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Dhaka's great rickshaw conundrum  

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: July 15, 2019 22:17:09


Like on many previous occasions, rickshaws, the so-called eyesore among Dhaka's moving vehicles, have been singled out once again. The way they are being identified as sheer nuisance nowadays, these non-motorised vehicles emerge as a virtual black sheep in Dhaka's communication network. The latest government directive to make rickshaws and non-motorised vehicles off-limits to three major roads has sparked debilitating protests in some parts of the city. The resultant gridlock, traffic chaos, road blocks and public sufferings reminded the city-dwellers of similar spectacles in the past. After the slapping of the order, negotiations and understandings between the two sides normally put to rest the face-off for the time being. Rickshaws are found back to the streets. This ritual of abruptly announced government orders, protests, commuter sufferings and, finally, postponement of the directive has been seen off and on for years. Similar developments have occurred this time too.

 After the issuance of the latest ban order, traffic movement experts and urban planners had started brainstorming to reach a permanent solution to the festering problem. They were unanimous on not banning rickshaws wholesale and in one go from the major city streets. Instead, in accordance with the government plan, they too emphasised dedicated roads for rickshaw movement alongside the major roads. The plan to permit rickshaws and non-motorised vehicles only in local lanes was also welcomed. In fact, this is no radical solution. Several times after such orders, rickshaws were shoved into lanes and by-lanes. It resulted in the lanes becoming chockablock with rickshaws and vans with little space for pedestrians, not to speak of small and medium-motorised vehicles. Ironically, with the major roads becoming free of the rickshaw 'pests', the gridlock situation does not see any improvement either. With no non-motorised vehicles impeding their movement, the large and smaller buses, cars, auto-rickshaws, covered vans etc begin ruling the roost. Reckless competition between minibuses and also between giant-sized coaches has emerged earlier as the regular spectacle in the capital.

Given the major roads being stiflingly filled up with motorised vehicles, few could tell them from their earlier state. Back then, operators and drivers of motorised vehicles would put blame singularly on rickshaws for Dhaka's debilitating traffic congestions. Nothing could be a truth more distorted. A section of traffic movement experts have been harping on their findings for over a decade. As they have observed, it is not the rickshaws and vans which should be singled out for the capital's traffic anarchy.  They believed that the maddeningly increasing private cars and buses in particular have, in fact, been adding to the fast deterioration of Dhaka's traffic anarchy. The traffic scenario at one stage declined to such a point that the rickshaws started to be pushed into the narrow strips between the bus and car-filled roads and the edge of the footpaths. On many roads, without shopping complexes and important offices, schools etc rickshaws started becoming rarer before going out of sight eventually.

The order of slapping a rickshaw ban on the major roads and the plan to finally phase out this transport from Dhaka has apparently been prompted by a cliché pattern of thought. The persons or authorities who have revived this ineffectual idea appear to be far from the capital's urban reality. What they lack is pragmatism. Their periodic intervention only aggravates Dhaka's traffic problem. That why the urban authorities who deal with roads and vehicles have not yet adequately focused on the necessity of increasing the city roads' width is a quandary. Apart from the lack of necessary width, the roads are plagued by planning and construction flaws. In an overall condition like this, making rickshaws a scapegoat for traffic chaos time and again appears to be an aberrant game of buck-passing. In the past, manually driven cycle rickshaws were identified as culprits behind road accidents. This allegation was mostly true back then. But their declining presence on the busy major roads and the frenetically soaring number of motor-vehicles doesn't square with this observation now.

The solution to the problem related to free movement of motorised vehicles remains elusive in this city. On occasions, the non-motorised three-wheelers keep a low profile for some time and try their best to abide by traffic rules. After some time, they begin emerging with their earlier anarchic face. Owing mainly to their undisciplined presence in Dhaka, the cycle rickshaws are generally identified as a dreadful symbol of traffic mess-up. In spite of their role in Dhaka's impaired vehicular movement, the motorised vehicles remain absolved of all kinds of blame. These vehicles include private cars, buses and other means of motorised transport.

Rickshaws have been integral to Dhaka's commuting and short-distance travel for nearly 50 years. Over time, the mode of transport became a necessity for a tolerably comfortable life in Dhaka. The tricycle fell into disrepute with the sudden spurt in urban vehicular movement after the country's independence. What had added much to its infamy was its unwieldy presence. It was caused by the continued addition of unregistered rickshaws to the existing ones. The latter were under the supervision of municipal authorities. Currently, the number of unregistered rickshaws is mind-boggling, compared to the registered ones. According to official statistics, 79547 rickshaws now ply the Dhaka roads. On the other hand, the number of unofficial rickshaws could be more than 1.0 million.

An expert has recently re-emphasised reserving roadside lanes for plying rickshaws. The plan has already been executed in some parts of the city. During peak hours and on weekly holidays, those lanes remain swarmed with rickshaws. Against this backdrop, a section of urban planners still back the idea of retaining rickshaws in Dhaka. As they feel, apart from being less expensive, the pedalled rickshaws are eco-friendly and less prone to mishaps. But the planners underscore the need for steps based on long-term plans. According to others, the necessity of rickshaws on small and medium-distance travels could be felt acutely after the completion of the metro rail. In that new scenario, a large number of buses might go off the roads, leaving considerable space for rickshaws.

 

shihabskr@ymail.com

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