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'They have called upon us to act'

  • Published at 07:46 pm August 6th, 2018
Catherine Masud
Catherine Masud Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

Catherine Masud, noted film-maker and wife of the late Tareque Masud, speaks to the Dhaka Tribune about student protests against road killings and what comes next

What are your views on the current student-led movement that has spread throughout the country? Do you have any messages for these school children?

I feel very inspired to see the bravery and positive initiative school children are taking to raise public awareness about road safety. These young people are the future of the country, and they are showing incredible maturity and presence of mind in drawing public attention to the lack of proper motor vehicle licensing, fitness, and registration, particular with regard to public transport, and the importance of following traffic laws to ensure public safety. But it is also a sad reflection on the state of society that children feel so compelled to come forward and take a stand where their seniors have failed. Too many of us are prone to shake our heads and say, ’Change will never come, the system itself is to blame and too much power is vested in keeping things the way they are.’ But our children, not just in Bangladesh, but around the world are saying, ‘You have failed to protect us, and now we must come forward to show you the way.’ We must respect the voices of our youth; they are the future and the hope of humanity. Road safety is an issue that affects us all, regardless of political affiliation, age, religion, gender or class, and we should be able to join hands to find sensible solutions that will address the genuine concerns of these young people without partisanship or patronage. So, to these school children I say: we are listening to you, and we are ready to learn from you.

What steps do you think the government has taken to prevent road accidents since Mr Masud was killed? Do you think they have been adequate?

First of all, I would not call these tragic road incidents ‘accidents’ as this term lends an aura of randomness and neutrality to such incidents which is misleading. In fact, these crashes are occurring due to choices made by individuals, organizations, and institutions, which indicates responsibility. These are road crashes and road killings, and the situation on Bangladesh’s roads will continue to be among the most dangerous in the world until some measure of accountability is instituted through legal measures and their proper implementation by those responsible under the law for its application.

The road crash that killed Tareque Masud, Mishuk Munier and three others in August 2011 was a high-profile incident that shed light on the urgent need for road safety reform. In the wake of that tragedy the government did take on some important initiatives, such as rebuilding the most dangerous portions of Aricha Road and erecting new traffic warning signs along that route and others. Additionally, there was an effort to revamp the nation’s Motor Vehicle Ordinance of 1983, and a new version, entitled the Road Transport Act, has been drafted this year. However, although some important aspects of road safety were covered in the new draft, it has failed to address many critical issues including a speedy trial mechanism (as mentioned in the earlier one) and the establishment of a system for adequate and prompt compensation of road crash victims and families. It would be a missed opportunity indeed if the revised act ends up being a step backward from the 1983 version. I sincerely hope that with this latest upsurge of public concern around road safety, the government will take the necessary action to address these critical shortcomings when the matter of finalizing the act comes up for discussion at tomorrow’s [Monday] Cabinet meeting.

It is also important to add here that there are some serious impediments to the challenge of improving road safety at the level of governmental action. In particular, there are major conflicts of interest in certain sectors of the government, where key officials in positions of responsibility and power also hold leadership positions in the nation’s transport sector unions. In May 2016, for example, elements at the ministerial level instigated a road transport strike aimed at derailing the opening of our landmark compensation case in the High Court. This was a clear instance of intimidation and obstruction of justice. Fortunately, the court held firm and the trial went ahead as planned, but the tactic of transport strikes, which result in the sufferings of millions of people, has been used again and again as a tactic to undermine public efforts to call attention to the issue of road safety.

Although I commend the government, and the prime minister in particular, for finally coming forward to provide compensation to the families of the two students whose deaths sparked the protests, it is also important to recognize that one-off handouts do not provide any long-term solution to the crisis. The era of one-off handouts, whether in the case of industrial accidents or road crashes, should now transition to an era of meaningful and cooperative effort to bring about institutional and legal reforms so that we are not just responding to a crisis, but averting the loss of thousands of lives in the future. We owe it to our children: they have called upon us to act.

And finally, the well-documented acts of violence directed against the protesting school students and journalists by elements of the ruling party’s student wing are completely destructive to any meaningful dialogue around this issue and should be strongly condemned. There is absolutely no excuse for such brutal repression of non-violent protests led by children.

What do you think should be done to ensure these road accidents don’t happen, and how best should we proceed? Are there any changes/achievements so far that you think are noteworthy?

We need to bring more accountability and systemization to all levels of the transport sector. To simply blame drivers is not the solution, because their employers are pressuring them to drive faster and longer hours in order to increase their profit margins, vehicles are being allowed to ply the roads without meeting basic safety standards, insurers are getting away without overseeing that the vehicles they insure are meeting safety requirements, traffic police are understaffed and underpaid and prone to corruption, city bus lines are chaotically managed and split between dozens of different companies without any regulation or coordination, and so many other factors. The situation is more critical still because of the long-delayed completion of a mass transit rail system for city inhabitants. 

But certain measures can definitely help, such as holding bus/truck company owners and their insurers legally accountable for the reckless actions of their drivers. Nothing speaks like money does in these situations. A strong system of victim compensation will create pressure for reform at the top level of the transport sector structure. Obviously improving road safety guidelines through the Road Transport Act is critical, but then equally important is the establishment of management and monitoring systems to ensure better implementation of the law. Well-targeted public interest campaigns aimed at raising awareness around various critical aspects of road safety will also help. Brac has come forward with a number of important programs at various levels, both public and private, aimed at improving road safety. SROTA (Safe Road and Transport Alliance), which includes a cross-sector platform of organizations and individuals from the civil society, NGOs, and the public transport sector, has also been established to coordinate efforts and develop strategies to this pressing societal problem. In spite of the odds, we must continue at such efforts to work together in a spirit of cooperation, in the common interest of us all.

In less than two weeks it will be the 7th anniversary of the tragedy. Are there any thoughts/messages you would like to share with us?

The senseless deaths of Tareque Masud, Mishuk Munier, and three other members of our film unit on August 13, 2011 cannot be reversed. There is no way to bring Tareque back so that he can be a father to his son Nishaad, or continue to provide a guiding light to the nation through his art. I accepted his loss the moment it happened, but what I could not accept is the loss of hope. The movement that these young people have led is a reminder to us elders, who often feel we have lost our moral moorings in the crush of modern life, to not lose hope and to continue our fight for sensible traffic management and justice for victims of road crashes. This is a non-partisan issue that transcends all boundaries, and we should stand together firmly against any attempts to undermine, divide, and politicize the issue. Likewise, we should all be part of the solution, with all sectors taking responsibility for their own part in implementing safe road practices, in order that we may be spared such terrible loss of life on our roads in future.

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