Last weekend, I bought train tickets two days before a journey to my ancestral home, on the newly set-up e-ticketing service. The process was very smooth. I was happy the service was finally working properly, after a new company was handed over the responsibility.
My optimism, however, would soon fade after I found myself waiting two and half hours for the train to arrive on the day of the journey. I went back home on hearing it would take a few more hours.
Two weeks earlier, the train to my home arrived one and half hours late, and a week before that, two of my colleagues waited 10 straight hours for their train to Khulna.
When I was waiting for the train, in vain, in late evening, hundreds of people, Eid vacationers, were waiting in a long queue for the advance train tickets - some sitting on bed sheets - which would be released the next morning.
And this all happened to the country's most popular transport: the railway. On the occasion of Eid, people's sufferings will know no bounds.
Although very popular, the railway is only capable of carrying a quarter of passengers. Numerous private bus companies serve the rest. During Eid holidays, home-goers face even worse hassles from these services.
The superbly resilient people of Bangladesh always find a work around. In the last Eid-ul-Fitr, an increased reliance on motorbikes for inter-district travel was noticed. In three days leading to Eid, according to newspaper reports, a total of 1,19,190 motorbikes crossed Bangabandhu Bridge, which was about 18% of total vehicles crossing the bridge at the same time.
The bridge authority had to dedicate two different lanes for the toll payment; still, there was a long queue of motorbikes. This year, a record number of motorcycles crossed the bridge during Eid.
The same thing happened at other crossings. In Paturia ferry ghat, BIWTA had to allocate whole ferries for motorbikes for safe river crossing.
However, this Eid-ul-Azha, Roads and Highways Department has banned motorcycles in the country's highways for seven days before and after Eid.
And naturally, it has created an uproar in the biker community.
It all started with the inauguration of Padma Bridge. Just as the bridge was opened for general commuters on 26 June, a large number of motorcycles and other vehicles flocked to the toll booth from the night before. There was about 3.5 km of congestion on the Zajira point of the bridge.
Footage from several helmet-mounted cameras (used by motorcycle vloggers) show motorcyclists competing to be the first on the bridge at six in the morning.
Among them all, motorcycles were the most disorderly.
One biker even got away without paying the toll, whose video went viral on social media. Another vlogger's video footage showed how, as he was riding within the speed limit of the bridge, other bikers were overtaking him in a flash.
It was a motorcycle which crossed the bridge first.
This desperate 'need for speed' came down hard on the bikers in two ways. The very first road accident on the newly opened bridge involved a motorcycle, which left two riders dead on the very first day. The next day, the Bridges Division decided to prohibit motorcycles from plying the Padma Bridge until further notice.
A little over a week later, the Roads and Highways Department (RHD) has decided to prohibit motorcycles from inter-district travel for seven days – before and after Eid.
Raod accidents in the last 6 months:
Responsible for 40% of road accident deaths.
Bus, truck, private car, three-wheelers, etc:
Responsible for 60% of road accident deaths.
Source: Road Safety Foundation
For every 10,000 motorcycles, 28.4 persons die in accidents each year.
Almost 40% of motorcycle accident victims are between 24 and 30 years.
88 per cent victims were not wearing helmets.
Risk of death in motorcycles is 26 times higher.
Source: BUET's Accident Research Institute
Although these two decisions may seem interlinked, the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) had actually recommended restricting the movement of motorcycles on highways a week before the Padma Bridge accident.
The recommendation apparently came in a bid to curtail the alarming rise in road accidents across the country. According to a TBS report, at least 190 people were killed and 968 wounded in motorcycle accidents 12 days before and after Eid-ul-Fitr.
During the period, on an average, 56 people died and 264 were injured daily in road accidents, the report said, quoting a study conducted by Save The Road.
On the other hand, the study also shows that at least 681 people were killed and 2,077 injured in road accidents at that time, which means more people died in accidents that did not involve motorcycles, a fact quickly picked up by motorcycle riders.
A recent media report saying 40% accidents involve motorcycles, apparently justifying the motorcycle ban, received a humorous reaction from some on social media. They wrote, "Ban the vehicles responsible for 60% of accidents first."
Riders were quick to point fingers at bus owners associations for the ban. Although the association leaders denied any role behind the decision, newspaper reports actually establish a plausible causal correlation.
Reports published before Eid-ul-fitr said buses were carrying fewer passengers compared to the same period before Eid in previous years. The record number of motorcycles carrying home-goers later provided an explanation.
The situation is evolving fast, for the worse, for motorcycles. While writing this piece, Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) issued a circular saying no motorcycle will get a registration without a driving licence.
Motorbike riders have been organising protests against the ban. Some of them are advocating for enforcing laws and speed limits instead of banning motorbikes on the highways. They are in favour of using CCTV cameras and speed guns to stop or identify speeding vehicles.
State minister for shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury also said that the ban on running motorcycles on Padma Bridge was temporary and that it would be lifted once CCTV cameras and speed guns were installed. But this may be hard to implement in the over 4,000 km of highways of the country, although highway police do use speed guns in random spots.
The restriction on registration is a welcome move, but this needs to be coupled with a corruption-free driving licence issuance procedure. And there are other measures that are begging to be taken in the total chaos that exist in the transport system.
Also, while writing this article, a video of a Directorate of National Consumers Right Protection (DNCRP) raiding a bus counter was making rounds on the internet.
As the magistrate was about to fine the bus company for not displaying fare charts according to the law, the lungi-clad manager got infuriated and started calling some people over the phone and complaining about the DNCRP drive.
He went on to issue threats that he would line up the buses and stop the service. At some point, he claimed that his company sends gifts to all the high-ups in the local administration. The display of power and confidence of this manager says it all.
Ahead of Eid, bus companies are hiding the fare charts and preparing to 'cut the throats of the passengers' - to use the proverbial Bangla expression. Even after this, there will be shortages of buses before Eid, causing immense sufferings to the holidaymakers.
Motorcycles, in recent times, have acted as a disruptor in the unbearable disorder and lawlessness that the commercial transport sector creates. If motorcycles continue to be restricted, without addressing the issues relating to the latter, then the chance of using the disruption as a bargaining chip in favour of the commoners will be missed.
That being said, a short-term restriction should be able to put some sense into the reckless young riders who have earned a bad name leading up to the restrictions.
Bangladesh's whole transport system needs a complete overhaul. Rickety buses blocking each other in the roads causing tailbacks in the process, insane honking, many bikers looking for every opportune moment to break traffic regulations, rickshaws taking up car lanes - the list of constant nuisance is long.
But it's never too late to start afresh. Although ours is a half-century-old independent and supposedly modern state, we can start sanitising our traffic system with renewed vigour.
Increasing number of motorcycles is a mark of a growing economy, and at the same time, a really bad public transport system. Any new campaign to fix the latter should bear the former in mind.