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Something is better than nothing

  • Published at 03:52 pm August 10th, 2018
There’s no doubt that the bus system needs regulating
There’s no doubt that the bus system needs regulating / MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

Mayor Annisul Huq’s transport plan may be our best bet

I am somewhat relieved to see the government suddenly pull out of the dusty shelf the transport consolidation plan put together by the late businessman Annisul Huq, whose entrepreneurial background had led to his appointment as the DNCC chief.  

At least there is a practical plan, which is more than we had in decades. Though the key pillar of the plan -- an amalgamation of all the dozens of private bus and minibus operators into six publicly traded private companies -- disturbs my deeply-held free market instincts, experience teaches that the unregulated free market of the Dhaka surface transport is simply untenable. 

The late DNCC chief’s plan is a tenable solution that combines private ownership with a greater investment in public regulation and the probability of more stringent enforcement of those regulations. In this regard, there are echoes of the post-WWI consolidation of the myriad of British railway companies into four larger ones that were easier to regulate in terms of safety and standardization for emergency logistics.

Whether the implementation of that plan happens or not remains an open question. On too many occasions in the last few years we have seen the head of the government promise a major reform regarding free elections, quotas, free speech, and now transportation, just as the public pressure becomes intense … only to walk back that promise when the pressure subsides.

This is no way to run a medieval country, let alone a modern one. But we will set aside that argument for another day.

So what next? Six companies instead of 60 is an improvement only if the rest of the regulatory scaffolding is put in place, and if the laws on the books are applied irrespective of party affiliation. Given the presence of transportation interests in the current cabinet, the equality of the law part looks a far stretch. Without a plain and rigorously communicated mandate that companies and unions with ruling party connections are not above the law, all the best plans will break down rather quickly. And, to add misery to the flop, others will simply learn from such signals and sign up in droves as members of ruling party affiliated entities … as we have seen in business organizations and professional associations.

The second key ingredient for the plan to work is to unify all the various entities in one chain of command when it comes to the metro’s bus routes. A centralized authority -- think of it as a mini BRTA -- that not only coordinates but can command the resources, when needed for its mandate, of organizations as far reaching as the Road and Highways Division, police, public works division, and utility providers will be necessary for this consolidation idea of Annisul Huq to work. 

Better still, a unified non-partisan statutory authority appointed by and reporting to the two mayors of Dhaka -- similar to the bistate Port Authority in the Greater New York area -- maybe the supervisory panel that will be needed to get this reform to sustain. If such an authority has a contractual CEO brought in from the outside of government and with executive powers of the authority vested in her, all the better. 

Even with all these approaches to reform, the triangular problem will remain pending to be fixed: An underground or overground rapid transit system, an independent police, and a municipal and national governance system that rests on the votes of the governed. 

For the first part of the triangle, I have been hearing promises since I was a kid … and my grandparents and parents have been sinking their taxes into any number of feasibility studies to no avail. 

The second and the third parts of the triangle are related: Government without electoral mandates cannot afford to have independent law enforcement agencies, or else they would collapse quickly. 

Essentially by trading the short-term benefits of the Annisul Huq plan for the long-term health of the capital’s public transport system, we would be bartering the present for the future. Yet, beggars cannot be choosers. 

Even one life saved is worth the compromise. If there is no other alternative to temporarily fixing the unholy mess that Dhaka’s traffic is, we might as well give a try to the only plan on the table and gingerly support the head of the government’s initiative in implementing it, at least in principle.

It is better late than never, better something, than nothing. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]