TV news on record death tolls or a brutal surge in Covid-19 infections no longer scare Mohammad Sajib. Rather, it is efforts to calm down the coronavirus spread such as shutdowns and lockdowns which frighten him these days.
For the bus driver in Dhaka's Gabtoli bus terminal, life is quite straightforward – if the wheels turn, he will get paid and be able to manage three meals a day. If not, he and his family will have to starve.
Like Sajib, 70 lakh road transport workers and 20,000 water transport employees across the country look upon the coronavirus-led lockdown "a starve-to-death order" since the movement curbs in the last one-and-a-half-year have often forced them to go on in life on empty stomachs.
"I only had a biscuit in the morning," another transport worker Ajijul Islam told The Business Standard at Dhaka's Mohakhali bus terminal. "In this lockdown, police often drive us away from the terminal. Where will we go? We bus helpers sleep inside the buses at night as we do not have any accommodation in Dhaka."
Visits to Gabtoli and Mohakhali bus terminals in the capital on Tuesday showed a depressing picture. Drivers, helpers and other transport sector people were found compelled to spend time in an idle manner. Inter-districts buses of different long-routes were parked in rows.
The helpers said they stay at the terminal round the clock as only some drivers and conductors have accommodation in Dhaka. They guard the buses at night, do some cleaning in the morning and then idly spend the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, in the face of a severe cash crisis, a number of people associated with the transport sector have already switched to other professions.
Saiful used to be a helper employed at a long-haul bus operator. He has now turned into a rickshaw-puller. "Transports are off, and with that our income. We have to starve in every lockdown. How many days can you starve? So, I started pulling the rickshaw on Monday this week," he said.
Most of the helpers do not get monthly salaries. They are paid on the basis of the daily trips they work at.
"In normal times, I used to earn Tk800-1,000 per day. From the amount, I would save something and send it to my family in my ancestral village," said helper Ajijul.
"In the last one-and-a-half-year, I ate up my savings, and then had to borrow from others," he added.
Mohammad Maruf, a long-haul bus conductor, said there has been no government relief for transport workers so far. During last year's lockdown, the transport unions provided them with some support.
"I hang out at the terminal until afternoon and then return home. I could not pay my house rent in the last two months," said a visibly upset Maruf.
What do the transport unions say?
Manik Mia, joint secretary of the Dhaka District Bus-Minibus Road Transport Workers Union, said the union could not take any decision about providing relief since the movement curbs were enforced abruptly.
"We will decide about that [cash and food aid] after two or three days. Besides, we have already written to the ministry seeking subsidised food items," he told TBS, adding, "We did not get any stimulus from the government, and it is tough to arrange any support this time for the workers."
Osman Ali, general secretary of the Transport Workers Federation, said other countries give food to people prior to imposing a lockdown. "We do not need the aid. Just make sure that we can get rice at Tk10 a kg."
Osman Ali said the federation has taken an initiative of coordinating with the owners' association a distribution of food items among the workers ahead of Eid.
Khandaker Enayetullah, secretary general of the Bangladesh Road Transport Owners Association and owner of Ena Transport, said the owners have taken initiatives to distribute relief and cash aid to the workers.
"In fact, we owners have also been suffering through the pandemic shock. Despite that, we have remained by the side of the workers and we will be beside them in future too," he added.
Water transport workers in trouble too
Like the road transport employees, 15,000-20,000 workers in the launch sector have been facing financial hardship. With launch services suspended from before the 1 July lockdown, the workers have had no income for the last 16 days.
Moreover, most of the launch employees did not get their salaries in the last four months.
"We too have children, families. I could not buy them anything last Eid. It seems the upcoming Eid will also be the same," said Mahmudul Ahmed, a cabin boy at Sadarghat launch terminal in Dhaka.
Mahmudul said some of his colleagues have started pulling rickshaws, with many struggling as day labourers.
"Our income is paltry – only Tk5,000 to Tk8,000 a month. If launches ply, we get tips from passengers. Besides, we can stay and eat in the vessel for free. Otherwise, life is very tough," another launch employee Saddam Hossain said.
Chowdhury Ashikul Alam, general secretary of the Bangladesh Water Transport Workers' Federation, said some launch workers got government relief during last year's lockdown. But they are yet to get anything this time.
He said the federation is not in a position to arrange any help for the workers.
Shah Alam Bhuiyan, president of the federation, said the lockdown gets prolonged, but there has been no government initiative so far for the workers.
Badiuzzaman Badal, senior vice-president of Bangladesh Inland Waterways Passenger Carrier Association (BIWPCA), said the association has applied for loans for the staff to be given their salaries, but to no avail.
Around 700 workers at Sadarghat launch terminals are also jobless now. They were found passing an idle time there.
Mohammad Wasim, a Sadarghat worker, said, "One-fifth of the workers have switched to rickshaw-pulling or are working as day labourers. We are somehow surviving by borrowing from our relatives and friends. Neither the government nor any individual has come to our aid."