Addressing Bangladesh’s Age-Old Public Transportation System

About 3,000 to 5,000 student protesters took to Bangladesh’s streets at the end of July and in early August, demanding safer roads. Students even imposed informal roadblocks in order to check the roadworthiness of vehicles. Courtesy: A.K.M. Moshin

By Naimul Haq
DHAKA, Aug 31 2018 (IPS)

After the recent student uprising in Bangladesh, and despite increased policing on the streets and amendments to the traffic laws, there has been criticism that things have not changed significantly enough to make the country’s roads safer.

Ilias Kanchan, an actor and road safety activist, tells IPS that while the government was quick to observe ‘Traffic Week’ at the start of August, during which time the police had been actively inspecting vehicles and private cars for violations, it was not sufficient.

“The move was an eye wash. We notice the same [unroadworthy] public buses on the streets again driving without valid road permits and driving licenses. Although the traffic police are checking and fining violators everyday, the scale of violations have not declined, which shows ignorance [about the laws on the part] of the vehicle owners,” Kanchan, who himself narrowly escaped injury in a road accident in 1989, tells IPS.“In true sense we require massive plans on infrastructure development, equipment support, strengthening of institutions and building capacities to see an overall improvement in public road safety.” — architect and outspoken social activist, Mubasshar Hussain

Kanchan has been advocating for safer roads under the Nirapad Sarak Chai (We Demand Safe Roads) campaign for the last 25 years, ever since his wife was killed in a tragic road accident.

About 3,000 to 5,000 student protesters took to the streets at the end of July and in early August, demanding safer roads and calling for order to be brought to the chaotic, age-old public transportation system—one that is mostly dominated by private transport owners and workers.

The protests, the first of its kind by students in the history of this country, began after a bus crashed into students on the afternoon of Jul. 29, killing two and injuring many others. It sparked off violent protests across the capital Dhaka, a city of over 18 million people.

Shaken by the nationwide, fast-spreading student road blockade movement, the government bowed to the ultimatum of demonstrators, agreeing to meet their demands in phases.

Quick changes to the laws

The government promised safer roads and a clampdown against illegal bus drivers. And the country’s relevant traffic departments are already implementing some of the demands, which include:

  • The vigorous checking of vehicles for roadworthiness;
  • Increasing the number of police check posts;
  • Strictly fining offenders;
  • Punishing drivers and owners for driving unroadworthy vehicles on the roads.

The government also amended the country’s traffic laws..

In early August, cabinet approved the Road Transport Act 2018, which changed the maximum sentence for death in a road accident to five years without bail, from a previous maximum of three years with bail. Fines ranging from USD 50 to USD 200 for speeding and other traffic offences were also imposed. The act will soon be passed into law by parliament.

The effect of the clampdown is often noticeable on Dhaka’s streets. Motorcyclists now wear helmets and private cars and buses are also forced to drive in their demarcated lanes, instead of driving all over the road as previously. Speeding is virtually absent and the use of indicator lights when turning is mandatory.

The police and road safety departments have substantially increased their vigilance and checking, according to officials in these departments.

Some feel sentences are too lenient

But Kanchan tells IPS that activists had called for a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment and were dissatisfied with the new proposed act.

“We had proposed a minimum sentence of five years instead. We had also proposed punishing not only the drivers [responsible for] accidents but also the [vehicle] owners for neglecting to comply with the laws.

“This clearly shows how serious the governments [is] about road safety,” Kanchan says.

Recent research by the Accident Research Institute at Bangladesh’s University of Engineering and Technology shows that reckless driving and speeding cause 90 percent of the 6,200 road accidents that occur in the country each year.

The report also shows that in the past three and a half years over 25,000 people were killed in road accidents alone—about 20 people per day. And over 62,000 people were permanently injured or maimed during that same timeframe. In addition, the Bangladesh loses USD 4.7 billion from these accidents—about two percent of the country’s GDP—each year.

Well-known architect and outspoken social activist, Mubasshar Hussain, tells IPS: “I am very hopeful of a better situation as the government is showing signs of bringing safety on the roads but the point is we let this situation reach its limits. In general we are too tolerant and seldom challenge or protest crimes committed by the unruly drivers.”

“I also see a lack of seriousness from the traffic division who control and are responsible for maintaining order on the streets. Despite checking, [unsafe] vehicles and illegal drivers are still allowed to drive on the streets and it is a shame that despite such a stir the same crimes are taking place again,” he says.

“In true sense we require massive plans on infrastructure development, equipment support, strengthening of institutions and building capacities to see an overall improvement in public road safety,” Hussain adds.

