Protecting our Students from the Wrath of the Titans

Every time I pass by the Banani flyover area, I look at the worms that have come out of the deep to rear their heads to announce the underpass underneath and ask myself why the much-hyped pedestrian tunnel has not been opened to the public yet. It’s been more than three years since the death of two students of a nearby school in a tragic bus accident, on July 29, 2018, which prompted a spontaneous protest led by school children from every part of the city to take control of the traffic system for the next nine days. In an unprecedented role-playing campaign, students were checking car documents and controlling traffic mobility in the presence of traffic officials as bystanders. The public, sniffing a change, complied, but after a few days, it was not “cute” anymore. Their main demand of capital punishment for drivers involved in accidents leading to death was craftily toned down with the use of the word “intentional.” The commissioning of an underpass on the busy Airport Road was one of the many carrots thrown along with the strategic sticks used to calm the protest. The incident brought the students and the transport workers to loggerheads with each other. It probably soured the relationship between these two segments of society. Thanks to Covid, the issue remained as subterranean as the underpass.

Once again, students are back on the streets—although on a limited scale compared to the last time around. Once again, students and transport workers have taken an oppositional stance. The protesting students are angry as privately owned bus operators have declined to give any concession to them now that the fares have gone up due to fuel price adjustment. The government and the license-giving authority Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) are in a fix as they cannot officially force the private bus owners to follow an international practice of offering special discounts for students. The bus owners, it seems, have no intention of giving any concession to students either.

The strong position taken by the bus owners has allowed their staff to exert force and exude authority. In one instance, a female student was threatened with sexual assault when she demanded a student discount. Her post on social media sparked another bout of protest. To complicate the issue even further, a proxy driver of a city corporation garbage truck ran over a college student earlier this week, killing him on the spot. Two days ago, another garbage collection truck hit a ride-sharing motorcycle from behind and wheeled over the passenger who fell down following the impact. While writing this piece in the early hours of yesterday, I felt a jolt. The eye of the tremor was in Myanmar, they configured. For me, it was symbolic of the tension that lies beneath.

It was refreshing to see the Dhaka South mayor come and meet the protesting students, who were staging a demonstration in front of his office to accept the memorandum in person and express his solidarity with them, promising death to the culprit whose vehicle led to the death of a college student. Whether the court will judge the killing as “intentional” or not or hand over death to an underage driver is another issue altogether. It was also refreshing to see that the influential road transport and bridges minister and the general secretary of the ruling party, Obaidul Quader, remind the transport owners that it is a general practice all over the world to offer discounted service to students. It was, however, not nice to see the transport workers and “some miscreants” chasing the protesters, wielding sticks and chanting slogans to announce their party affiliation. For the bus owners, according to press reports on the mediatory meeting, the students should avail themselves of the state-run BRTC bus services. Their uncompromising attitude puts the government in a difficult position before the landmark victory celebration. A solution is a must, but it demands resolution and mutual respect.

There are two recent instances that may be helpful in this connection. In the Philippines, they have passed the Student Fare Discount Act in parliament to protect student rights. In India, the Kerala High Court in 2019 ordered for necessary steps to be taken to ensure that students availing of travel concessions are not prevented by private bus operators from boarding the bus or occupying vacant seats. Our government can institutionalize a similar system to protect our feather-weight students from the wrath of the heavy-weight transport workers, who feel deprived while carrying students on board.

There can be additional incentives for the buses so that they do not incur losses while catering to student passengers. Increasing the number of government-run BRTC city buses or commissioning special buses through public-private partnerships during school hours can be the other solution.

I remember using student cards for accessing not only transport but also public services, in the countries I have studied or traveled to. For instance, with my University of London ID, I enjoyed discounts in various museums throughout Europe. I was never looked down upon by the service providers for showing my student ID. Here in Bangladesh, it is the opposite. Most of the bus owners set a daily revenue or profit target; their income is consummate with the number of passengers they carry. Quite naturally, they view students as a leak in the system that allows their profit to ooze out.

There is another psychosocial aspect that also needs to be taken into account, especially in the case of the rape threat. Why would a driver or a helper think of a passenger in sexual terms? Could it be that the male ego of the helper was hurt when a female student assumed authority because of her uniform? There are many reported incidents of transport workers abusing female passengers. In most cases, they are lonely garment workers returning home at night. We also saw how a Dhaka University student was raped by a drug addict vagabond about two years back. A rape or rape threat can be construed as a power statement. It can be an assertion of deep-seated anger, frustration, perversion, fetish, or deprivation. Each case is unique. But this particular incident shows that the transport workers do not have respect for students.

Without doing any post-mortem at what point in time these groups lost respect for one another, we can say that the tension is on the rise, and immediate action is required. Both the students and the workers need to learn about each other. The respect for hard labor and service providers can be instilled through minor inclusion in the curriculum. Field visits can help students understand the pressure under which transport workers work. Similarly, workers need to understand the role of education in the overall growth of society.

The other day, my chauffeur was expressing his disgust at the way the bus driver had threatened the female college student. He had just become a grandfather. His love for his daughter made him worry about the social and moral downslides. “They don’t understand the value of education anymore. It is no longer special. There are students in every household now. The respect for education is gone.” His words made me think of the democratization of education. One would think that the more education was spread, the more the appreciation for it would be. But in many cases, education without the right skillset or moral underpinnings results in social burdens. For instance, a farmer parent who has provided for his ward to get an education often finds that his child is capable of neither getting a job nor working in the field. We encounter a white-collar vs blue-collar debate, where education is the loser.

Let’s not delude ourselves by thinking that these accidents or incidents are isolated. While I express my deepest condolences to the victims, there are bigger issues that need our attention. There seems to be a deep social, moral wound that has never been addressed. It is time to educate ourselves, or else we will always be stigmatized for our half pass.