As anyone with a social media account will already know, the hashtags #richkidsofdhaka and #classykidsofdhaka have gone viral, with users whole-heartedly joining in to pay mocking homage to the now-infamous teenager, whose name is not been mentioned because of his status as a minor. The teen in question, on October 12, had been racing his father’s SUV under the influence while posting photos on social media, when he rammed two rickshaws, injuring four. Rumours of one death remained unconfirmed. However, beneath this somewhat amusing jab on a digital platform at the egotism and self-glorification of the social elite of Dhaka, lurks a much more menacing issue- the alarming rise of drunk driving incidents in the capital. There are several factors which have given rise to this situation.
Too close for comfort
The first and most important factor is the very high population density of Dhaka. A teeming population of 14.4 million packed into a city spanning only 300 square kilometres means that about 19,447 people live per square kilometre. This gives rise to the next two factors - the infamous traffic jams of Dhaka that sap precious time and energy from its residents every day, and absurdly low traffic supervision. The number of traffic police in Dhaka is far fewer than necessary. In fact, the only places they can be spotted are at traffic intersections, and at the spot of a road accident - that too, well after the damage has been done. This means that the roads of Dhaka are extremely chaotic - drivers changing lanes, taking the wrong way on one-way routes…and, of course, even driving drunk. Not only are traffic personnel scarce, they are not even well-trained. There is no standard protocol in place in Dhaka to check the intoxication level of drivers even in the unlikely case that their irregular driving patterns are spotted. Here is where the presence of another core factor is palpable- the general ignorance of the availability of alcohol in the city.
Not so dry
Contrary to popular opinion, alcohol is not, in fact, prohibited in Bangladesh. The sale and consumption of alcohol is allowed for non-Muslims in the country. So while it might not be as prominent as the bottle of Chivas Regal pictured in the now-infamous Snapchat photo, alcohol consumption is far from non-existent in the city. There are several warehouses in the city that sell alcoholic drinks, as well as government approved bars at many clubs and hotels in the city. So there is a very real possibility that driving on Dhaka’s already frenzied roads, are some intoxicated drivers behind the wheels, putting at risk their own lives as well that those of the other commuters. In the capital of the Muslim-majority country, the issue of drunk driving is mistakenly dismissed as being insignificant - and the grave consequences of this attitude are being manifested in incidents like the aforementioned drunk-driving incident. It is about time breath analysers were used by the police to detect drunkenness of drivers, and CCTV footage was used for better surveillance and more concrete evidence.
Root of the problem
The last factor that basically worsens the effects of the other factors is the wide-spread corruption in the legal system of Bangladesh. Drivers blatantly ignore traffic rules because they know that they can easily be off the hook by discretely slipping the traffic police a wad of cash. And the police, in their turn, expertly overlook any traffic violations caused by politically influential people, because they do not want to get on the wrong side of those in power. This kind of brazen misuse of power is an open secret in our country - so much so that we have accepted it as a normal state of affairs.
All these factors have helped to create the current situation in Dhaka, where a person can be driving while under the influence of alcohol, or even being well below the legal age limit for driving, yet be unnoticed and unchallenged, until s/he gets involved in a major accident. According to a recent study by Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity, a commuters’ association, road accidents caused nearly a death an hour last year, with 8,589 casualties in 5,928 road accidents across the country. With such low surveillance and the indifference of the concerned authorities, the situation has been worsening day by day.
The most shocking aspect of the incident of October 12, is the age of the driver. The teenager involved has been much vilified by social media and the national dailies, and general bitterness at the “dirty-rich,” apparently invincible section of society he hails from has further facilitated this public animosity. However, the actual state of affairs is not this black and white. As easy as it is to point fingers at one individual, one segment, of society, the fact of the matter is, it is we as a society who are to blame. We need to take a step back and evaluate what kind of social structure and power dynamics we have created for this kind of incidents to take place. The powerful are undoubtedly to blame for abusing their power, but the very social and moral norms, or rather the lack of them, that are being imparted to the young generation deserve serious reconsideration.
Underage driving, drunk driving, road accidents, lack of justice to criminals, lack of transparency of the legal system, flagrant misuse of power - each of these is yet another disquieting symptom of the rapidly disintegrating fibres of our society, of decaying moral standards. Unless we consider the big picture and initiate reforms at both the family and the national levels, we will be able to change neither the entitlement mindset of the people, nor the malfunctioning of the system - and the accidents will only get more tragic.