Numerous police check points and mobile courts

Sheikh Mohammad Mahbub-e-Rabbani, director of the road safety wing of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, tells IPS things have changed on the roads.

“I don’t think the observations are correct,” he says responding to the criticism.

“Things have drastically changed as you can already see on the streets of Dhaka and other cities. We have launched massive police check posts with mobile courts to give on the spot decisions for any offence. Far more numbers of police have been deployed to keep vigil and check any offence.”

“The records of fines and punishments for fake licenses and registration documents in the last three weeks show the difference. Such a drive to bring offenders to book could soon bring better safety standards on the roads,” says Rabbani.

However, some are concerned that the powerful lobbying power of transport owners means that amendments to the laws are not strong enough and that corrupt police officers will continue to overlook their transgressions.

“It is indeed also frustrating that the amendments are largely ‘dictated’ by the transport owners’ bodies that are known to exert pressure on the lawmakers to sway clauses of laws in their favour,” Kanchan accuses.

Mozammel Huque, Secretary General of Passenger Welfare Association of Bangladesh, a civil society body, tells IPS that, “the transport owners and workers are very powerful.”

“Two separate systems largely work on the roads of Bangladesh. One is [comprised of] the businessmen who run the affairs of the transport system and continue to enforce the illegal driving of unroadworthy vehicles by unskilled drivers on the streets every day.

“Millions of taka is allegedly traded as bribes to overlook such crimes. In the other system, traffic police or highway police monitor and check on private vehicles and drivers who largely comply with the road safety rules and regulations,” Huque says.

But Khondoker Enaeytullah, the general secretary of Bangladesh Sarak Paribahan Malik Samity (Bangladesh Transport Owners Association), tells IPS: “The transport owners are complying with the demands for stricter fines and punishment to the offenders.”

“There are massive changes proposed in the operations of all public transportation in the city. All buses will be regulated by one single authority instead of [being run by] individual owners who control the transport businesses without any accountability and which gives way to unprecedented and unhealthy competition and hence chaos.”

“Once the new system of public bus services is in place, there would be no more competition to pick up passengers and hence no question of speeding. All buses would be inspected for safety and fitness before each leaves to pick up passengers. These new measures will certainly ensure safer roads,” says Enaetullah.

How Accurate Information About the Weather is Yielding Resilience for Zambia’s Smallholders

Fainess Muzyamba of Pemba district, Zambia, ending up ditching her traditional maize crop for sweet potatoes in the last farming season. It proved a successful strategy for her. She is pictured here with the clay flower pots that she also makes and sells at Zambia’s tourist capital, Livingstone, for additional income. Courtesy: Friday Phiri

By Friday Phiri
PEMBA, Zambia, Aug 30 2018 (IPS)

Just having better information about when and for how long it will rain is proving the difference between success and failure among smallholder farmers in southern Zambia. Empowered with timely information about the weather ahead of the 2017/18 farming season, 56-year-old Fainess Muzyamba of Pemba district ditched her traditional maize crop for sweet potatoes.

“Through the monthly weather briefings that we get, I decided to plant sweet potatoes instead of maize,” Muzyamba told IPS.

The monthly weather bulletin that Muzyamba is referring to is part of an integrated package of interventions under the Rural Resilience Initiative by the World Food Programme (WFP).

The initiative integrates six management strategies, which include risk transfer through rainfall index insurance, prudent risk taking through input and cash loans, climate services and information, and post-harvest management and marketing.

“This service has been very helpful,” said Muzyamba. “Through this information and technical advice from extension officers, I was able to project that seasonal rainfall would be problematic, and decided to plant sweet potatoes—these don’t need a lot of water to do well.”

And the decision paid off.

She harvested 60 x 50-kilogram (kg) bags of sweet potatoes which she has exchanged for 40 x  50-kg bags of maize.

At the current market price, Muzyamba would earn 2,800 Zambian kwacha (USD280) for the maize and an additional 1,200 Zambian kwacha (USD120) from her crop of sugar beans, which she has recently diversified into for its income and nutrition value. She added, however, “20 bags of maize is for food consumption” for her 11-member family. And it is guaranteed to last until the next harvest.

Smallholder farmers not protected against climate shocks

In Zambia, 73 percent of farmers or 1.5 million of the country’s 28 million people are smallholders, cultivating less than two hectares of land. Erratic rainfall is an additional burden to challenges such as fragile soils and poor access to agricultural inputs, markets and improved agricultural practices.

