With the enactment of the new road transport act envisaging an imposition of tough penalties for traffic rule violators, the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) has been experiencing a mad rush of transport owners and drivers to its premises.
Vehicle owners and drivers in big numbers are thronging the BRTA offices in the capital to avail new licences as well as registration and fitness certificates to avoid fines and jail terms.
BRTA officials said vehicle owners and drivers began appearing at the BRTA offices from November 1 this year, when the new law came into effect. The number of applications for new licences and fitness certificates has been increasing every day.
Jahidul Islam, a truck driver, came to the Mirpur BRTA office to receive his smart driving licence card at 9:30am on Thursday.
After a few hours of struggling his way through a huge crowd, he could manage to get his licence. It was like a victory for him as he immediately called one of his friends and in great delighted informed him of his "triumph".
"I was very worried after the new road transport act came into effect. That's why I came to collect my card a year after the scheduled date. Now I feel I am free to drive on the streets," Jahidul Islam said.
Like Jahidul, more than 400 people were seen in a long queue in front of several counters of the BRTA.
"I came here to collect a digital number plate for my vehicle early in the morning," said Azim Uddin, a CNG-run auto rickshaw driver.
Md Sumon Hossain, who runs a tea stall next to the BRTA office, said he was very surprised to see such a big gathering at the office.
"I have been running my shop for the last seven years but I have never seen such a huge crowd before at the BRTA office," he added.
Rashed Milon and Rokibur Rahman Bhuiyan from the Vehicle Inspection Department at the BRTA admitted that they had made no preparations to handle such a crowd, but were now trying their best.
Md Rasel Miah, a student of Mirpur Bangla College, went to the BRTA office to renew his driving licence.
"My driving licence had expired and on account of it I was sued last month. But I cannot afford to pay a fine of Tk10,00O because of an expired licence. So I am here," he added.
Khodeja Begum, who has a scooter, also came to apply for a driving licence.
"I must say without one's own vehicle, commuting in Dhaka is quite difficult. A few days ago, I learned to drive. Now I have come to get a licence," she said.
Mohammad Raja Miah, a pickup van driver, managed to take his vehicle to the vehicle inspection ground after a wait of more than two hours in the scorching heat.
"The new law forced me to go for a fitness certificate. Although I had to spend an entire day for it, I am happy that I finally got it," he said.
Shafiquzzaman Bhuiyan, assistant director at the BRTA Mirpur office, told The Business Standard that prior to this month, around 300 licence seekers a day were seen at the office.
"Now the number goes up to at least 500 a day," he said.
Shafiquzaman also said the BRTA has to conduct fitness tests of least 1300 heavy, medium and light vehicles a day.
Consequently, the number of applications for ownership change has also doubled in a week.
Subrata Kumar, assistant director at the BRTA's Ekuria office, said, "Now we are getting 500 applications per day for issuance of new licences. The number was 200-250 even a day before November."
Shahidul Azam, assistant director at the Savar office of the BRTA, said the number of service seekers had gone up within a few days.
"People are now conscious of the law and that might bring about a change," he added.
Middlemen capitalising on big rush of service seekers
The signboard hung on the wall of the BRTA's Mirpur office advised people not to speak to anyone not from the BRTA authorities or not belonging to the office.
Curiously, though, it is the Ansar members deployed at the office premises who have now turned into middlemen.
They are also making it possible for middlemen to earn big in collusion with a section of corrupt officials.
It appears that despite several crackdowns and operations by the Anti-Corruption Commission, a syndicate is still active at different BRTA offices.
Service seekers also claimed that such interference by middlemen hampers the regular activities of the BRTA.
They also alleged that corrupt officials and middlemen force them to take their unsolicited help in exchange for money.
This correspondent could observe the illegal activities of several brokers and Ansar members.
Rasel Khan, an Ansar member, promised Md Nazrul Islam Patwary that he would get him a driving licence.
For this job, he demanded Tk8500 when the government fee is only Tk3500.
"I applied for the licence in September and completed all the formalities within only three months. That happened only because I paid them extra money. It worked like magic," Nazrul added.
He also claimed the Ansar members took all of his documents and he didn't need to wait in a queue for a long time.
"They put a mark on my papers and everything went well. When the BRTA officials saw my papers with that special mark, they completed the process quickly," he further said.
Another license seeker, Rumman Sarker, claimed he had applied for a driving licence more than a year ago, but he did not even get a date for the physical test.
"Some brokers offered to do the job for me in quick time. But I declined their offer and submitted the application myself," said Rumman.
"After failing on the first attempt, since the authorities had lost my papers, I applied again," he said with sadness.
Rumman also claimed that if anyone does not apply with the help of brokers, their papers might have a possibility of disappearance.
Fawzia Tasnim, a private service holder, complained that the BRTA was holding up a sign of one-stop service, but she had not found any proof of it.
"They do not even have any counter for women. It was horrible to stand in a line with hundreds of males," she said.
When contacted, Dr. Kamrul Ahsan, Chairman, BRTA, said he had instructed all officials across the country to ensure one-stop service and work as long as service seekers were present on their premises.
He denied allegations of irregularities and the presence of middlemen in any of the BRTA offices.
"It totally depends on how a person chooses to be served. We don't take any responsibility for these brokers," he said.