Between July 28 and August 4, 2018, there was something different about Dhaka. Main roads were seen with reserved lanes, for emergency vehicles and for rickshaws, while motor vehicles were reduced to crawling. Motorists were required to produce a permit and registration to those who governed the streets.
Uniformed, disciplined and determined – the people overseeing road safety in Dhaka were not policemen. They were neither soldiers nor volunteers. The roads during that week belonged to students, school children who had lost two of their own in the anarchic streets, young people who demanded change and wanted it now.
This week, four years ago, school and college students across the country demonstrated to ensure road safety for all. In other words, the roads are always dangerous. During this year’s Eid-ul-Azha holiday, more deaths resulting from road accidents were recorded than ever before.
In broad terms, the 2018 road safety movement failed, but what does it matter to those whose willpower made these protests a national phenomenon? How do they remember it? Four years later, what do they think they could have accomplished, if anything?
Samiha Medha was a class 10 student at Viqarunnisa Noon School in 2018. She remembers coming home and learning on the news that Dia Khanom Mim and Abdul Karim Rajib, students of the school and the Shaheed Ramiz Uddin College, had been hit by a bus from Jabal-e-Noor Paribahan.
“Rage – that was the first reaction,” Medha recalls. “That first day, there were calls to protest on social media. Some of my classmates took the initiative, created an event page on Facebook, organized protests and decided to protest in Shantinagar.”
This spontaneity, fueled by an intense fury at the horrors that befell Diya and Rajib, has spread protests across the city.
“We were taking exams when the news broke and we saw students from our university coming out onto the streets,” said Shamsul Abedin Anik, a class 12 student at Dhaka City College at the time. “Eventually, my classmates and I also came out to the streets. All the colleges in our area – Dhaka City College, Dhaka College and Ideal College – protested together, which was quite unprecedented.”
This flame, kindled in Dacca, soon spread throughout the country.
“I felt a change was the need of the hour. So when the students started protesting in Khulna, I joined them,” shared Khandakar Humyra Oyshi, who in 2018 was a student of the government. Majeed Memorial City College, Khulna.
While anger and frustration played a major role, road safety is an issue that touches everyone’s life, and many took to the roads with self-preservation in mind.
“I used to travel by bus from my home in Banasree to my college in Mohammadpur. I knew the roads were a constant death trap for many of us so I had to take to the streets to my own good,” said Apon Biswas, who studied at Dhaka Residential Model College.
So what did these schoolchildren who became protesters want?
Beyond the chants of “We want justice!” which resounded throughout the country, the sincere implementation of the existing traffic laws and the necessary reforms were at the heart of the demands of the students.
“We wanted existing traffic rules and regulations to be enforced, basic things like pedestrians using sidewalks and pedestrian bridges. We wanted traffic police to be vigilant of underage or unlicensed drivers “said Ashiqur Rahman Rizvee, a Notre Dame student. College during the protests.
“The severity of penalties for hit-and-runs needed to be increased, that was one of our most pressing demands,” Medha recalls.
“One of the reasons behind so many unlicensed drivers on the roads is the complexity of the process,” Anik added. “Streamlining the licensing process was also an urgent request.”
The 2018 road safety movement touched citizens from all walks of life. The fact that the protesters were students meant there were security concerns from teachers and parents, as well as pressure to end the protests and return to classrooms.
“Things were particularly difficult for us because of the pressure that came from the school authorities. I was even threatened with a transfer certificate. However, we had the support of some teachers. We made sure that everything the world would be in school uniform to stop the movement from being misled or misrepresented,” Apon said.
In addition, there were others who offered their solidarity.
“It was a bit of a mixed response from the people around us. The drivers and owners of the cars we stopped were often angry with us. At the same time, many showed up to offer us food and advice.” , Rizvee said. .
“A woman my mother’s age came with homemade meals to feed us. A doctor working at the National Heart Institute gave us her car to make sure we got home safely after the programs of the day,” recalls Apon.
Following the move, the Road Safety Act 2018 was introduced and approved on October 8, 2018. By the time it came into force in November 2019, a year had passed.
The Road Safety Act 2018 brought major changes in the form of licenses and fines. The new law introduced a minimum education requirement to grade 8 and equivalent, while fines for multiple offenses were increased.
Punishment for crashes has also seen an upgrade. Under the new law, if someone was seriously injured or killed in a motor vehicle accident, it would be considered a no-bail offence, with the maximum penalty being the death penalty.
However, many other questions remained unanswered, for example the question of the payment of transport workers. A change in the payment mechanism was among the students’ 9-point demands. A report by the Accident Research Institute (ARI) of the Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology (BUET) found that ‘speeding’ and ‘reckless driving’ are the two main culprits 53% and 38% of road accident victims, respectively. . Part of the reason the numbers are so high is that transport workers are paid per trip, instead of being paid a weekly wage. This forces drivers to rush to complete as many trips as possible, which in turn leads to speeding and reckless driving.
Nor did the law hold transport owners liable. It replaced a traffic accident victim’s right to sue motor vehicle owners for compensation with the right to apply for ‘financial assistance’ from a fund to be built up from grants and contributions government and motor vehicle owners, as well as fines obtained under the Act.
Moreover, parts of the law remain virtually ineffective following negotiations between the transport associations and the government since November 2019. Last year, the government decided to change the law in the face of strikes by workers and owners of the transport requiring, among other things, that all offenses under the law be made releasable and that the minimum level of education required to obtain a driving license be reduced.
So, did the Road Safety Act 2018 accurately reflect protesters’ demands?
“Not entirely, no. It was far from perfect, but I think it was a step in the right direction,” Medha said.
“No, it wasn’t,” Anik replied. “It was a partial reflection at best, but it was a very small part. One of the things that has changed is the use of helmets among motorcyclists. It was not something that everyone world was doing before August 2018.”
The fight continues however. The torch is carried by the very people who took to the streets four years ago.
“When we retired from the streets after the violence was inflicted on us, we felt hopeless. However, we did not give up. Together we formed Nirapad Sarak Andolon (NISA) and led campaigns for awareness, as well as research on road safety and better working conditions for transport workers,” said NISA central co-organizer Shahidul Islam Apon, who was also at the forefront of the 2018 movement.
Apon Biswas echoed the same when he said, “The movement changed the core of an entire generation. It made us believe in our strengths and gave us a voice against injustice. incited zeal to protest. That’s what we get out of this movement.”
Nahaly Nafisa Khan is deputy editor at City Desk, The Daily Star.
Azmin Azran is a sub-editor at SHOUT, The Daily Star.