Resting on the shoulders of this tiny city are its teeming millions. Toe to toe we stand, face to face we speak. With recycled breath, air infused with the deathly cocktail of carbon monoxide fumes and dust, we trudge along on streets that are a combination of side-walks acting as depots for construction companies and as an additional lane for motorcycles, drain covers doubling as side-walks, pot-holes serving as basins, dustbins as garnish, police officers objectified into traffic lights, their batons and curses some thin semblance of law, heat providing free mobile showers. And like Pac-men, we navigate amongst the cars, trucks, CNGs, and buses, whether we be in them or out.
This all culminates into the density with which the city presents itself: A miasma of exhausted individuals and machinery. And the result? A persistent sense of worry, a compound interest stress that chokes the life out of you before you reach your destination. How ridiculous that, in a metropolis, we are forced to ponder, long and hard, about the repercussions of a single journey, of the obstacles that we might face, pitting the purpose of the visit against the actual act of visiting itself.
Before the public travels, it considers a few things, such as the mode of transport, distance, time it will take, the weather, and the cost, among others. For those with a car and a chauffeur, most of these perhaps don’t apply. If one were to not have a chauffeur, then parking is a hassle, thanks to the lack of a system, and side-mirrors executing their signature disappearing act.
And the options presented to us, the ones who must resort to public transport, are these:
1) Rickshaws, which are slow, but suitable for short distances, but also hampered by its inability to cross certain thresholds at certain times of the day. Once affordable, now going from one end of Dhanmondi to another costs close to Tk50. But who can blame them, amongst the heat and the rising prices?
2) CNGs, for the slightly upper middle-class without a car. With their stained blue-grey shirts and joke of a meter, the drivers of these mobile prisons stand, spitting paan with a cockroach-like hubris, reveling in your desperation. And the cost, exorbitant. However, if you want to get somewhere via the shortest route, in the most comfortable fashion, this is your only option. And a preferred option for women who do not wish to be groped and man-handled on the way there.
3) And ah, buses. One cannot help but take a moment to digest the sheer microcosm of chaos that our bus services are. There’s a reason these are dirt cheap, with the likes of a Tk5 cost from Mirpur to Asad Gate, or Tk13 if you get a “gatelock sitting (sic) service.” One finds oneself squished into the armpit of an odorant man, while the bus will sometimes stop, hours on end, as the sweat on one's back drips into one’s undergarments. And, contradictorily, while your stop comes, they will be in such hurry to move on, they won’t stop to let you down safely, leaving you to jump off somewhere in the middle of the road with oncoming traffic behind you, a rather poignant and caring “baam pa den” as goodbye.
But, despite the problems that plague our various bus services, it is, maybe, the only hope for the layman, and most definitely for the poorer working class. And these problems are numerous and life-disavowing. With the limitations of rickshaws and the lack of affordability of CNGs on a daily basis (one could potentially be spending Tk600 daily just on travelling expenses for the latter), buses are, depressingly, the only solution to long distance journeys. And with the rising prices of rickshaw fares, it might be the only solution for short distances too. They are efficient: Green, cheap, and take up less road space per individual.
Having a state-sponsored public transport service would be ideal, but even if such a utopia, one in which the same problems don’t persist, were not to be the target, certain rules need to be in place to tackle the problems which make each journey a life-threatening undertaking. And the lack of traffic rules in general which infest the city only serve to accentuate the problem.
Except for the odd service, none of them have a ticketing system. Even a few years ago, customers would, from certain fixed locations, buy tickets and then board. But this has, since then, almost completely vanished. This leads to constant bickering between the conductor and customers, arguing about the “correct” fare, and often leads to physical violence. This, in turn, has also led to the conductors and drivers stealing from the owners, as there is no record of number of passengers boarded.
To tackle this, owners now enforce, one presumes, certain daily quotas, much in the vein of CNGs. This is the primary cause of delay, with buses standing still at certain junctures for minutes on end, waiting for the required number of customers. Frustrated, the customers hail abuses at the staff, who, skin now thick as iron, blissfully ignore them and the piling queue of beeping horns behind, since the bus has perfectly parked itself diagonally across the street, leading to a scenic bottleneck.
The lack of government-sanctioned bus stops is another major hurdle. Buses do stop at verbally agreed upon locations, but, if there aren’t enough customers, they will stop for anyone who has their hands raised up. This is also extremely unsafe when getting off, as one has to look back, make sure there is no vehicle about to flatten one to death, and then make the left-leg leap to freedom, to speak nothing of the driving quality itself.
And the state of the buses themselves, these ramshackle tin lotor potors, is an accident-prone, metal-protrusion exhibiting, life-devaluing mess. Some of the better buses are acceptable, but the “local” ones have holes above, from which rain falls through, holes below, through which you can see the pavement that might one day have for display your priceless skull, and holes on the side, with shattered glass that might slit your wrists before you decide to.
One isn’t left with enough words to describe the plight of women, though they are given preferential seating.
This kind of complete and utter disregard for human decency is shameful. There need to be enforced rules and laws in place which don’t allow the buses to treat the roads as their backyards, and the people as their toys. Safer driving, a monitored ticketing system, specific state-sanctioned bus stops, and well-maintained buses need to be in place. And if one knows anything of the people and its history, relying on their humanity to fix the problem would be a fool’s endeavour.
Even if the solution comes at a price, at least it will be a financial one. Otherwise, we may be moving up the socio-economic ladder, without being able to physically go anywhere.