The council of ministers has approved the final draft of the Road Transport Act (RTA) 2018 after dogged procrastination and foot-dragging for many years. If passed by parliament, it will replace the Motor Vehicles Ordinance (MVO) of 1983. The draft law has been approved by the cabinet after a long gap of seven years since the preparation of the first draft in 2011. This time, the approval seems to have been accorded post-haste against the backdrop of a movement spearheaded by the country's student community seeking remedy for killing on roads by reckless driving. But already, much criticism has been levelled against the draft RTA in the mass media including newspapers.
Many feel that the draft law has not been able to meet the long expectations of 35 years since the promulgation of the MVO in 1983. Some even hold the view that the title of the act could have incorporated the term 'road safety'. The increases in punishments appear to be cosmetic that do not reflect the current reality after 35 years. Numerous studies indicate that indiscipline and reckless mentality of drivers are mainly responsible for most of the accidents. But maximum punishment of drivers for deaths or serious injuries has been raised by only two years, from three to five, in line with section 304 of the penal code. The linking of accidents with section 302 of the penal code, under which death penalty can be given to drivers, remains suspect and impractical as the motive to kill has to be established. Besides, others responsible for occurrence of accidents have been indemnified. For example, accidents can occur even if a licensed driver drives a vehicle by obeying all rules and regulations. It can happen when the driver is forced to work overtime, illegal vehicles like Nasimon and Karimon ply on the highways, the owners deploy date-expired vehicles, and the tires and parts are out of order. Certainly, the drivers are not responsible for all these lapses.
When the draft road transport law was first prepared in 2011, many thought that the law was being amended with an honest motive. But many amendments have been incorporated since then. Changes have been brought to numerous provisions for satisfying the interests of vested quarters. Unfortunately, the draft law now does not provide exemplary punishment for reckless driving and accidents. Provision of hefty fines could have been incorporated, but that has not been done. Maximum punishment of five years is insufficient, as our neighbours as well as developed countries have penalties ranging from 10 to 14 years. Besides, the Supreme Court's directive for maximum punishment of seven years has also not been obeyed.
Many among those who control the transport sector in the country will stand for election in the upcoming parliamentary polls. They have been indemnified by the draft law. The task of issuing licences is performed amateurishly in our country and route permits are sanctioned in an inefficient manner. The latter's approval is given mainly by people in the transport sector. The relevant government organisations also lack the expertise to conduct inquiries after accidents. The task of investigation is very much scientific and technology-oriented. An independent body should have been established to look after these technical matters.
Experts opine that the issue of bringing discipline in the road transport sector has been completely ignored by the draft law. Reforming the operating procedure of bus services has also not been attempted. There has been a popular demand for bringing all the buses under a few companies and then running those centrally. This was termed the 'route franchise' method. The 20-year strategic transport plan (STP) for Dhaka launched in 2005 as well as the study carried out by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2015 had proposed such a system for disciplining the sector.
According to eminent transport specialist and BUET teacher Professor Shamsul Haque, indiscipline in Dhaka's transport sector starts from its approval process. The owners and workers are accorded permission in line with their wishes by following an unprofessional and unscientific method. This is the main source of unhealthy competition in the sector. There is no provision in the proposed act to rectify this system. The demand for safe roads would never be realised by keeping this system intact. It may be noted that around 8,000 buses ply on the roads of Dhaka under the banner of 246 companies. And the number of bus owners is about 2,500. Influential people including politicians take approval from the transport committees by opening a company. Then they start operating buses after buying a few buses and borrowing the rest from others. Side by side with unhealthy competition, this process breeds an extortion regime.
The regional transport committees (RTC) accord approval to bus operations in all districts and cities of the country. According to MVO 1983, the owners and workers are supposed to be represented by one representative each in the committees. But three or four owner and worker representatives are found everywhere. The proposed act also provides for at least one representative from the owners' and workers' unions. That implies, more than one such representatives can be kept. But surprisingly, there is no provision for keeping a passengers' representative in the committee. The RTC accords approval for operating buses and mini-buses on 30 conditions. These include collecting fare in accordance with rates fixed by the government, behaving properly with the passengers, keeping the papers up-to-date, and obeying laws and rules. The BRTA reserves the right to cancel approval if any of these conditions are violated. But no such example of cancellation exists till today.
The extent of widespread irregularities and mismanagement in the road transport sector could be seen before, during and after the recent protests staged by students across the country centring around an accident. It exposed the pervasiveness of drivers without valid licences and vehicles without fitness. In fact, this sector has now become a monster on accumulatyion of irregularities over many years. It therefore remains doubtful whether the draft RTA Act in its present form will be able to bring back discipline in the road transport sector. Improvements are certainly needed.
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