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Infrastructures of Oppression: Public Transport System of Dhaka City, Bangladesh

Crowded bus in Dhaka Road, People hanging on the bus door, Bangladeshi Public Bus

One of the early technologies in the history of human civilization that brought extraordinary transformations in the mode and mobility of human life was the invention of the wheel. With this innovation, the progress of human civilization got new momentum allowing people to carry goods, travel between places, and most importantly shrink the physical distance of spaces. With continuous efforts and extensive modifications applied to the technology of the wheel, modern transportation systems have taken its current shape. While all the present forms of transportation systems spanning from cars and buses to aircrafts and spaceships have apparently brought ease and comfort by paving the luxury of movement and prospect of exploration, it would be productive to think through the repercussions they have been inflicting upon us. Although the transport vehicles are geared towards reducing physical distance between places, it is very important to pay attention to the fact that they are neither innocent, nor without politics; rather they have a fair share in escalating the already existing gaps between the people of different classes, genders, abilities etc., and can appear as an instrument of oppression. Here, I am going explore the politics of the transport infrastructure of the metropolitan cities in the socio-cultural setting of a South Asian country – Bangladesh – a geographically little country with a small economy and a large population. I will keep the discussion limited to the public buses of the capital city of Bangladesh – Dhaka – to show how the operation and design of the buses exercise biases and cause oppression based on economic class, gender, ability etc.  

Dhaka and its Transport Infrastructures

Dhaka ranks fifth among the top ten megacities of the world with a population of 14.5 million (Zaman, 2019).  It is one of the densely populated places in the world, where 23,234 people live in per square kilometer according to world population review, 2020. Being the country’s main business and commercial hub, being located in the geographical center, holding almost all the important national and parliamentarian executive offices, along with the country’s best educational and medical institutes, the city is growing at a very fast rate – both demographically and economically. However, although the city’s territory is being expanded to the nearby suburban areas, compared to the proportion of the population, the expansion is very low, if not negligible. The city’s metro system, elevated expressways and rapid transit system are still under construction, therefore, among a number of different modes, the dominant mode of transport within the city are the public buses for both short and long distances, rickshaws (manually pulled three-wheelers) for short distances, and CNG (four stroke three wheelers run by compressed natural gas) for medium to long distances. Private cars and ride sharing (UBER, Pathao etc.) constitute a small portion of the overall transport vehicle circuits within Dhaka city. Relatedly, it is important to note here that the economic inequality is very high in Dhaka and nearly one third of the city’s population live in the slums without proper housing, sanitation, transport and other basic amenities of life (Zaman, 2019).

The transport system of Bangladesh is controlled, monitored and managed by a regulatory body named Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) which works under the Ministry of Communication of Bangladesh Government. Although the number of the categories of registered vehicles of BRTA is more than twenty, unlike any other cities of the developing countries, bus services remain as the main mode of public transport in Dhaka city. The bus operation in Dhaka is extremely incoherent with a number of private owners who own their individual bus companies with different names along with the buses of the government-owned operator BRTC (Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation). The buses race each other on the roads for passengers, and in the market structure for profit. Different types of buses operate within the city, which can generally be categorized as large buses, mini buses, micro buses and human haulers according to their shapes and sizes (Mamun, 2014, p. 27). Large buses are the ones with ten meters or more length, and this category includes double-deckers and articulated buses (Mamun, 2014, p. 28). Buses that are around eight meters of length with fifteen to thirty seats capacity are called mini buses. Usually these buses have locally manufactured bodies with chassis and engines from foreign companies like Isuzu, Hino or Tata (Mamun 2014, p. 28). Human haulers are the buses that are used to travel for comparatively short distance and narrow local roads and, is comprised of nine to fifteen seats. Microbuses usually have eight to fifteen seats, and do not specifically follow any authorized route. However, among these different types of public buses, minibuses constitute the largest fleet of buses that people use to travel within Dhaka city.  It is important to note here that as these buses are locally constructed with used or semi used engines and frames imported from other countries, these buses often have to compromise the quality of service with poor interior, broken windows and seats, small legroom and headroom for the passengers and drivers to maximize passenger capacity.

