Experts suggest oil price cut, subsidy to transport owners as alternative options to deal with the situation
Shahin Hasan, a private sector employee, received 55 percent of his salary for April. He did not receive his Eid bonus either. His salary for May is now uncertain.
As if his squeezed flow of income was not enough, the proposal on Saturday by the BRTA to increase bus fare by 80 percent has only added to his worries about how to manage his expenses.
Shahin's office will reopen on Sunday. A hike in bus fare will cost him nearly Tk100 from Rupnagar in Mirpur to Motijheel.
"While I am facing pay cuts and not getting any rent reduction from my landlord, and now I have to spend more on food and transport," said an upset Shahin.
Prashanta Saha, a class IV employee at a government office, also expressed his discontent saying, "Why do people like us have to bear the brunt during all crises? Hike in bus fare will benefit bus owners only, but it will add to the woes of lower-income people like me who are dependent on public transports."
The fare committee of the BRTA made the recommendation for an 80 percent fare increase for all buses, including, inter-district bus services after holding a meeting with bus owners, workers' leaders and other stakeholders on Saturday.
Md Yousub Ali Mollah, chairman (additional charge) of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) told The Business Standard, "Bus owners demanded a 100 percent increase in fares as they have to keep half of their seats empty. But we have recommended an 80 percent hike. Now, we will send the proposal to the road transport ministry for the final decision."
According to the sources in the meeting, workers' leaders and some other participants proposed reducing oil prices as it has dropped in the international market significantly. Meanwhile, others proposed introducing oil rationing for public transports so that bus fare could be minimised.
But bus owners took a strong stance in favour of raising fare.
Disgruntled over the increased bus fares, many commuters pointed out that businesses are getting subsidies and cheap loans to recover from the pandemic and the poor are also getting financial assistance but the middle-class people are getting the short end of the stick. "As if the pandemic has hurt the businessmen and the poor people only," they exclaimed.
Economists, social activists and stakeholders said the government could have explored alternative ways to support transport owners without adding to the expenses of the commuters.
Many people have lost their sources of income as they were out of work for the last two months due to the shutdown put in force to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, they said, but now they will have to pay more just for using public transports.
"Oil prices in the international market have fallen drastically. But the government chose to hike the fare instead of adjusting the oil price. There is no need for increasing the fare if oil price is reduced," said Golam Rahman, president of the Consumer Association of Bangladesh (CAB).
"It is the low-income people who will suffer due to the hike in bus fare," he added.
"In Bangladesh, there is no instance of lowering any price once it goes up. Bus fare will also be at its highest level even after the situation comes back to normal," he expressed his apprehension.
Dr Nazneen Ahmed, economist and senior research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) told The Business Standard that the government should think about low-income people who travel on public buses.
"The government is opening all activities for the sake of the general people. But, they will suffer the most if bus fares are increased. If a person has to spend 80 percent more for conveyance then how are they getting benefitted?" she asked.
She suggested providing fuel subsidy for public transports.
"The government can cut down the fuel price or provide subsidy for public transports. The way to provide the subsidy can be fixed considering all necessary aspects. Our IT experts are capable of developing systems for this kind of management," she added.
Stakeholders think the government could make the situation easy by reducing the cost of diesel fuel for trains, buses and water vessels. But it is clear that they did not think of this option, they added.
Meanwhile, sources at the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation (BPC) told The Business Standard that the organisation is now making a profit of Tk 14-20 per liter of diesel, after all taxes.
When asked, a high official at the Energy and Mineral Resources Division that fixes fuel prices said they do not have any plan to reduce fuel prices at the moment.
"It is true oil prices have dropped in the international market but we could not take advantage of that. We do not have enough storage facilities to stock on low priced fuel," said Md Anisur Rahman, senior secretary to the Energy and Mineral Resources Division.
He added that the BPC is seeing falling profits due to a low demand for fuel.
At present, the price of per litre of diesel is Tk65 which was fixed on April 24, 2016 when the price of per barrel of diesel was $50.31 in the international market.
But now the diesel price in the international market has fallen steeply and at present the BPC is importing it at $35.
The transport sector of the country consumes 57 percent of the country's total fuel which is equivalent to 10,260 tonnes per day. Trains, water vessels and most of the buses use diesel fuel.
At the current price, BPC makes a profit of Tk15-20 crore each day from the transport sector.
Meanwhile, Mozammel Hoque Chowdhury, secretary general of the Bangladesh Passenger Welfare Association demanded repeal of the decision of fare hike.
"The fares are being increased on the pretext of social distancing. These empty seats will be filled up soon, but passengers will have to pay the higher fares for all times to come," he said.
However, Khandaker Enayetullah, secretary general of Bangladesh Sarak Paribahan Malik Samity said this fare will remain effective only during the time of the pandemic. "We will get back to the previous fare once the situation gets back to normal."
How bus services will maintain social distancing
Road, Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader said 50 percent seats of buses must be kept empty while plying on roads from Sunday.
Besides, passengers will have to maintain a three-foot distance from each other while travelling, he told journalists in an online briefing from his residence.
Quader also said passengers, drivers, helpers, bus counter workers, must wear facemasks and hand sanitisers, soaps and hand washing facilities must be available at all terminals.
He directed bus owners, workers' organisations and other stakeholders to form terminal-based monitoring teams and arrange counselling for drivers and helpers to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
Osman Ali, secretary to Bangladesh Sarak Paribahan Sramik Federation, said they demanded support from the owners so that drivers and helpers can comply with the health regulations.
Meanwhile, the BRTA chairman said their teams would be in the field along with police to make sure that safety regulations are maintained.
"Bus owners and workers will maintain health safety guidelines inside their vehicles. Besides, police and BRTA magistrates will be deployed at the terminals to take action against the violators of the law," he added.
Police will be in the field
Sohel Rana, assistant inspector general at the Police Headquarters, said the government has decided to allow movement of public transports in the interest of the general people. Considering that this decision will lead to an increased movement of public transports and an increased number of people, law enforcers will also increase their efforts to maintain traffic management.
Although he thought this would be a big challenge for the police, he said they would try to maintain the government directives. He also sought support from the common people to tackle the situation efficiently.