They often do not have access to basic risk management strategies and when climate shocks hit, their wellbeing in the short term is compromised. In the long term, these shocks have enduring consequences, including poverty, malnutrition and low life expectancy.

“The issue of erratic patterns of the weather and how we have seen this evolving, is a concern and a larger problem affecting smallholder farmers not only in Zambia but the entire southern African region,” noted Lola Castro, WFP regional director for southern Africa, during her visit to Zambia in March.

She told IPS: “It is for this reason that we think the Rural Resilience Initiative we are implementing with partners needs to be scaled up to empower smallholders to create resilience and adaptation to climate change impacts by discouraging mono-cropping of maize and promoting diversification.”

In partnership with Meteorological Department of Zambia, WFP “has installed two Automatic Weather stations to improve upstream and downstream dissemination and utilisation of agro-met information,” Allan Mulando of WFP Zambia told IPS. “WFP has also installed 20 manual rain gauges manned by trained local farmers and used by the community to make timely decisions on planting.”

Farmers take and then share readings from the gauges with the meteorological office, field project and government extension officers, and fellow farmers for planning purposes.

In their farmers’ clubs, lead and follower farmers gather to discuss parameters such as the right soil moisture content for planting. By comparing their own locally-obtained information and the broad-based national and regional weather forecast, they are able to make projections of what to expect, thereby helping them to plan what and when to plant.

A success in a season of disaster

When she compares the average yields of other farmers in the area, Muzyamba believes her story is a remarkable turnaround in a season that has largely been a disaster for the majority of smallholders due to poor rainfall.

“Paying for my children’s school fees will not be a problem this year. I was particularly worried [about having the fees for my] oldest son who is in grade twelve,” she said. She added that the situation would now be manageable as she is also involved in a savings scheme with the farmers’ club. She uses the proceeds of her savings to transport clay flower pots to Zambia’s tourist capital, Livingstone, where they are sold.

This is a typical story of diversification as a climate change adaptation strategy for smallholder farmers. But, perhaps, what has been lacking over the years are concrete integrated and sustainable ways of incentivising smallholder farmers.

“I think what we have learnt so far, is that the only way to address some of these issues is through an integrated approach—ensuring that activities are mainstreamed into national programmes to avoid confusion, and in future even when we leave as partners, these programmes continue to be implemented by relevant government departments,” Zambia WFP country director, Jennifer Bitonde, told IPS.

The initiative, which started in 2014, has been expanded to the Monze, Gwembe, Namwala and Mazabuka districts, reaching a total of 18,157 farmers.

More people need more food

By the year 2050, global population is expected to rise from the current seven billion to about nine billion, requiring a dramatic increase in agricultural production. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO),  as populations grow and diets change the world must produce 49 percent more food by 2050 than it did in 2012.

FAO believes that hunger, poverty and climate change can be tackled together by recognising the links between rural poverty, sustainable agriculture and strategies that boost resource use efficiency, conserve and restore biodiversity and natural resources, and combat the impacts of climate change.

At a global level, one important step taken to actualise this strategy was the adoption of the Koronivia Work Programme on Agriculture by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the 2017 Conference of Parties—the highest decision-making body on climate change and development.

This was after several years of discussing agriculture as a secondary subject at the UNFCCC negotiating table. But the decision to adopt it as a work programme, provides hope for farmers and processors in developing economies as meaningful action to adverse effects of climate change on agriculture will be taken.

“From our perspective as Zambia, our interest is in line with the expectations of the African group which is seeking to protect our smallholders, who are the majority producers, from the negative impacts of climate change through tried and friendly technologies,” Morton Mwanza, Zambia’s ministry of agriculture focal point person on climate smart agriculture, told IPS.

Technology adoption and human rights approach the way forward

Meanwhile, George Wamukoya, one of Africa’s well-known experts on climate change and agriculture, believes innovative technology adoption is the next big step forward for African agriculture to be transformed.

“I think it is a positive step because it has brought the issues of implementation and science together, and this is what we have been fighting for. We need investment in agriculture, to try and get science to inform whatever we are doing in agriculture, and to help cushion our farmers’ challenges,” Wamukoya told IPS.

However, civil society groups are cautious of some approaches. Mithika Mwenda of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance argued for a human rights approach.

Mwenda told IPS that agriculture is no longer just an issue of science but also a human rights issue, adding that industrialised agriculture was not the right remedy to smallholder farmers’ climate challenges.

“Our interest is to promote resilience to agriculture, the context in Africa is how to support that smallholder farmer, that pastoralist whose cows are dying due to drought every time, so it’s important that we look at it from this context and not theories of industrialisation,” explained Mwenda.