Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, was brought to a standstill on Thursday through roadblocks and sit-in protests that have lasted for five days by high-school students demanding road safety and justice after the death of two youths.

With the country set to go to a general election this year, the protest by school children has embarrassed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The enraged children, mostly aged from 13 to 16 years, took to the streets on Sunday after a bus ploughed into students from Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment College (SRUCC) in Dhaka while they waited to board another bus. Two were killed on the spot and a dozen injured.

Students from the College immediately protested and blocked Airport Road, one of the main roads of the capital. Many buses were reportedly vandalized.

Right after the incident, Shahjahan Khan, a ruling party minister who is also Executive President of the Transport Workers Union, tried to downplay the fatal crash. Asked by the media about the two deaths, reportedly caused by an unhealthy competition between two buses, the minister grinned and said: “A road crash has claimed 33 lives in India’s Maharashtra; but do they talk about it like the way we do?”

Photos and videos of the protest by the Cantonment College students and Khan’s smile went viral on social media and caused an uproar. Students from other colleges and high schools across the capital boycotted classes and took to the streets in large numbers on Monday, staging processions at many points in Dhaka.

The students braved police barricades, holding placards and chanting slogans calling for justice. They also acted like traffic police, checking documents of vehicles in the presence of police. They even took away car keys from drivers without licenses.

Calls for safer roads

Sefeyet Mridha Arnab, a student at Sher-E-Bangla Nagar Government Boys High School, said he protested instead of going to class because he wants change. “We are not safe anywhere,” he said.

Arnab said most buses in the capital operated without a certificate to verify they were roadworthy. “Just by looking at those, you will realize that they are not in proper shape. Also, the drivers don’t follow the rules of the road. They tend to speed whenever they want. They are reckless.”

Statistics from the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) show there are 2.6 million registered vehicles in the country. However, the agency has only issued 1.7 million driver’s licenses, which suggests that almost a million people drive without licenses.

“This has to change,” said a determined Arnab. He and his classmates were seen stopping vehicles and checking driver’s licenses and fitness certificates. “If we can do it, why can’t the police or the transport regulator?” he said.

Tasnim Mahbuba, from Mohammadpur Preparatory High School, said she hears or reads about road accidents every day. “We want safe roads. The current situation on the roads and highways is anything but safe.”

Mahbuba said the drivers and owners of transport companies had no accountability. “I can’t remember seeing or finding any news about drivers getting punished or the license of a transport line being canceled because of reckless driving. I want to know why, and that’s why I am protesting.”

Govt vows to meet students’ demands

The high school students put several demands to the government. They called for capital punishment for reckless drivers [those responsible for fatal accidents], the banning of vehicles that are not roadworthy, and punishment for people who drive without a license or proper paperwork, as well as moves to get drivers to slow down on accident-prone roads and making it mandatory for inter-city buses to stop and pick up students.

The government, in response, said it would fulfill the students’ demands and asked the agitated youths to go home.

Minister of Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan promised on Wednesday that the government would launch a public transport safety campaign. “We request you to withdraw the blockades and return to the classroom. People are suffering and we don’t want this,” he said.

The government would punish everyone involved in the killing of the two college students, the Minister for Road Transport and Bridges Obaidul Quader said. He also asked the students to end their protests.

Shahjahan Khan, the minister whose smirk and comments sparked the protests, said he was “saddened and ashamed” and apologized for his remarks.

However, the government also ordered all educational institutions across the country to close on Thursday to stall the ongoing protests. Despite the shut-down, high school students came out in school uniforms and continued their protest for a fifth consecutive day.

“We are tired of empty promises from the government. We will not go back home unless we see some actions and results,” said Abrar Ahmed, a student who was at a protest at Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka.

Too many cars clogging roads in Dhaka

Meanwhile, experts did not see any immediate solution. Prof Dr M Shamsul Haque, former director of the Accident Research Center at the Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology, said the city has “a much larger volume of traffic than it can handle”.

He said the increasing number of vehicles meant traffic in Dhaka was often gridlocked. “So whenever the traffic moves, you will always find a large number of drivers, especially those of public buses, driving at high speed, as they want to make up for lost time.”

Experts say making the city’s roads safe and preventing accidents is a daunting task. A study by the urban and regional planning department at Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology found that 69% of roads in the capital are only 8.7 meters wide, while the global standard width of big city roads is at least 14 meters.

According to the study, Dhaka had the capacity to handle up to 150,000 vehicles, but it has way over that – 1.8 million cars plying its roads.

Renowned urban planner Prof. Sarwar Jahan said: “With the current traffic load and road capacity, there is a chance that the rate of accidents will increase in the coming days. Unless a sustainable traffic system is established, road accidents in the city with such a burgeoning population cannot be curbed.”