Although buses have specific routes to follow and designated stoppage spots, they pick up and drop off passengers at random places in their routes, often dangerously, when the buses are on the move. Also, the buses have to share the same lane with other motor (private cars, CNG, truck etc.) and non-motor vehicles (e. g. rickshaw, bi-cycle) which makes the whole system very chaotic and problematic causing serious traffic congestions and frequent road accidents. Given the number of public transport facility is tellingly inadequate in Dhaka city compared to the number of passengers, especially during the peak hours – the starting and breaking of office and school hours – the buses are usually crowded with a vast number of standing passengers.

Economic Implications

One of the arguments that I want to put forward is that the ‘public bus’ in Dhaka city, as a technological artifact, has economic implications, and demonstrates influence in the arrangement of social order. Since Dhaka is the main economic hub of Bangladesh with a number of heavy and small industries, factories and offices, people of different income capacities struggle to maintain their lives here. Although Bangladesh has been experiencing an upward trend in GDP growth, the economic disparity between the rich and the poor is growing every day (Ahmed, 2019). The number of slum dwellers, lower- middle and middle class people living in small apartments without having the access to the basic amenities of life far outweighs the number of rich people living in convenient places with proper housing niceties. As mentioned before, Dhaka city does not have any consolidated mass transit system yet, its Rapid Mass Transit and Metro Rail project is still under construction, and the number of people who are able to afford their own private vehicles are very few compared to the ones who are unable to afford them. People have to rely on the other modes of intra-city travelling, for example – rickshaws, buses, CNGs, and different ride sharing modes of travelling. However, considering the low fare and the ease of commuting, buses are the main choice for people of certain social classes. Starting from the very low paid day laborers or underpaid garment workers, students, small service holders or entrepreneurs, the range of passengers stretches to elderly people, market goers, and general folk on their way to escort children to their schools. It would be important to note here that, since the fare of buses on the same route vary depending on the service quality which largely depends on the physical structure and seating arrangement of the buses, and the frequency and ease of picking up and dropping off passengers, the passengers choose the buses they would travel depending on their income capacity. Comparatively well-off passengers opts for ‘sitting service’ buses that do not allow standing passengers, have comparatively large interior, have spacious leg-rooms and head-rooms for the passengers, and stop in selective bus -bays, whereas the low-income passengers usually choose the ‘local-buses’ that are smaller in size having congested interior, no cap on number of passengers, and not well maintained. Also, most of the drivers of the ‘public buses’ run by companies do not get any fixed monthly salary; rather they get paid on daily trip basis depending on the number of passengers they can pick each day.  Drivers, sometimes, have to pull as much as 17 hour shifts, three days a week (“Overworked, Underpaid: Bangladesh Bus Drivers Say Accidents Not Entirely Their Fault.”, 2018) with minimum payment. Not only the drivers, but also the conductors have to work 15 to 16 hours a day to make as less as 350 BDT (Karmakar, 2016) per day. The overworked and underpaid transport workers not only exacerbate the already existing economic inequality but also are complicit in creating a vicious cycle of labor exploitation due to the competition of so many competing transport companies in the single city.

Gender Implications

I would also like to point towards the underlying gender bias that are typical of the public bus operating system in Dhaka. The ‘public bus’ in Dhaka city can be seen as an essential apparatus of patriarchal power-politics that causes oppression, harm and inconvenience to the commuters of inferior gender identities on their ways in the public bus. A study conducted on the women safety on roads by the development organization BRAC in 2018 found that 98% women commuting in public transports in Bangladesh experience sexual harassment in verbal, physical and other forms. The study also reveals that excessive crowds, lack of monitoring and lawlessness are the major cause of sexual harassment of women in the public transports (Kabir, 2018). However, while the small space and extreme crowd is an identified reason of harassment of women in public buses, the physical structure and seating arrangement of a bus are often overlooked as another potential instrument of ‘systematic sexism’ and ‘gender oppression’ prevalent in the patriarchal society. A huge share of passengers of public buses in Dhaka are working women of different social backgrounds – female students, working women, female entrepreneurs and homemakers. Although, there have been governmental decisions and legislations to reserve priority seats for women to ensure the right of safe travelling of the women passengers, if seen critically, the laws have enough grounds to be proved as absolute failures and making possible the opposite to what is intended. In 2008, Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), Metropolitan Transport Authority and the representatives of women's rights movement conducted a collaborative meeting in this regard and came up with a decision that large city buses have to reserve nine seats and minibuses have to reserve six seats for women, children and people with any kinds of disability (Hossain, 2015).  It was also decided that, these seats should be reserved behind the driver’s seat or at the front end of the bus, so that they do not have to face unwanted physical proximities by the male passengers, and easily get into and get down from the buses (Jahan, 2017). Nevertheless, in reality people heed the least attention to the law, and therefore most of the reserved seats are seen to be occupied by male passengers. In 2017, while approving ‘Road Transport Act-2017’, the legislative body enacted a decree that if someone wrongly occupies the assigned seat for women, children and disabled, he is to be punished and imprisoned for one month or to be fined 5,000 BDT (Jahan, 2017).  The commandment may seem nice and innocent apparently; however, this triggered mockery, floods of trolls and memes on the internet, derogatory posts and comments over social media platforms where people raised the question of equality and women empowerment by mocking the need of reserving priority seats for women. Any steps from the government’s side had been taken against these mean and derogatory practices in the cyberspace is not heard of. This symbolizes the absolute surrender of both the legislative system and transport authority to the authoritative male chauvinist society that denies and exploits women rights.

What is more alarming is that, although the decision of reserving priority seat for women, disabled and children stems from a noble intention to ensure equity of vulnerable groups of people who require special attention, the act of categorizing women, children and disabled in the same manner is pejorative and problematic. It problematizes the social understanding of performative gender role by implying that being women is somewhat equivalent of being a minor as children, or equivalent of being disabled. Also, the positioning of the reserved seats, as they were supposed to be located immediately behind the driver’s seat, which was decided for their ease of availability and access, often, is manipulated by the bus operators by reserving the least desired seats of the bus for the women, children and disabled. To maximize the passenger picking capacity of the bus, some of the companies make some extra seats by covering the engines right beside the driver’s seat, and place boards on them to be used as seats. In most of the minibuses, these engine-top seats are kept reserved as the priority seats for women, children and disabled people. These seats do not have any handles for passengers to hold on to or any support to rest their heads and backs, no seatbelts, not enough space to rest their legs, let alone any support to keep the passenger safe on their seats if the bus meets an unfortunate event. As these seats are placed directly on top of engines, they produce excessive heat which is dangerous and unsafe for the passengers. These illegal seats, according to Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC), pose serious health risks to the passengers, especially to the women, children and the disabled, who sit on them (Khalil, 2019). Even the conductors show reluctance to pick up female passengers during the rush hours to avoid the legislative consequences of wrongly occupying the reserved seats which are often filled in by male passenger with the support of the conductor and drivers. The women passengers are generally asked to avail the next bus with the excuse of ‘no empty seats for women’ whereas the male passengers are allowed to get into the same bus. This kind of divisive actions not only causes trouble and inconvenience to the female passengers, but also unfolds the biases of a patriarchal society that fails to address the needs of women even with the intervention of legislative power and authority.

Moreover, while the legislature attempts to ensure equity by reserving priority seats for women, children and disabled, there is no compelling evidence of any efforts from either the transport authority or government agencies to safeguard the rights of ‘other’ genders in the public transports. These people of ‘other’ genders – people of non-normative gender identity, generally tagged as transgendered people or ‘hijra’ in local tongue – is socially stigmatized minority of Bangladesh. Although the government of Bangladesh has recognized the identity of transgendered people as ‘third gender’ in various identity forms, and trying to reserve their rights in various walks of life, in the public transport, they are not offered any privilege or reservation of seats. Transgendered people of Bangladesh staying backward in many aspects of life, and being denied of many basic rights, deserve special attention to be pulled up from their position, which the transportation system of Bangladesh seems to overlook, if not ignore. Additionally, in the cultural context of Bangladesh, there is the least female representation of women officers in the public transport sector. The number of female drivers or conductors of buses are almost zero, the presence of women in transport policy making is equally very low. So, this is no wonder why the design of the public bus operating system in Dhaka, Bangladesh is so divisive, politicized and patriarchal. Therefore, it is imperative that the public bus operating system in Dhaka with the distinctive physical design of the bus is gleaned towards exercising patriarchal power towards women, children and the disabled, and it systematically excludes the people of non-normative gender identities from the public transports, especially from the city buses.

