The two Dhaka city corporations have resumed providing licences for non-motorised rickshaws, a move that remained suspended since 1986. The resumption has drawn criticism from urban experts who have called it legalising transport chaos only for revenue.
Instead of issuing rickshaw licences, the experts called for modernising public transportation and making them commuter-friendly, and phasing out or limiting the non-motorised vehicles to smoothen Dhaka traffic.
"Rickshaws are totally uncontrolled in the capital," said public transport expert Prof Md Shamsul Hoque. "Different unions and rickshaw-pullers organisations had been making a buck by issuing so-called rickshaw licences, as now the city corporations look to replace them."
Dhaka has less than 6% of the space for vehicular movement, leaving its highly heterogeneous traffic that incorporates slow-moving and faster-moving vehicles to cause frequent congestion. A number of ongoing transportation infrastructures narrow the roads further, turning an already notorious traffic into a nightmare.
Now with city corporation licences, Prof Shamsul Hoque feared that the slow-moving vehicles might flood Dhaka roads.
He said it is important to determine first what the role of rickshaws should be and where the three-wheelers should be allowed since Dhaka has limited space for traffic.
The erstwhile undivided Dhaka City Corporation halted rickshaw licensing in 1985. In that year, the metropolis had around 80,000 rickshaws.
But a survey in 2019 by the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) observed that the number of rickshaws and non-motorised vans in the capital was at least 12 lakh.
Since the 1986-suspension, some 30 rickshaw owners' organisations and labour unions have been bringing in new rickshaws to the road every day. Each rickshaw costs the puller a specific amount regarding union approval, and the unions allegedly manage the authorities so that they do not bar the three-wheelers from running on the road.
Dhaka south has already issued 2 lakh licences
Dhaka South has already issued licences to around 2 lakh rickshaws since 2020, and has said it will give permission to more non-motorised vehicles.
"We asked the non-motorised vehicles to apply for the licences by issuing a public notice in 2020. Some 2.12 lakh rickshaws and other non-motorised vehicles have applied so far, while many are yet to apply for the registration. We are contacting them to have them avail of the licensing," Ariful Haque, chief revenue officer of Dhaka South City Corporation, told The Business Standard.
The official said the rickshaw licensing has been slow in processing due to the pandemic. He said the city authorities are issuing the licence as per a 1972 law.
Dhaka south Mayor Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh in 2020 had said that his office would bring all non-motorised vehicles under registration.
"There will be some roads dedicated for faster-moving vehicles, while there will be some lanes for rickshaws. Moreover, some roads will be completely vehicle-free where commuters will have to walk," said the mayor.
Dhaka south roads are yet to be brought, though, under categorised traffic even one and a half years after the announcement, while commuters have said their transportation woes have been compounded further.
Ariful Haque insisted that the city corporation is working on the plan. "It will be decided later if rickshaws will be allowed on the main roads. But we have a plan to leave by-lanes of the key roads for the three-wheelers."
Dhaka north sets rickshaw guidelines
Mandating registration, Dhaka north in March this year came up with guidelines for non-motorised vehicles --- setting the age of rickshaw pullers, driving uniforms and fair charts.
According to the rules, the pullers will have to be between 18 years and 50 years old. The city corporation will determine how much the owners will be able to charge the rickshaw pullers per day. Rickshaws in Dhaka north will not be allowed to carry more than two passengers.
Any violation of the rules will meet with a Tk50,000 fine, cancellation of the licence or seizure of the vehicles.
Mohammad Abdul Hamid Miah, chief revenue officer of the city corporation, claimed the licensing process would eventually be able to control the number of rickshaws in the city, and will boost revenue at the same time.
He said a single licensing process will cost only Tk100, and the zonal offices of the corporation will oversee the rickshaws regularly.
Uncontrolled rickshaws contradict city masterplan
Urban planner Prof Adil Mohammed Khan said the current uncontrolled number of rickshaws militates against the detailed area plan of Dhaka.
"In many places, we rely on rickshaws thanks to the lack of quality public transport. But regular city traffic is being disrupted due to the increasing number of rickshaws."
Prof Adil Mohammed Khan suggested determining where and how many rickshaws will be allowed first. He, however, said the focus should be on public transport.
Mozammel Hoque Chowdhury, secretary general of the passenger welfare platform Jatri Kalyan Samity, too emphasised modernised and passenger-friendly public transportation.
He said licensing rickshaws rather than phasing them out will add to traffic congestion in Dhaka. Mozammel Hoque urged the two city corporations to walk back on the licensing decision.
Buet Prof Shamsul Hoque said the "short-sighted" and "revenue-driven" decision will put the city corporation in serious trouble in the future.
Where will the rickshaw-pullers go?
A large number of climate refugees to Dhaka from the country's southern districts pull rickshaws to make ends meet. Besides, the number of rickshaws in Dhaka increases during the seasonal unemployment in the northern districts. Demand for the three-wheelers in the capital also faces a steep rise ahead of different festivities such as Eid.
As rickshaw-pulling means income for several lakhs of people, the vehicle is one of the key means of transportation for city dwellers.
Economists have said it will not be rational to take out all the rickshaws at one go from Dhaka roads. Rather than completely eliminating the vehicle, the economists advocate for limiting the three-wheelers and providing aid to the rickshaw pullers at the same time.
Dhaka University economics Prof MM Akash said the government will have to initially come up with support for the rickshaw-pullers.
"The government will have to give cash support to rickshaw-pullers for them to switch to other professions. Besides, if the pullers want to return to their ancestral villages and do farming, there should also be support for it," he noted.
"The bottom line is that rickshaw-pullers need to be rehabilitated as per the kinds of issues they face," he added.