Schoolchildren in Bangladesh shut down the capital’s roads. Here’s the extraordinary story

Students block a road on Aug. 5 to protest recent traffic accidents that killed a boy and a girl in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)
Students block a road on Aug. 5 to protest recent traffic accidents that killed a boy and a girl in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

Last month, a speeding bus lost control and killed two teenagers in Dhaka, and thousands of schoolchildren protested on the city’s streets, demanding safer roads.

University students soon joined the protests, and the police then cracked down on demonstrators. The students have since returned to school. But academics, journalists and analysts are calling this an unprecedented movement. Here is what you need to know:

On July 29, two buses raced across an overpass to pick up passengers. One bus ran over students waiting for transportation after school. Such accidents occur often in Bangladesh, where private bus companies operate unfit vehicles driven by underage and unlicensed drivers. Many road accidents go unreported, however.

According to the World Health Organization, police First Information Reports (FIRs) found that 2,538 fatalities occurred in Bangladesh in 2012, but WHO estimates the number to be 21,316 for the same year. Add paralyzing traffic — on an average day, it can take two hours to get across Dhaka — and the roads cause perpetual angst.

The students did not disrupt only road traffic — they modeled better traffic management

Students as young as 13 enforced traffic laws at citywide makeshift checkpoints. They stopped vehicles to check for license and registration. One government minister abandoned his car after the students detained it for incorrect paperwork.

A video by the Daily Star, a prominent Bangladeshi newspaper, shows a student stopping a car belonging to a police officer. The students prevented cars from blocking crosswalks and helped pedestrians cross the road. They turned back vehicles traveling on the wrong side of the road to avoid traffic, a common practice. They even kept an emergency lane for ambulances.

Slogans, videos and photos went viral on social media with the hashtags #WeWantJustice, #RoadSafetyMovement and #bangladeshstudentprotests. Students got creative with posters. Some mimicked road signs with messages that read, “Road closed. State repair going on” and “Missing Notice: Justice is Missing.” Many parents accompanied their children, and some provided food, as did restaurants.

The protests were about policies, not ‘politics’

The students sent a clear message: Their movement transcends the country’s divisive two-party politics. Since Bangladesh transitioned out of authoritarian rule in 1991, the ruling Awami League (AL) and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have held power in alternate regimes, with one exception: a military-backed caretaker government from 2006 to 2008.

The two parties fight bitterly in elections, and politics centers heavily on the past — the traumatic 1971 liberation war, military rule and contending nationalisms based on ethnic vs. religious identity.

The student protests suggest the next generation of voters cares little about bitter party feuds; they are more concerned with good policies and public services. Most of the students’ nine demands center on specific policy changes, such as removing unfit cars and unlicensed drivers from roads, building speed breakers in accident-prone spots and capital punishment for reckless driving.

The students also asserted their independence from party politics. In this image shared by CNN, a young man holds a poster that reads, “This is not a political movement. It is the demand of all students and common people. We want a safe road. Right judgment and a safe country.”

Another poster reads, “No one instigated us, we are instigated by our conscience,” challenging any possible allegation that political parties had helped organizers. The road safety movement marks a shift in Bangladesh, bringing a new politics — focused on policies — to the surface.

Students have protested to demand other policy changes

Earlier this year, students staged demonstrations against a corrupt and patronage-infused quota system that leaves only 44 percent of government jobs for merit-based recruitment. In 2015, private university students from three cities protested 7.5 percent taxes on tuition, uniting under the banner “No VAT on Education.”

Bangladesh has invested heavily in the education sector after embracing the UNESCO Education for All agenda in the 1990s. The government built schools, hired teachers and distributed merit and attendance-based cash grants to boost attendance. Scores of private universities addressed an increasing demand for education.

Students grow up with slogans that paint them as the country’s future, but face massive hindrances as they start to navigate their lives — high education costs, unemployment, and patronage and bribery in both university and job recruitment. With limited channels for participation, the country’s youngest voters feel increasingly alienated from the political process, which may help explain the massive outpouring of student protesters on road safety.

The government appears to be listening

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appears to have accepted the students’ demands, and the government has approved the draft Road Transportation Act 2018. The WHO report notes Bangladesh already has laws against speeding and intoxicated driving, but the new laws raise the maximum penalty for road fatalities from three to five years, with a fine of 500,000 taka (about $6,000), and penalize drivers of unfit vehicles with up to six months in jail.

The police implemented a nationwide Traffic Week that began on Aug. 5, holding drivers fully accountable for traffic violations. The government also agreed to pilot a franchised bus system developed by Dhaka’s late mayor, with the goal of making buses on city streets safer and more efficient.

Although these steps provide a promising start, it is unclear whether institutional reforms will follow. Implementing the new laws and policies will take a multipronged strategy that engages the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), police and unions.

These protests come at a crucial time, with Bangladesh preparing for national elections. The road safety movement may have shifted some of the focus away from politics as usual and may force political parties to address policy issues instead. Thousands of new and upcoming voters will no doubt be looking carefully at whether the government can deliver on its promises.

Nayma Qayum is an assistant professor and chair of the Asian Studies Department at Manhattanville College.

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