Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan cautiously distanced himself on Wednesday night from the nationwide strike that paralysed communications across Bangladesh for over 30 hours earlier this week.
“The situation went out of control when workers heard of another driver being sentenced to death,” the minister told the press in the evening at the Motijheel office of Bangladesh Sarak Paribahan Malik Samity, the road transport owners' association.
Shajahan, the executive president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers' Federation (BRTWF), said the strike was a spontaneous outcome of the workers' frustration and was not orchestrated by his organisation.
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But the verdict that supposedly sparked the transport workers' resentment - a life sentence for bus driver Jamir Hossain for the death of five people in a 2011 accident - was announced on February 22, a week before the strike gripped the country. Only the Bus and Truck Workers Union in Chuadanga, Jamir's home district, went on strike in the beginning.
Three days later the Khulna division went on strike but this was still contained in a region.
The strike that brought the nation to a halt was announced much later, on Monday night from a meeting in Motijheel where State Minister for Rural Development Mashiur Rahman Ranga was present. Earlier that day, Shajahan made a seemingly innocuous comment that the workers had a right to abstain from work.
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Transport workers go on rampage on Wednesday, March 1, 2017 , demonstrating against "unfair justice" against two of their fellow co-workers Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune
One newspaper reported that the minister met workers' leaders at his home on Monday afternoon and decided that the strike should go national, although the minister said last night that he was only trying to resolve the problems.
So Shajahan and his colleague Ranga, who is the president of the owners’ association, appear to have backed the transport strike. But to what end?
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A new Road Transport Act is on the books and may be raised in a cabinet meeting as early as next week. Among other reforms, this bill proposes that deaths and injuries in traffic accidents should fall under the Penal Code.
The Penal Code has harsh penalties for negligent homicide and manslaughter. Currently, the Motor Vehicles Ordinance 1983 stipulates a maximum of six months’ imprisonment for wrongdoings related to reckless driving.
Transport workers are understandably disturbed by the life sentence given to Jamir Hossain. No doubt, the death sentence of truck driver Mir Hossain Miru – which was a murder committed in 2003, not a traffic accident – was misused to further aggravate them.
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The strike was their attempt to send the establishment the message that they cannot operate with the threat of a life sentence or the noose hanging over them.
Indeed, road accidents have myriad reasons and virtually no bus driver plies the roads plotting to take lives. The Accident Research Institute in Buet says that while a lack of skill in drivers is a key reason, the principal contributory factors to most traffic accidents are poor road design, badly maintained vehicles and mixed traffic with a variety of vehicles.
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A armored personnel carrier of Dhaka Metropolitan Police patrols in Dhaka's Gabtoli after transport workers trashed the area on Wednesday, March 1, 2017 Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune
Such complex issues require complex investigations. The Dhaka Tribune has previously reported that the police have no training at all on such methods.
At the beginning of the strike, Abdur Rahim, senior vice-president of the workers federation, gave his backing to the convicted driver in an interview with the Dhaka Tribune.
“Jamir Hossain had a driving career of around 33 years. If he is not a skilled driver, who is?” Abdur said.
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Vehicle owners, on the other hand, have another issue on their hands.
The family of filmmaker Tareque Masud, one of the victims of the 2011 accident, have filed a case for Tk13cr compensation for his death. The case is now with the High Court and a hearing will be held on March 7. A similar case is under trial in Sylhet.
Compensations for traffic accidents are a common practice around the world but have no precedent in Bangladesh. If it comes into practice, it could be a massive burden for bus and truck owners.