It has been nearly two months since the government suspended inter-district transport services in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). And people still continue to take the long routes by outfoxing the law enforcement.
A truck veered into a ditch in Gaibandha’s Palashbari on the stormy morning of Thursday as Cyclone Amphan was cutting its path through Bangladesh.
Under the rod-laden vehicle lay 13 bodies of passengers, a development that brought into question how they travelled 270 kilometres from Dhaka evading at least six police checkpoints.
The truck was seized soon after and brought to the local police station amid the storm.
After the cyclone dissipated, police moved the rods and discovered the bodies of 10 middle-aged men and three others, Gobindaganj Highway Police OC Abdul Quader Jilani said, adding that the driver and his helper were not there.
Palashbari Police OC Masudur Rahman said the Rangpur-bound truck had started from Dhaka and the 13 people died on the spot after being trapped by the rods under water.
The district administration of Gaibandha formed a three-member team to look into the incident. The police, some passengers and businessmen said that although goods transports had been barred from hauling passengers, the system remained flawed.
The highway police said the trucks travel quite freely at night, so drivers’ tricks to pick up passengers often go unnoticed, while the widespread criticism of ‘giving money’ to police to release trucks still prevails.
Apparel factory workers traversed the highways of Bangladesh at least twice during the lockdown, some in trucks, some in vans while others chose to divide their journeys in different vehicles on their way to factories in Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj.
The government asked people to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr where they were, as the
cases of virus infection kept soaring. Yet people were seen desperately looking for ways to exit of the capital upon their arrival at Maowa, Shimulia or Bangabandhu Bridge all through the day on Friday.
The Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges has instructed the law enforcement agencies to take stringent measures, but the discovery of those 13 bodies in Palashbari remains a testament to the ineffectiveness of these cautions.
Highway Police SP Rahmatullah Apu, who has been working in the unit for three years, told bdnews24.com that stopping cargo-laden trucks, especially the ones carry rods and cement, might cause accidents involving the weight of the vehicles and the unpreparedness of the drivers.
“A driver knows this very well. The driver of this particular incident may have taken the opportunity and picked up the passengers to make some money.”
He said if passengers were found travelling in covered vans or trucks, police on duty at checkpoints make them step down from the vehicles. Hundreds of trucks use these highways and the truckers often drive at high speed on empty roads at night. The reality is, the trucks cannot always be stopped, Apu said.
Darus Salam Police Additional Deputy Commissioner Afroza Lucky said: “We can estimate the weight of the supplies on a truck just by looking at the wheels. The trucks which are fully loaded, or those which carry rods or cement are not usually stopped at checkpoints.”
Almost 30,000 trucks deliver ‘extremely important goods’ all over the country every night amid the lockdown, said Highway Police Additional Inspector General Mallick Fakrul Islam.
With the insufficient manpower of the forces, stopping too many vehicles to investigate would create long congestions on the highways, he said.
By the looks of the truck being covered by two layers of sheeting, it appeared the arrangement of picking up passengers may have been premeditated, said Faruk Ahmed, a rod merchant from Dhaka.
Tara Banu, a housemaid from Kamrangirchar who successfully reached Jamalpur with her husband and three children, said she and her family had to change trucks three times at checkpoints. But she did reach her destination on the third vehicle.
Referring to the accident in Gaibandha, Md Millat Hossain, general secretary to the central committee of Bangladesh Truck Drivers Union, said the police should have been more cautious.
Inspector Moshiur Rahman, who has experience in highway traffic management, dismissed the allegation against the police of taking money to let trucks go free.
“In this pandemic, there is no policeman with the mindset to let a truck go after it picks up people so recklessly.”