Ridesharing driver Md Jabed Hossain could not believe his eyes when he looked at his phone after reaching Gazipur from the capital's Moghbazar. The 32km route – usually in the grip of a round-the-clock traffic congestion – takes a minimum of three and a half hours, but Jabed's reached the town in just 1.10 hours even on Saturday afternoon.
"What's wrong today? Where have all the autos gone?" he told himself.
On that afternoon, a construction worker adjacent to the National University campus at Tongi was also wondering about the same.
"I do not know what happened to the road for sure. But I guess the authorities might have done something," said the worker, after failing to stop the buses which used to pick and drop passengers anywhere.
Locals attributed the smoother traffic flow through Gazipur metropolitan area to taking off the battery-run rickshaws from the highway by police and increasing police patrols to check traffic violations.
They said the "dramatic traffic changes" took place just a day after Molla Nazrul Islam was appointed commissioner of Gazipur Metropolitan Police (GMP) on 13 July.
The new GMP commissioner told The Business Standard that before joining his workplace, he noted down his key challenges. His list included freeing the 25km nightmarish stretch of Dhaka-Chandra highway.
Gazipur, located 25 km north of the capital, is the transportation gateway to the north-western districts and the greater Mymensingh division. The metropolitan area is also dotted with apparel factories and other industries.
Shahidullah Azim, acting president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) appreciated the move by the GMP.
"It proves police too can be change-makers if they are sincere in their work," Shahidullah Azim, who has apparel factories at Tongi, told TBS.
At least four of Molla Nazrul's predecessors barred the battery-run rickshaws from entering the highway. But their initiatives did not last long and collapsed subsequently. Besides, road mishaps on the route had been on the rise, according to traffic data, as the three-wheelers returned.
"The number of road accidents dropped after the auto-rickshaws were evicted from the highway," Md Shaheen Alam, a rickshaw-puller of the metropolitan area, told TBS.
Time is money
Raymond Chen, factory head of the mobile phone brand Oppo, said the company can now bring raw materials to the Gazipur factory easily from Dhaka airport. Besides, the smoother traffic allows them to travel to the capital within just 45-50 minutes.
"...Police made it happen," he added.
Rohan Damaika, CEO of Stylish Garments Ltd, said it was tough to take foreign buyers to the Gazipur factory thanks to the traffic congestions. "But the recent picture of the route is entirely different."
Khairul Alam, conductor of a north-bound bus, said it used to take at least 2-3 hours to cross the Dhaka-Chandra highway. But the distance can now be covered in just 30-45 minutes.
According to the GMP, at least 50,000 vehicles take to the highway's 25 km patch every day.
Molla Nazrul Islam said fuel annually worth Tk3,500 crore is just burned out if the vehicles face even a 30-minute traffic delay on the patch.
Considering the work hours exhausted by the congestion and electricity to charge the rickshaws, he estimated the three-wheeler free highway would save a total of Tk5,200 crore per year.
Discipline has a cost
Molla Nazrul Islam said they have been seizing 20-30 auto-rickshaws and dumping those per day. Though the three-wheelers are banned on the highway, police are not hunting those down on other roads and lanes.
Gazipur police have seized and dumped nearly 6,000 three-wheelers since mid-July.
Ruhul Amin, a local rickshaw-owner association leader, said the association has been protesting at the police action as the poor drivers used to make their ends meet through the three-wheelers.
"The 6,000 families who got their rickshaws confiscated only know how brutal the police action could mean," he commented.
The families often come to the rickshaw dump yards and request police to give them their rickshaws back. A woman, with her baby in her lap, was weeping in front of a dump yard and said she bought the auto-rickshaw for her sick husband on loan.
"After the seizure, we have been starving. There is not even a kilogram of rice in my home now. I don't know what to do," she yelled.
The woman called for banning the import and sale of the battery rickshaws first instead of impounding them. "Without doing that, you cannot launch the raid abruptly. You cannot talk to the poor about court orders after money accumulates in the pockets of traders," she added.
The High Court in 2017 banned the three wheelers on the highways. However, Ruhul Amin said a writ petition has been filed with the High Court on getting back the impounded rickshaws.
Molla Nazrul Islam said police offered the rickshaw drivers jobs at local apparel factories, but they did not respond.