Passengers are being forced to sit side by side on two seats
Although bus operators are hardly following the 12 conditions imposed by the government, they have strictly been charging increased bus fares – and, at times, double.
Passengers claimed a lack of monitoring and weak enforcement of laws behind the harassment. They demanded a lifting of the increased fares as operators do not follow health guidelines.
On May 29, the government resumed bus operations amid the pandemic by increasing bus fares by 60% and imposing 12 conditions, including providing two seats to a passenger.
No standing passengers, disinfecting buses before trips, availability of hand sanitizers inside buses and hand washing facilities at terminals were some of the conditions.
It was made compulsory for bus staff to wear masks and not work frequently without resting for a certain period of time.
However, passengers claim that none of the conditions have been followed by bus operators except a charging of increased fares – sometimes double.
“I have visited many buses and bus terminals in Dhaka and Chittagong. No bus operators were found following any conditions imposed by the government, especially maintaining social distancing and hygiene inside buses and at bus terminals,” said Mozammel Haque Chowdhury, secretary general of Bangladesh Passengers Welfare Association (BPWA).
“There is very weak enforcement of law as there are few magistrates available,” he told Dhaka Tribune.
Once the government approved the increased rates of fares, Road, Transport, and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader said the 12 conditions “must be followed strictly or else punishment will follow.”
“Mobile courts will be operated against the rules breakers,” he had said to the bus operators.
Instances of charging extra
Mohammad Ali, a small trader, regularly travels by bus from Sadarghat to Rampura kitchen market on a fare of Tk40, sometimes Tk50. However, it was only Tk20 before the Covid-19 crisis.
“Local buses mostly take on more passengers than their actual capacity at peak hours, charging double fares,” he added.
Mainul Hasan, a shoe factory worker in Badda, said: “I travel from Tongi to Badda at the cost of Tk45-50, but the regular fare was Tk25 only earlier.”
“Though fares increased by 60%, bus operators are charging between 80-100%. Initially, hand sanitizers were found inside buses once services were resumed, but now they are not seen,” he added.
Meanwhile, the situation on long route and inter-district bus services is worse than on city buses as there are no hand washing facilities at the terminals and bus staff do not wear masks inside the buses.
Visits to Shasongacha, Chawkbazar and Jangalia bus terminal in Comilla revealed that all buses were carrying passengers at 100% capacity. Besides, they were charging increased fares.
If any passengers voiced their concerns about safety guidelines not being followed, they were reportedly asked to choose another bus.
Once a bus arrived from Dhaka, it was made ready for another trip without basic disinfection.
Shifat, a helper of Asia Line plying between Dhaka and Comilla, said: “We were taking in 100% passengers with increased fares before Eid-ul-Azha.”
Bilashbohul Express Service, which runs between Barguna and Barisal, has been charging more than double the actual fare and with full capacity, claimed a passenger who travelled recently.
A transport worker said the fare was Tk120 between Jessore and Kushtia earlier but is now Tk200. Passengers occupy all the seats.
Similar scenes were witnessed on the Satkhira, Khulna, Bagerhat and Jhenaidah routes, where operators were charging extra fares but not following health guidelines.
What do transport leaders have to say about it?
Tajul Islam, secretary of Comilla Bus Owners Association, said: “We are alerting bus owners and campaigning at terminals for health guidelines to be followed, but they do not follow the directives.”
“Many bus operators claim that they will go on a loss if they operate buses with 50% of passengers,” he added.
“It is true that health guidelines are not followed properly on the transport vehicles despite increased fares,” said Mamunur Rashid, president of Bangladesh Paribahan Sangstha Sramik Union, Jessore.
“We faced many conflicts between passengers and transport workers for charging extra fares without following health guidelines. The administration should take strict action against violators, since in most cases we can do nothing,” he added.
Khandaker Enayetullah, secretary general of Bangladesh Road Transport Owners Association, said: “We are not allowed to carry more than 50% of passengers in a bus. But if the driver and helper take on more passengers, law enforcement should be strict.”
Weak enforcement leading to chaos
According to the Bangladesh Road Transport Association (BRTA), the transport regulatory body has only eight executive magistrates to regulate transport health guidelines under The Disease Prevention, Control, and Elimination Act, 2018.
The executive magistrates work under the BRTA headquarters and can only operate mobile courts in Dhaka.
Therefore, BRTA has issued a letter to the deputy commissioners of the 64 districts to operate mobile courts against the violators of health guidelines while operating transport. But due to a lack of executive magistrates, district authorities also cannot operate a mobile court every day in each district.
“We operate mobile courts every day, including holidays, but it is not enough as the volume of violations is increasing day by day,” said Mohammad Abdur Razzak, deputy director (enforcement) BRTA.
“We have started operating mobile courts at the entry points of Dhaka such as Aminbazar, Kanchpur, and Abdullahpur against buses carrying extra passengers and charging extra fares in long routes,” he added.
“We are taking action against those not following the rules,” said Comilla DC Abul Fazal Mir.
Shahnaz Begum, executive magistrate of Jessore, said: “We are filing cases against those who do not follow the health guidelines.”
Demands to lift increased fare rates
The gazette notification regarding a fare increase states: “The increased rate of fares will be applicable for emergencies due to coronavirus. Once the crisis is resolved, the existing rates of fare will be re-applied.”
However, the authorities are still not thinking about revising the fare as the Covid-19 crisis has not gone away.
Mozammel Haque Chowdhury, secretary general of BPWA, said: “As transport operators do not follow the health guidelines, we have demanded a bringing back of the previous rate of fares.”
Our correspondents Tauhid Zaman, Jessore, Md Hedait Hossain Molla, Khulna, and Masud Alam, Comilla contributed to this report