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Stand-off to linger as bus owners oppose fare discount for students

  • Obaidur Masum and Tabarul Huq, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2021-11-26 00:42:33 BdST

The residents of Dhaka appear set to be suffering for some more days as a stand-off between bus operators and students drags on with the owners opposing protesters’ demand for a 50 percent discount on fares.

Amid student protests and calls from government ministers, the bus owners say they will incur losses from reduced rates.

Students have been protesting in Dhaka for the discount on bus fares for days after the rates were increased following a hike in diesel prices.

Then came the death of a Notre Dame College student in an accident involving a city corporation vehicle on Wednesday, adding a new dimension to the ongoing protests that caused serious gridlocks.

Speaking as a guest at Bangladesh Road Transport Owners Association’s council on Thursday, Road Transport Minister Obaidul Quader urged the bus owners to consider the students’ demand.

Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation was thinking about a concession for the students, the minister said. “But a BRTC decision won’t solve the problem,” he said as he urged the owners and workers to sit with Bangladesh Road Transport Authority to discuss the issue.    

“Many countries give concession to students. Even we got when we were students during the Pakistani rule.”

State Minister for Information Murad Hasan and ruling Awami League’s Presidium Member Zahangir Kabir Nanak had earlier urged the bus owners to reduce the fares for students.

But Khandaker Enayet Ullah, who was reelected secretary-general of the owners’ association in Thursday’s council, said there is no provision for private bus operators to give discounts to students. He asked the protesters to leave the streets and go back to study.

Md Wazuddin, one of the owners of Poristhan Paribahan that operates 100 buses in Dhaka, said they bought the buses mostly with bank loans. “Now we get five to seven students on every trip. If their fares are halved, we will never be able to repay the loans.”

He also argued that the cost of operation has increased due to a rise in prices of parts, fuel and other things. 

MEETING ENDS WITHOUT A DECISION

BRTA held a meeting with representatives of the police, transport owners and workers on Thursday on the demand for reduced bus fares for students. The meeting ended without a decision amid opposition from the owners.

They claimed they will need a subsidy if the fares are halved for students, according to Road Transport Secretary Md Nazrul Islam.

Several hundred students from Begum Badrunnessa Govt Womens’ College and other institutions block the Bakshibazar intersection on Sunday, Nov 21, 2021 to protest an alleged rape threat made by a bus helper to a student who wanted to pay half fare on a bus. Photo: Asif Mahmud Ove

Several hundred students from Begum Badrunnessa Govt Womens’ College and other institutions block the Bakshibazar intersection on Sunday, Nov 21, 2021 to protest an alleged rape threat made by a bus helper to a student who wanted to pay half fare on a bus. Photo: Asif Mahmud Ove

“We can’t put this on them (bus operators) forcefully. We want a solution through discussions,” he said, adding that the owners have agreed to sit and decide how much they can cut the rates for students.    

“We’ve asked them to hurry. If we force the decision on them, they will halt services, leading to sufferings of people.”

STAND-OFF TO LINGER

A group of student protesters laid a siege to the BRTA office gate during the meeting, confining the officials and transport leaders.  

They left after the secretary assured them of taking a decision by Tuesday.

Those protesting the death of the Notre Dame College student postponed their protests until Saturday morning, vowing to come back if their demand for justice for the victim is not met by the time, although the police have arrested the man driving the vehicle involved in the accident.

These protesters have raised several other demands, including a 50 percent discount on bus fares.   

They blocked a Dhaka Metropolitan Police bus in Farmgate for an hour after the driver was unable to show his licence.

The incident was a stark reminder of widespread student protests that led entire Bangladesh to grind to a halt for days in 2018 after college students Abdul Karim Rajib and Dia Khanom Mim were ran over and killed by a bus that was competing with another in a race for passenger.

TRIGGER POINT

Heated arguments between passengers and bus drivers and conductors are nothing new in Dhaka, but the situation worsened to a worrying level after days of protests by owners and workers following a 23 percent hike in diesel prices forced the authorities to agree to raise bus fares by 27 percent.

Passengers said bus operators had already been charging higher than the previously fixed rates. So, many of the passengers wanted to pay the fares as per the new rates based on per kilometre travelled, but the bus operators continued charging the same fares for different distances.

Meanwhile, students started demanding they be allowed to pay half the fares on all routes. Some operators that had earlier accepted the 50 percent discount for students also stopped taking half the fares from students, citing the hike in diesel prices.

In one of the first protests for half the fares, several hundred Dhaka College students blocked Mirpur Road in a demonstration outside the institution on Nov 18, as students continued to argue with bus conductors over fares on almost every trip.

Two days later, a bus driver and his assistant allegedly threatened to rape and assault a student of Begum Badrunnesa Government Girls College, leading students to demonstrate blocking the streets at Bakhshibazar on Nov 21. The driver and the helper were arrested later.

On Tuesday, students demanding discounts on fares blocked the streets around Science Laboratory intersection. They vandalised buses of operators who were not allowing students to pay half the fares. A group of Dhaka College students attacked the protesters later after an altercation.

Finally, on Wednesday, Notre Dame College student Nayeem Hasan lost his life in the accident, prompting his peers to take to the streets for justice, and safe roads and discount on fares.