25 years on, Ilias Kanchan’s long battle for road safety continues
Jahanara Kanchan’s death in a car crash in October of 1993 left her famous husband devastated. Deeply affected by this life-changing event, Ilias Kanchan started grieving for his beloved wife by springing into action. Only 39 days after the tragic death, Kanchan fouNirapad Sharak Chai (NISCHA).
25 years later, the organization is still carrying on promoting road safety through policy advocacy, public engagement and awareness raising. Within this time, it has been one of the instrumental forces for driving public discourse on road safety.
Currently, the organization is a member of the National Road Safety Council of Bangladesh. NISCHA is also one of the agencies working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety.
And at the helm of it, is still Ilias Kanchan, carrying the movement forward, just as passionately as he did in 1993, when the film star was in his late 30s.
It has been an uphill journey for the celebrated actor. “People told me ‘you will become a zero from a hero if you start this’,” Kanchan said sitting at his NISCHA office in Dhaka’s Kakrail. But there were much harder challenges. A thoroughly traditional society refused to see the loss of lives in road crashes as simple ‘cause and effect’.
“People believed I was going against Allah, by trying to stop deaths,” Kanchan said. As a person with “profound belief in Allah”, the actor refused to accept such a simplistic notion of God’s will. “Yes, nothing happens without Allah’s decree, but that does not mean you do not act,” said Kanchan.
With over four thousand reported fatalities and nine thousand odd people injured in road accidents across Bangladesh in 2017 alone, the situation looks hardly hopeful after 25 years of activism by NISCHA. But Kanchan, while not complacent, says the situation is improving, albeit not as much and as quickly as it should.
“Bangladesh has seen the second highest decline in road accidents among the 13 South Asian countries. The first is Maldives, which has only about a thousand kilometres of roads in total, and really not comparable to Bangladesh which has about 24 thousand kilometres of roads and highways. And that excludes local government roads,” he said.
With a population of 170 million and nearly six million vehicles, ensuring road safety is a tough job in Bangladesh. Even more so due to the poor implementation of law. “That is why awareness and training is so important and we have been saying this since the beginning,” Kanchan said.
The United Nations General Assembly in 2010 declared 2011–2020 as The Decade of Action for Road Safety, with the goal to stabilize and reduce the forecast level of road traffic deaths around the world. It is estimated that 5 million lives could be saved on the world's roads during the decade.
Ilias Kanchan thinks that the UN’s goal of reducing deaths by 50 percent by 2020 is possible. “Even more is possible by adopting a zero tolerance strategy, as proven by Sweden. In 2016 there was not a single road traffic death in Sweden,” he said.
Bangladesh is nowhere near the developed countries in road traffic safety, says Kanchan, and one of the reasons has been the prevailing bureaucracy that slows down, even thwarts implementing reforms.
“Many of our suggestions and proposals were not taken into consideration. Simple effective measures like training a huge number of unemployed population with an SSC education could have changed the whole situation dramatically in 25 years,” he said.
Kanchan also advocates for teaching road traffic safety formally in schools. But lack of awareness is not the only culprit, he also acknowledges.
“There aren’t sufficient facilities for pedestrians. Footover bridges are problematic. It’s unreasonable to expect that everyone will use them. There are old and sick people. It’s a burden for them. Underpasses are much more practical. But there are only a handful of those,” he said.
However, for Kancha, there is room to be cautiously hopeful. “After the student protest the Prime Minister gave 17 directives. If these are implemented then there will be change,” he said.
Protests by school and college students erupted in Bangladesh in July 2018 after two high-schoolers were crushed to death by a bus in Dhaka. Kanchan expressed strong solidarity with the students during the protests.
“Because of the movement the issue of road safety was prominently featured in the election manifestos of all political parties for the first time,” and this common ground across political spectrums is even more reason to be hopeful, he said.
But ultimately, what keeps the 63-year old Kanchan going even after 25 years of non-stop activism is not merely the determination he had derived from the personal tragedy.
“I did begin this because of my love for my wife,” he said. “But the reason I kept my struggle alive is that I owe it to the millions of my viewers who cheered when I beat up the bad guys on the screen. It is for those who laughed with me and cried with me. I do it for the people of this country,” said Ilias Kanchan.