Those who have suggested and expected that Covid-19 would play an important role to improve the public transport system in Dhaka are most likely to prove wrong. Though their suggestion is sensible and expectation is rational, the reality in Bangladesh is that it is not ready to accept the recommendation or fulfil the expectation. It has become clear again that there will be no relief from the hazardous and chaotic public transport in Dhaka soon. The post-Covid period will see very little change in the public transport system in the country's capital city.
It is pathetic to note that a mega city like Dhaka is running without a dependable and efficient public transport. Besides the chaos and suffering that commuters endure, the economic and social cost of inefficient public transport is relatively high. People are paying high charges as physical strain and mental agony increase, leading to loss of their productivity on a daily basis. Nevertheless, policy-makers appear indifferent in this regard.
In Dhaka, public transport is primarily based on public buses, and there is nothing wrong with it. Public buses are, however, mostly unhygienic, unsafe and uncomfortable. With broken windows, torn seats, and shattered doors, most of those buses hardly follow basic safety standards, and there are almost no maintenance checks. Racing against each other on roads frequently, they are prone to cause accidents. Traffic police usually seem helpless in controlling the unruly public buses.
Backed by political power, there exists strong extortion racket. A guesstimate unveiled that the daily amount of bus terminal-centric extortions in Dhaka is at least Tk 100 million. The share of extortion money is distributed among leaders of different unions of the transport owners and workers, members of the law enforcing agencies, road transport regulators and local political leaders and activists, mainly linked to the ruling party. The racket is powerful enough to block any necessary reform in the operation of public buses and always keep the authorities under pressure to uphold their vested interests.
So, it is not surprising that there is virtually no initiative from the relevant authorities to explore the opportunity presented courtesy of the pandemic and to revisit the public transport system. Although the Covid-19 has prompted the urgency for clean and green public transport, the need is yet to get any space in the policy agenda.
Meanwhile, road transport and bridges minister last week said the government was considering resumption of the pre-Covid period fare of public buses. After two months of suspension, public bus service was resumed in June on condition of keeping half of the seats empty to contain the spread of coronavirus. The government, however, allowed 60 per cent hike of fare though there was no strict monitoring and in some cases bus owners started charging double the rate. Now returning to the previous fare of public buses will also allow full occupancy of seats. The minister also added that the use of mask is mandatory and there will be no standing passengers. Usually, many passengers don't get a place to sit particularly during rush hours and so they are compelled to stand in the narrow aisles inside the buses. Now it is to see whether and how the resumption of the previous fare of public buses takes effect. Anything of this order never happened in this country.