Deaths unforeseen: The killing fields of Bangladeshi roads

Published : 20 August 2011, 01:49 PM
Updated : 20 August 2011, 01:49 PM

Let me start by saying bluntly that prime minister Sheikh Hasina should fire communications minister Syed Abul Hossain for his utterly poor performance. This would have happened in any rationally thinking countries. While the untimely death of noted filmmaker Tareque Masud, media personality Mishuk Munier, and three of their fellow travellers in a violent road accident near Manikganj left Bangladeshis at home and abroad in a state of disbelief, Minister Abul Hossain offered the most banal and predictable explanation for the killing fields of Bangladeshi roads and highways.

He shirks his responsibility by blaming the previous government and a lack of funding for the current dismal road conditions and vehicular accidents. Bangladeshis everywhere are wondering: If he cannot perform and deliver, why is he still at the helm of such a vital ministry as communications?

Let's be straight. There is a morbid lack of vision in Minister Abul Hossain's thick-skinned refusal to acknowledge any responsibility. Blaming it on the previous government is easy and, perhaps, secretly earns a few political points for overzealous party allegiance.

But, I find the usual complaint of a funding shortage most intriguing. The minister's premise is that insufficient funding hinders the improvement of existing roads and that bad roads cause accidents. Is this true?

The minister's clichéd blame game reveals a failure to see roads and highways as multidimensional projects. They are not just physical infrastructures, but also spaces where human behaviour defines both their utility and perils. Limiting concerns exclusively to physical improvements will not stop road accidents.

Roads surely need to be free from potholes. They must be traversable and have proper lanes, dividers, signage, and so forth. But, most road accidents in Bangladesh occur due to the negligence and recklessness of commercial vehicle operators. These drivers often take charge of the steering wheel of a large vehicle without proper training and licensure.

Thus, without much financial investment, strictly regulating the ways that people are allowed to drive on the roads will make a huge difference in the safety environment of roads and highways. Enforcing the legislation to control speed, strict driving tests, improving the licensure procedure, and policing valid driving licenses and vehicle registrations could be relatively easy goals that are achievable within the existing budget constraints. Road traffic crashes and deaths are preventable.

We have not heard anything from the communications minister about how his ministry intends to overhaul its regulatory mechanisms, to monitor these non-physical aspects of road management. New ideas of traffic-regulation enforcement are urgently needed.

So far, the reactive government has gently reprimanded the minister; formed an investigative body (whose work, alas, will soon lose urgency); and embarked, once again, on a path of short-term, piecemeal solutions. The public's mourning of the death of Tareque Masud, Mishuk Munier, and others has not yet translated the collective rage into any concerted political movement to overhaul the current modus operandi of the Ministry of Communications and to hold it accountable for the killing fields of Bangladeshi roads.

But there is something even more baffling.

If the media reports and coverage are any indication, Bangladesh demonstrates a peculiar culture of resignation and fatalism about deaths from road and river accidents, a sort of Allah-r mal Allah nieche (Allah has recalled his creation) sentiment! This mystical faith in destiny has, it seems, a powerful propensity to block out people's ability to act rationally and call for accountability from the concerned authority: Fix the problem, or we'll vote you out.

In Mirsarai, 41 schoolchildren perished when the driver of their open-roofed hauler sent them plunging to a muddy death as he spoke over his cell phone. Tareque Masud, Mishuk Munier, and their three co-travellers died in seconds in a mangled minivan. Yet, the overall public mood is of resignation and sadness, rather than a determined demand for structural changes in the way roads are managed.

In this sad scenario, the authority blatantly believes that capturing the driver of the other vehicle would defuse the public anger, thus bypassing the larger need to redesign the safety measures in roads and highways. The investigations in the wake of the Mirsarai and Manikganj accidents, like others, have predictably zeroed in on merely parading the captured ghatok (killer) driver in front of the media, as if putting that person behind bars would solve the perennial problem of road accidents. The public knows that another violent road accident is going to happen next week and the week after and the week after. The ritual of parading the captured other driver would be performed once again, with much media fanfare.

But, the greater reality is this: The ghatok driver is just a cog in a vast nexus of road-administration dysfunctions. The arrested driver of the bus at the Manikganj accident has now blamed the dead driver of the minivan. In a few days, this investigation will hit a dead end. These are all classic Bangladeshi symptoms for the case to fizzle out in the mire of petty blame games and short-sighted remedies. And, we will never see the bigger picture that explains how drivers of commercial and private vehicles behave on highways.

Why does a driver try to overtake another vehicle when there is always a danger of a head-on collision? Is this a problem of training, a general lack of awareness of life and its safety, or both? If there is a pattern to road accidents, what is the best solution? What kind of road signage would work with drivers, especially when some of them can't even read? How should the owners be held accountable when their vehicle is the cause of mass murder? And, how about the passengers? Should they be held accountable if their vehicle speeds excessively, and they don't ask the driver to slow down?

Oftentimes, the investigative team only includes a few road and highway engineers and bureaucrats. I recommend the inclusion of a psychiatrist, an anthropologist, and an investigative journalist who can profile typical commercial drivers, assess passenger behaviour on the road, and how the two intersect.

As much as to bring the vehicle operator at fault to justice, the goal of an investigation into a road accident should be to bring to light the cause of the accident and the future prevention of its type, by adopting a wide range of road safety measures. All too often, investigations have been too localised, focused exclusively on the particulars of one accident. When the particulars are coupled with the pattern, it is easier to come to sustainable solutions.

As we mourn the tragic death of Tareque Masud, Mishuk Munier, the kids of Mirsarai, and others, we, the civil society, must demand comprehensive investigations that yield vital clues to deter senseless road accidents and the unnecessary deaths that result from them. At the same time, we must also seek a new era of accountability. If a public servant cannot perform, then he or she should relinquish the position to somebody who can.

Let me finish with a personal note.

Last Friday, August 12, after a long day of work, I went to see a silly horror movie called Final Destination 5 (2011), in Washington, DC. The film was about premonitions of death. Having foreseen death in a violent road accident, the young protagonist of the film saved his travelling friends. (But, ultimately, they all died because death does not like being cheated.)

I returned home that night and saw that I had an e-mail from Mishuk Munier about meeting in Dhaka on September 22 for a media project. I was tired and decided to answer Mishuk bhai's e-mail the next morning, on Saturday.

I woke up in the morning to a call from Bangladesh. It was my sister, Dr. Tahmina Banu, with terrible news.

Mishuk Munier was dead.

Adnan Morshed is associate professor of architecture, architectural history and theory, and sustainable urbanism at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC.