‘My stomach doesn’t understand blockade’: Transport workers who defy fear, death

Previously Published: The Business Standard

“Close the windows; please, everyone keep the windows closed,” Mohammad Raju, a helper of a bus, was repeatedly urging his bus passengers.

He also asked the driver to turn on the fan in the non-AC bus.

It was all the precaution they could take during the two-day blockade called by the BNP-Jamaat across the country.

In the past 30 hours, 18 vehicles have been set on fire, including 13 buses.

The alarm bells had gone off, but being alert was the only option for many.

“We are on the road risking our lives; I wish I did not have to come out. But my stomach doesn’t understand the blockade, that’s why I have to come out even if it’s a life risk,” Raju said.

“On the first day of the last blockade, we tried to come out as usual; but there were no passengers. Now there are passengers, but bus owners are afraid as they don’t want their vehicles to be burned,” he said, adding each bus costs around Tk70-80 lakh.

Raju is just one of many among those who rely on a bus for their daily income.

They know the risk, but they have little choice.

Shafiq, a driver of a Labbaik Paribahan bus parked in Gabtoli terminal, stares ahead resolutely.

“There are no passengers on the roads. In a signal where we used to collect Tk2,000-3,000 before, now we get like Tk600-700. It hardly covers the fuel expense,” he says, avoiding eye contact and wearing the stoic expression – his mask for the moment.

Earlier, a bus on this road used to give four trips a day, while now even one has become near impossible.

He made only Tk170 yesterday.

“Now you tell me what I will get with this money for my family of three children, a wife and a bedridden mother who needs medicines of Tk100 a week,” he said, the facade breaking slightly.

“If something happens to me on the road, my family will be left with nothing. I only fear that my eldest son studying in class 6 may need to stop going to school and start working. I don’t want my son to work on other people’s buses,” said Shafiq, his eyes now brimming with tears.

Elsewhere in Bangla Motor intersection, a bus of Bihongo Paribahan, could be seen waiting for passengers.

One of the buses of this company was set on fire last evening around 6:00pm right at this intersection of Bangla Motor.

Talking to The Business Standard, the bus helper, Shukkor Ali said, “I am Allah’s creature, Allah will save me. I have to get money for my family to buy their food.”

His bus owner didn’t want to let the bus on the road after yesterday’s incident.

“If the bus doesn’t operate on the road, the bus owner can still run his family. He has 10 other buses and a lot of money. But my family depends on what I take home every night.”

Shukkor Ali and his co-driver requested the bus owner to let them make one trip in the morning and he allowed it under one condition.

“The bus needs to come back to the garage by 7:00pm in the evening,” he told them.

The same condition was given to the usually-crowded Number-8 bus, which runs from Gabtoli to Jatrabari.

“We used to run the bus all night. But now the bus owners tell us to bring the bus to the garage by evening. They say all bus fire incidents happen at night,” said Imran, the helper of the bus departing from a deserted Gabtoli terminal.

‘We are always in fear’

Kaiyum, a passenger on a bus who was heading to his office at Darus Salam, said, “We are always in fear, but I have to go to the office every day. There is no blockade in the office, right?

“All political parties, government, election commission, all should sit together somewhere and come to a resolution. Because buses are not available, CNGs ask for more fare than usual, and then there is the risk of being burned. It is really difficult to live our normal life. We are always in fear…” he added.

Another passenger, a banker heading to his Mirpur office, seeking anonymity said, “Because of fear, I am not sending my daughter to school. These arsonists are not even considering school or university buses,” pointing to the arson incident that happened twice with Green University buses.

“They do politics for people. Don’t they? Now the lives of the people are being hampered,” he said.

How is it for long-haul transport workers

At the deserted Gabtoli bus terminal amid this blockade, a long-haul bus of Selfie Paribahan was seen departing with half seats filled.

“If a minimum of 30 passengers don’t get on, we don’t make a bare minimum profit. Look, how many seats you see filled,” driver Imtiaz said.

This is his second trip in the last five days of blockade.

“A lot of families are dependent on these trips. If this continues till elections, we will die without food.”

Talking of the risk on the roads, he said, “On the highway, the risk of arson is less. Still, we request our passengers to keep the windows closed so that the bad people can’t throw cocktails inside the bus.”

Imtiaz said while he drives he keeps his eye alert to any gathering of people on the roadsides.

Walking down the ticket counters of Gabtoli terminal, there were hardly any passengers seen and most of the ticket counters were shut down.

“Last Wednesday evening, our bus was exactly on this spot just metres away. That’s when some people came and set fire to the Welcome bus,” recounted Eben Bishwash, a counter manager of SP Golden Line.

“By 11:00am at normal times, 10-12 buses of our company depart. But today we didn’t even operate one bus because no passengers were heading to Satkhira, Khulna. That’s how the situation has been every day of the blockade,” he added.

The same situation was seen at the Shyamoli counter, from where buses head towards Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar. No bus had left the terminal since morning, while usually, 10-12 buses would have been on the route.