If you look at the buses plying the roads in Bangladesh's capital, you will immediately notice the bodies of the buses - discoloured, rusted, bearing scars and marks of collision. It looks like it has been long devoid of maintenance and fresh paint.
Most bus owners remain unbothered about the state of the buses that thousands of mass people ride daily. They do not intend to give those battered bodies anything, not even a fresh coat of paint.
The reason behind these ugly bus bodies is simple. These buses fiercely compete and battle with other buses everyday on the city roads to get passengers. And this ugliness is the outcome of that fierce competition.
"The root cause behind the bloody competition is the regulatory authority Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA). It is BTRA whose officials, sitting in air-conditioned rooms, are giving new route permits to whoever applies for them," said BUET'S Civil Engineering Professor M Shamsul Hoque.
After getting a route permit, a bus owner gives the bus to a driver for a fixed amount of money for the day. But the drivers fall under pressure to earn the money to pay off the bus owner as well as raise enough money for his helper's and his own income.
"When a bus driver goes to the bus terminal and hears that another driver has given three trips and earned more than him by driving more aggressively on the road," said transport expert Professor Hoque, "Then, he decides that he will also have to be aggressive. Because he will have to increase his income."
And behind it is the regulatory authority, BRTA, which has given many bus owners permits to operate on the same route, forcing the bus driver to take up the pressure to earn his income. It is the worst competition. And to compete with other buses, the drivers drive recklessly, ignoring road safety; and as a result, killing people on the road.
This is the manifestation of the root cause. This is the result of giving route permits to multiple bus owners for a single route.
In other countries, before giving a route permit, a background check is done. The regulatory authority considers the ridership and so on. "But in Bangladesh, if you have political or muscle power, it is easy to get a route permit. It has become a business. Those who give route permits are getting rich," Hoque added.
He said that there are 256 bus routes in Dhaka city; it is a huge number, anyone will be surprised to hear such a figure.
After a study in 2005, five bus routes were recommended for the whole Dhaka city. Later in 2013, after another study, the bus route rationalisation was suggested under five companies in different colours with five owners. However, nothing was implemented.
The bus drivers are driving long hours to increase the income in a most detrimental business model, but it seems none is there to address these pressing issues. Additionally, many of these drivers do not have licences and/or are also underage to drive.
However, among us, there is already an example of the ideal, opposite scenario. For example: Hatirjheel. Bus drivers are not this reckless in Hatirjheel route and this is because there is only one bus operator here. The drivers of the Hatirjheel route are salaried.
"They are not doing business. You will see no scratch on the bus plying the Hatirjheel route," said Hoque. He added saying the practical, scientific approach is one operator will operate their buses in one corridor.
The bus owners will do business, not the drivers. So, the root cause of the problem is, at least one of the root causes, is those who have given route permits to multiple bus operators, launching the reckless need for competition among the drivers.
And the only solution is the introduction of Bus Route Rationalisation. "But transport sector leaders do not want it to happen. Because if it happens, then their influence will disappear, they will lose power. If there are only five companies, it will be easy for the government to control them, but the transport leaders seem to control the government" said Hoque.
The initiative to bring Dhaka city buses under a single company called "Dhaka Nagar Paribahan" (Dhaka City Transport) has been deferred. The piloting of the bus franchise system – with a total 120 buses on the Ghatarchar-Kanchpur route – will start from 26 December instead of the previously announced date of 1 December.
"It will not be fruitful because the government is meeting with transport sector leaders. What the government will have to do is hear the "woes" of the bus owners," said Hoque.
Additionally, this pilot initiative is not a new experiment. For the first time, in April 2009, a Bus Route Franchise initiative was taken. A fleet of 100 buses under a single company were to ply from Uttara to Azimpur with the commitment to better service. But the system did not last long.
"Because many other buses started to ply the same routes, and when the bus company [with the route permit] complained to BRTA, the company did not get any solution," said Hoque.
Professor Hoque said that the regulatory authority is far away from science. As a result, the whole transport sector has gone out of its control.
It has already been tough for the government to bring discipline on the roads. You can manage a single bus owner very easily, but you cannot control 3,000 bus owners, at least not as effectively, he said. The transport sector is so influential that it can even hinder the government from implementing the law passed in the parliament.
"The regulatory authority has given birth to an unmanageable transport sector," said M Shamsul Hoque. "Now, the beneficiaries are acting as the authority in the transport sector."