Eminent novelist Humayun Ahmed in one of his 'Himu' novels had termed the 'leguna' (a customised human hauler that plies through Dhaka and other cities) a blessing for Dhaka's roads.
The leguna (sometimes called a tempo) can cover a lot of distance, moves fast and most importantly, it provides the passengers with the opportunity to travel while sitting down – a rare facility in a public commuter in this city.
Being a commuter on leguna, I fully agree with Humayun Ahmed's take on this exotic mode of transportation.
However, there is much that can be added to these observations, both positive and negative.
Firstly, leguna drivers and helpers are great navigators. They do not need any GPS or other navigation system to guide them around.
They also tend to have a clear idea of current traffic conditions - the when, where and for how long a traffic congestion is most likely to last - are all engraved like a mind map inside their head.
This knowledge is what makes these legunas such a unique mode of transport – you can trust your driver to take you on age-old driving routes or figure out a new one.
Navigating the tricky terrains of Dhaka
However, there are more obstacles than just traffic on the labyrinth of roads in Dhaka. For example, police checkpoints.
Only a few weeks ago, the traffic police along with Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) officials set up checkpoints at different parts of Dhanmondi, Lalmatia and Mohammadpur to check the vehicles' papers and drivers' licenses.
Most legunas (if not all) do not have the necessary papers, so they obviously could not pass the check-posts.
The leguna that I happened to be on at the time was stopped, and the vehicle's ignition key was taken away.
That, however, was no problem, thanks to the inventive mind of the leguna driver.
He used a screwdriver to turn on the ignition in no time, and before we knew it, he was happily chatting away about the incident to another fellow driver!
I only got to know because our driver was perfectly happy to stop with a vehicle full of passengers in the middle of the road when he spotted a leguna comrade.
It is totally normal to do this – in fact it is when the leguna drivers are chit-chatting, often in their own dialect, that they are able to share the news of traffic congestion wherever their travels had taken them for the day.
What happened afterwards was magical. My leguna driver suddenly veered into a left turn, spotted a free alley and took us into its depths, made a few turns and snaked his way through the traffic and voilà!
We managed to avoid all the check-posts in place.
If I were alone, I would have thought some of those alleys are dead ends, so it is reassuring to have these seasoned navigators at the helm of local legunas.
Integral but illegal
My second observation is a mathematical one. I cannot help but note that one has to look at it from a philosophical perspective.
It starts with simple arithmetic. If the combined age of the leguna driver and helper is 24 and if the driver's age is 16, what is the age of the helper?
The answer is simple - eight.
According to interviews I conducted with over a hundred drivers and helpers over two years, the average age of a leguna driver is 16 years, and the average age of the helper tends to be around eight years old.
Both leguna drivers and helpers tend to be too young to have a legal license, which is why so few of them have their papers in order and hence, they are forced to avoid check-posts like the plague.
The whole leguna business is indeed very strange. The owners employ underaged drivers so that they can maximise their profits by paying minimum wages.
A leguna that travels the Jhigatola to Farmgate route can make around Tk300 per ride. Usually, one leguna can make that trip for 12-15 times a day, depending on traffic.
However, from each of these trips, the driver gets a meagre Tk50-80, and the helper gets even worse – only Tk10-20 per trip.
He also gets one more benefit though – driving lessons, so that one day, he too can grow up to do the same. There are no formal driving tests, only this sort of informal apprenticeship.
This is how the leguna business is running, and has turned into a never-ending cycle.
According to former BRTA director Saiful Haque, the transport regulators are aware of the fact that most legunas do not have a fitness certificate, and that most drivers do not have a license.
"This is the most informal mode of vehicles in Dhaka, as well as other places across the country. We have estimated that around 2,400 legunas are travelling on Dhaka roads, ferrying nearly 1.8 lac passengers on a daily basis," he said.
Haque also added that BRTA has conducted several drives to stop this. "But after some time, they always end up going back to the roads," he admitted.
However, he mentioned that the accident rate with legunas is relatively lower compared to other vehicles.
According to the data of BUET's Accident Research Institute (ARI), a total of 16 people were killed and 73 injured in 32 accidents in which leguna was involved in between 2017- 2019.
When compared with the fact that Bangladesh has an annual road accident death rate hovering around 4,000, the number regarding leguna seems like a small one.
This leads us to the undeniable fact that although underaged and without training, leguna drivers are an integral part of urban traffic, and are doing their best to ferry the busy people of the city from one point to another.
On that note, happy leguna riding to you all!