The Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) had assured of reducing the backlog of pending smart driving licences more than eight months ago, but in a twist of irony, the backlog rose by around 4.26 lakh since then.
Insiders say the BRTA had 8.19 lakh pending applications in January 2021, which has now reached nearly 12.45 lakh. Several transport workers claimed that the authorities are not sincere enough to clear this backlog, which has been persisting for almost three years.
Instead of issuing smart licences, the authorities are giving drivers temporary approvals for two to three months, which must be extended before the validity expires. This workaround has become an immense hassle for drivers and bikers across the country.
Sheikh Parvej had a plan to work abroad, so he submitted an application with his biometrics for a smart driving licence in mid-2019. The BRTA has not issued Parvej his licence even after more than two years, which is preventing him from leaving Bangladesh for a Middle Eastern country.
A frustrated Parvej told The Business Standard, "I cannot go abroad only because I do not have a smart licence. It is not easy to get a driver visa, but I have had to surrender two of those so far. I am going through a very difficult situation because I am still unemployed.
"The BRTA is about to shatter my dream of working abroad to ensure a better life for my parents."
Shamim Hossen, another applicant who wanted to travel across India on a bike, said, "I submitted an application with my biometrics in 2018. The authorities have been extending my temporary approval for only two-three months at a time.
"For the India tour, I need an international licence, and to get it I need a smart licence. But the BRTA has kept me waiting for three years."
Taking temporary approval from the BRTA office every 2-3 months is toilsome and time-consuming, says a biker named Rafiqul Islam, adding, "The process takes up almost the whole day.
"But we must do this regularly, or else we risk getting harassed on the road by law enforcers. Sometimes they file cases against us with a minimum fine of Tk5,000."
'We are trying to resolve the issues'
In December last year, BRTA Chairman Nur Mohammad Mazumder assured that the backlog of smart driving licence applications will start to decrease from January 2021, and will be cleared completely by December the same year.
BRTA officials are now saying they are making a serious effort to tackle the backlog as early as possible.
Addressing the matter, its spokesperson and Director Sheikh Mohammad Mahbub-e-Rabbani said, "We are trying to resolve these issues very soon. The backlog will not increase further because we are providing smart driving licences to new applicants."
The BRTA had a deal with Tiger IT for making the licenses. But after that firm got blacklisted by the World Bank in 2018, the authority began searching for another company. Following one and a half years of searching, they selected Indian firm Madras Security Printer (MSP) for this job.
MSP received the work order to print license cards in 2019 and had set up a facility in Bangladesh. As per the contract, the company was to provide 40 lakh cards in five years, and deliver nine lakh of those cards within 2021.
But after nearly nine months, MSP has managed to deliver only 13,000 cards.
Blaming the BRTA for this mountain of backlog, National Road Transport Motor Workers Federation's Advertising Secretary Md Jamirul Huq said, "For some reason, the authority cannot seem to put pressure on MSP for timely delivery of the smart licenses.
"So, the process is being delayed."
In response to this comment, BRTA Director Mahbub-e-Rabbani said, "Any organisation needs time to set up [their facility] in a new environment. Besides, MSP suffered delays because of the pandemic.
"Due to cancellations of flights amid the Covid-19 pandemic, some of their consignments got stuck in Germany and Italy. But the problem is now resolved, and MSP is ready to go full steam ahead."
The BRTA will begin clearing the applications in a month, and the existing backlog will be resolved within the next six months, he said with optimism.