Disability Implications

The last but not the least argument I want to put forward is that the biases of the public bus system of Dhaka city has significant implications in terms of ability and disability. To understand the implications of these buses on people with disabilities, it would be important to pay attention to the physical design of the buses, their routes, and their modes of conducting once again. As the reservation of priority seats for women, children and disabled has already been discussed in the previous section, assessing the accessibility options of the public buses for the disabled people would be vital to focus onto. Although there are particular stoppage points for the buses to pick up and drop off passengers, the buses tend to stop at random places to maximize the profit by picking up and dropping off as many passengers as they can. Random stopping and traffic congestion cause failure to maintain proper schedule and timing of arrival and departure. Roads in Bangladesh are crowded most of the time, and due to the multiple categories of motor and non-motor vehicles who do not maintain lanes on the road, it becomes very difficult for people with disability to get access to the public buses. Most of the stoppage points do not have any platform. Even if there are platforms, the distance between the platforms of the stoppage and the bus’s stairs makes it difficult for people with motor or visual disability or impairment to access the transport.

Also, the buses usually have no special arrangement at their entrance for the disabled people who find it difficult to compete with the rush of the able bodied people to get into the bus. In most of the buses, except a few exception of the large buses operated by BRTC, there is a set of steep and narrow stairs that the passengers have to walk up to get into the bus. The positioning of the least spacious reserved seats and the steep stairs at the gate of the buses is suggestive of causing disadvantages to certain types of disabilities, for example, people with motor disability. People needing a special chair or special arrangement for seating have no way to travel along with their chairs because of the narrow gate, steep stair and congestion within of the bus. Therefore, the act of reserving priority seats for the disabled is quite paradoxical and self-contradictory, since how the people of certain types of disabilities would get the access to the bus remains questionable. However, disabled people of certain categories might not find the stairs and less spacious interior as troublesome as other categories. For example, people with speech impairment may not find it difficult to get into the buses, but for people with visual or motor impairment, the entrance poses a problem.  Additionally, while people with cognitive disabilities who are physically able to climb the bus find it more accessible as opposed to someone with a motor disability that makes it harder for them to access and enter the bus, or even physically contest for space once inside. Privileging certain types of disabilities while causing disadvantages to some other types, it is implied that the physical design of the bus is divisive and discriminatory even among the people of different kinds of disabilities.  Moreover, drivers and conductors generally show reluctance to pick up and accommodate people with special need in the buses as they require extra space and care which cause the operators inconvenience due to the congested space inside the bus. Also, as the buses are always in rush to make as many trips as possible, the consequent lack of discipline and punctuality in regard to the arrival and departure of the buses at the stoppages makes it even more difficult for the people with special need to get access to them. Therefore, it is evident that the operating system and the physical design of the public buses in Dhaka city display biases in regard to ability, and the physical design manifest its able-body centrism. Neither the operating system, nor the physical design of the buses take the needs of disabled people into consideration. Hence, suffice it to say that the public buses in Dhaka have disability implications, they are divisive in nature and not suitable for the people of certain kinds of disability even though the reserve seats for the disabled.

To recapitulate, from the discussions above, it has been uncovered that the of the ‘public bus’ of Dhaka city of Bangladesh demonstrates political consequences, and it compellingly embodies and exerts power and authority which directly impacts the social order in the particular cultural settings. The physical design of the bus being faulty and divisive, fails to ensure the inclusion of people of different genders, sexes, social classes, and abilities. Varying in fares and service quality, the public buses impact affordability and access of the commuters which in turn posits implication in social order. The operating system of the buses causes labor exploitation which contributes to exacerbating the inequality between the rich and the poor. Also, the clumsy application of reserving the priority seats in the buses for women, children and disabled not only reflects the failure of legislative actions, but also points towards the systematic sexism that causes troubles and inconveniences to the ‘inferior’ gender identities including women. Although the physical design of the buses shows their bias favoring the able-bodied people, with the imposed law of the government, there is a failed attempt to accommodate the disabled people into the public transport. Hence, I have tried to point out the discriminatory nature of public bus system in Dhaka city with a hope of redesigning the technology of the bus as one that would be more inclusive, democratizing, just and unbiased.






















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