Leaseholders are extorting excess tolls from buses carrying tourists and picnic-goers on three bridges to Kuakata, a popular tourist destination in the southern district of Patuakhali, which has had a negative impact on tourism, sector leaders say.
The authorities are extorting excess tolls at the Sheikh Kamal Bridge over the Andharmanik River, the Sheikh Jamal Bridge over the Sonatala River and Sheikh Russel Bridge over the Shibbaria River on the Patukhali–Kuakata Highway, complained transport workers.
In many cases, they have to pay three or four times the amount fixed by the government, transport workers said. A protest only leads to more harassment by the staff of the leaseholders. There were instances when the tourists were also harassed, they allege.
The leaseholders of all three bridges denied the allegation and said they would look into the matter.
Kuakata is 74 kilometres away from Patuakhali city. The three bridges stand over three rivers within a stretch of 21 kilometres from Kalapara Upazila to Kuakata.
Rafiq Enterprise collects the toll at the Sheikh Jamal Bridge, Messrs Khan Traders at the Sheikh Russel Bridge and Messrs Nazmus Sayadat Traders at the Sheikh Kamal Bridge, all under the jurisdiction of the Roads and Highways Department.
In winter, more than a hundred picnic and tourist buses travel to and from Kuakata on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the traders said. These are the prime days of the week for tourism, they said.
Sometimes, tourist agencies bring their tourists in reserved buses to make their journey easy and comfortable. Also, people from one region come in groups travelling on reserved buses, according to the transport workers.
Excess tolls are extorted mainly from these buses, as the transport workers or the tourists have no say in such cases. They quietly pay the extra amount to ensure the safety of their passengers and to avoid trouble.
On Jan 20, Md Shahin, driver of Subrata Paribahan drove a reserved bus to Kuakata from Khulna’s Koyra Upazila. He reached Kuakata in the early morning after paying extra tolls at all three bridges and engaging in altercations with the toll collectors.
The toll at Hajipur Sheikh Jamal Bridge and Mahipur Sheikh Russel Bridge is fixed at Tk 50, but the collectors took Tk 180 for each vehicle, he said. While the toll for Sheikh Kamal Bridge is Tk 100, he had to pay Tk 250.
“When I asked why I should pay the extra amount, the leaseholders said that the amount was okay. They asked why I crossed the bridge if I did not want to pay,” said Shahin. “They told me to go back to the other side and hurled verbal abuse at me.”
“We have to pay whatever they [leaseholders] ask. We came from far away. The party [passengers] won’t understand if they block my bus. So I’m compelled to pay, although this is not the amount fixed by the government,” said the driver.
“We get the bus from the owner after calculating the fare and tolls. If we need to pay extra tolls, we’re left with no salary as we live on daily wages. The toll is paid out of our pocket,” a frustrated Shahin said.
Jasimuddin, a driver of Tisha Paribahan in Chandpur, reiterated Shahin’s words. He went to Kuakata on Jan 20.
He paid the toll at the Padma Bridge and other bridges and paid fixed amounts everywhere. But he had to pay an extra charge for those three bridges on the way to Kuakata, Jasimuddin said.
A chair coach should pay Tk 180 in toll at the Sheikh Kamal Bridge, but the collectors took Tk 250. The toll amount was pushed up to Tk 180 from Tk Tk 100 at the Sheikh Jamal and Sheikh Russel Bridge, he said.
“I drive buses to different parts of the country, but never saw anyone collecting excess tolls than the amount fixed by the government. Here, the law enforcers stand next to the toll plazas, but they simply ignore the issue,” Jasimuddin said.
Local transport workers also substantiated the claims of paying extra tolls. The toll charts are hung at the toll plazas, showing the amount fixed by the government, they said. But sometimes, the charts are taken down.
Those passenger buses that run regularly on the Dhaka-Patukhali-Kuakata route usually do not have to pay the excess amount, a driver said. The leaseholders’ staff may charge Tk 200 instead of the fixed toll of Tk 180, but provide the receipt for Tk 180, he said.
Usually, those coming from faraway places become the target of extortion. As they are not locals, they do not have any acquaintances there. Mostly, those buses reach the bridges at night. The leaseholders’ staff can quickly identify them and charge an extra amount. Therefore, they have no choice but to pay it, the transport workers said.
Kalapara Upazila Executive Officer Shankar Chandra Baidya said he was unaware of the excess toll payment issue. If any leaseholders charge an extra toll than the fixed amount, the administration will engage the executive engineer of the Roads and Highways Department to scrutinise it and take necessary actions, said Shankar, who is also a member of the Kuakata Beach Management Committee.
“The leaseholders take lease of the bridges following the government rules. We have given directives to hang the toll chart at all toll plazas," said AM Atik Ullah, Executive Engineer of Patuakhali Roads and Highways.
The authorities will take legal action after an investigation into whether anyone defies the rules or charges an extra toll, he said. The lease can be cancelled if necessary, he said.