the chart. Not more, not less.” Of the 65 buses owned by Tetulia Paribahan, 40 were running the route between Mohammadpur and Abdullahpur, said the company’s director Abdul Wadud. Prajapati Paribahan pulled 20 of its 70 vehicles, said managing director KM Rafikul Islam.
Boshumoti Paribahan Chairman Khondoker Enayet Ullah Khan, who is also General Secretary of Dhaka Sharak Paribahan Malik Samity, told Dhaka Courier that he has instructed all his buses to follow the BRTA-directed fare chart and not to charge a Taka more, or less. Upon further investigation, it was found that the conductors of his company were charging the same Tk 45 from Gabtoli to Airport that they were even a week ago.
“Whatever he says is just an eyewash,” said Mamunur Rashid, a regular commuter of Boshumoti Paribahan, “he is an influential transport owner leader from the ruling party, there is no way any new rule will be applicable to his buses as well.”
According to BRTA officials, approximately Tk 2.95 lakh had been collected as fines from over 120 cases for not complying with the BRTA-fixed fare chart as of April 17.
“The route permits of the bus companies will be cancelled if they do not bring out their vehicles during the drive,” BRTA Secretary Muhammad Showkat Ali informed Dhaka Courier over the phone, “the list has been yet to be prepared but our officials are working on it.”
When asked about the shortage of buses for the middle class commuters, he refuted by saying that BRTC is still deploying AC buses from Gulistan to Uttara’s Abdullahpur, charging premium fares, as well as separate buses for school-going children and their parents, as well as another fleet exclusive for women.
“We understand that women are facing a difficult problem now that the buses gone local,” Showkat Ali said, “but we have not restricted private investors from opening up premium AC bus services, they are free to apply and operate accordingly, but no one has come up after BEVCO folded back in the early 2000s.”
The long wait for solutions
Urban transportation is crucial to the quality of life and commercial vitality of Dhaka. But urban traffic congestion is a major feature of urban life in Dhaka due to the scarce road space which is just 7.5 percent of total land area – far less than many other major metro areas around the world. This compares to 11 percent in Bangkok, 16 percent in Tokyo and 20 and 30 percent in U.S. cities.
In 2012, the government announced a $2.75 billion plan to build a metro rail system. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is financing 85% of the project is being financed as a loan at concessional rates. A $255 million bus rapid-transit line from the airport, financed with loans from the French government and the Asian Development Bank, is also in the pipeline.
However, for city dwellers, such mega projects will take a long time to come to fruition. In the meantime, the traffic congestion get worse and commuters’ woes look set to continue. The emerging middle class has yet again been left out of the policy debate.