When Dia Khanam Mim and Abdul Karim Rajib were killed by a speeding bus at Airport Road on 29 July, 2018, nobody could have foreseen a sweeping country-wide student protest where school and college students would take up traffic control in major cities.
The protest sparked a hope for systemic reforms in the transportation sector of Bangladesh, something the nation desperately needed for quite a long time. The students even issued a list containing nine demands, with enormous public support, that would steer the course in favour of the general populace of the country.
But almost three years and four months later, after the death of yet another student has caused another protest, students have submitted a list of demands that are eerily similar to the 2018 one, illustrating how little has actually changed in the sector during this time.
Let us begin by examining the demands from 2018.
Broadly speaking, the demands are focused on four major issues: reformation of existing laws, strict implementation of the reformed laws, ensuring safe and secure walking spaces for pedestrians and guaranteeing half-passes for all students.
Even though students were assured that their demands will be met, they are yet to materialise. There has been no significant attempt to construct foot-over bridges, underpasses or zebra crossings. Footpaths in major cities are as inadequate as ever, often being contested between pedestrians and street vendors.
Seemingly, the biggest success of the 2018 protests can be found in a promised new traffic law, which was expected to reform the unorganised transportation industry in our country. But the traffic law in question has been in the making since 2010, presenting four drafts in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 respectively.
But every draft has been met with demands of punishment reduction from transport owners and workers. For example, the punishment for killing a man in a road accident was proposed to be 7-14 years in prison. But when the law finally passed in 2019, the punishment was reduced to a five year prison sentence.
The law could not even be implemented after it had been ratified by the parliament. Transport owners and workers started a country-wide strike in November 2019, right before the law went into effect.
The resulting two-week long stalemate was broken when the Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal met with transport workers and owners and agreed to halt the implementation of the most impactful articles of the law.
Since then, transport owners and workers have demanded that the government revise 34 articles of the law. The Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges has recommended a revision of 29 of these articles, most of which focuses on reducing punishment for different malpractices in the transportation sector.
The three non-bailable offences in the new traffic law have been proposed to be made bailable. The punishment for accidental manslaughter has been proposed to be reduced from five years in prison and a Tk5 lakh fine to five year prison sentence and a Tk3 lakh fine.
If all the recommendations are adopted into the law, the punishment for many other crimes including driving without license, driving with fake license, appointing unlicensed drivers and collecting excessive transportation fare will be reduced.
At the end, the 2018 Road Safety Movement failed to accomplish anything of significance. In 2020 alone, 6,686 people have died from road accidents.
"The protests mainly resulted in performative and temporary crackdowns on minor to medium traffic violations based on existing rules without any systematic reforms. The movement achieved much engagement but failed to bring about meaningful or lasting reforms," said Sami Mohammed, a student who participated in the 2018 protest.
Fahmida Huq Saima, another protester, added, "Our generation has never witnessed such a massive grassroots movement before. It made us believe that we can make a difference in this country. But none of the demands made during the protest have ever materialised."
Dr Md. Shamsul Hoque, a professor of Civil Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology (BUET), agrees with them. He said, "The government has done the easy part of making infrastructural changes. But when it comes to regulation and law enforcement, the authorities have failed."
"The police and transport owners made promises to quell the unrest. They promised to ensure that buses will only stop at designated locations, they promised that reckless drivers will be apprehended. But they have not been able to keep these promises, and they have no just excuse for these failures," the professor added.
As a result, when students from Notre Dame College issued their 11-point demands, they sounded exactly the same as the ones issued in 2018. They have also focused on legal reformation, law enforcement, pedestrian safety and half passes for students.
Responding to this, Dr Hoque said, "Students have made these demands from their perspective. But the transportation sector is enormous and the problems are innumerable and complicated. It has conflicts of interests between businesses, regulatory authorities and politicians. Alongside money and muscle power, these conflicts have made the system incredibly resistant to any changes."
Professor Hoque went on to say, "We have seen another example of disorganisation and lack of regulation after the fuel price hike. Education is a human right. But children in our cities have to take overcrowded public transports which do not adhere to safety standards. Even if you walk, there is a chance that a transport will run over you. This is completely unacceptable".
Indeed, another road safety movement was sparked by the death of Abrar Ahmed Chowdhury, a student of Bangladesh University of Professionals, in 2019. But that did not result in any changes. Instead, a foot over bridge was built in his memory at the place of his death.
Dr Hoque believes this cycle of death, protest and tokenistic changes will continue if radical changes are not initiated.
"We need to overhaul the whole transportation system, from transport company owners, workers to the regulatory authorities in order to make an effective system. This cannot be done by policy changes anymore. It will take enormous political will and commitment from the government," the professor concluded.