Before a blank-cheque endorsement of the government's decision to ban battery-run rickshaws and vans across the country, there is a need for reviewing the move from a broader perspective. The decision was taken at a meeting of the national task force, formed to curb road accident, which met last week. The argument behind banning the electric auto-rickshaws is that these are accident-prone, mainly when plying on highways and roads across the country. The home minister, also the head of the task force, pointed out that these vehicles lack a proper braking system. Only the front wheel of battery-run rickshaws has brakes and there is no brake for the rear wheels, or if there is any, it does not work properly, he added.
What the minister said is true. Many rickshaw-pullers drive it carelessly, assuming their vehicles are a near competitor with motor-driven three-wheelers (popularly known as CNG) or private cars. Their faulty design helped by careless driving, proves hazardous and leads to accidents on the roads and highways. These vehicles, along with motorcycles, sometimes driven on the wrong side of the streets and highways, often go out of control as they approach fast moving cars, microbuses, buses and trucks. In some parts of Dhaka city, the battery-run rickshaws are responsible for traffic chaos.
Nevertheless, there is a continuous increase of battery-run vehicles over the years, unmindful of the risk of accidents. The absence of adequate and convenient public transport also increases the demand. These vehicles help increase the mobility of many people within a short distance and make travel a little cheaper than human-pulled rickshaws. These are now popular public transport in semi-urban and rural areas of the country. Many people also take the driving of these vehicles as their source of income. However, no statistics are available on the number of battery-run vehicles, the amount invested in these vehicles, and people who depend on these directly and indirectly for their livelihoods. Official statistics do not capture the growing activities of the sector, considering it a part of the informal economy.
Now, banning these vehicles was first decided in 2011. Later in 2014, the High Court also banned non-licensed battery-run vehicles across the country. Nevertheless, the ban is still ineffective almost everywhere. Law enforcing agency sometimes launches drives to stop the vehicles in some parts of the country by seizing and dismantling a few battery-run rickshaws and easy-bikes. Thus, the latest decision to ban these vehicles is nothing new. What is problematic is that the decision-makers did not consider the mobility aspects and dependence of many people on these vehicles. They are also yet to provide any better alternative and ignored the economy behind the battery-run vehicles.
Again, it is also unclear whether a new type of battery-run vehicles will arrive on the streets and roads anytime soon, replacing the current ones. Suppose the ban is to provide new players in the market by kicking out the existing operators and beneficiaries. It will be a big blow to thousands of people who are already struggling hard due to the pandemic. Instead of imposing a wholesale ban, the government may think of streamlining the sector by making registration mandatory, adding safety features to the vehicles and restricting their movement on highways and busy roads.