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On the road in western Bangladesh

In Bangla, they call it a “van,” one of the many imported English words for which the Sanskrit-based language has no equivalent. Somewhere in the linguistic transfer, the word lost its original reference to a sturdy vehicle of transportation with a cab and enclosed cargo area, powered by an engine. It also lost a lot of RPM. The Bangladesh “van” is a tricycle with a seat for the driver and a short flat bed. It’s the low-cost and definitely low-emission utility transport found everywhere from country roads to crowded urban highways.  And you can carry almost anything on it—stacks of cattle fodder and sugar cane, sacks of rice and vegetables, a basket full of live chickens or a couple of goats, household furniture, metal pipes, firewood, bamboo scaffolding poles or your whole family. The “van” has no gears (and maybe no brakes) so it’s tough pedaling with a heavy load on the back. Fortunately, most of Bangladesh is as flat as a pancake so the main challenges are the potholes, speed bumps, and the trucks and buses that careen wildly across the road, pushing the van chalaks (drivers) onto the dirt berms.  There’s an upscale motorized version with a longer bed, where the driver perches above a motorcycle engine. These are used for transporting bricks, lumber and building materials.  You can fit two cows, a stack of tires and mattresses, or a couple of beds and tables on the motor-van.  Or a larger group of passengers. 

Any road trip in Bangladesh is a study in the social hierarchy of transportation. My first was a journey on the main north-south route in western Bangladesh, from the regional capital Khulna to Kushtia, a large city on the banks of the Pabna River, one of the last tributaries to flow into the Ganges before it meets the other great river of South Asia, the Brahmaputra, on its way to the Bay of Bengal. By road, it’s a tad under 100 miles, but the trip took us almost four hours.  And we were not on a van but in the air-conditioned comfort of an aristocrat of the road—a gleaming white UNICEF Toyota Land Cruiser.  The single-lane highway is straight most of the way, but it’s clogged with traffic—trucks, buses and auto rickshaws as well as the vans. Our driver who had done this trip many times expertly weaved in and out of the traffic, missing collisions by important inches. The right of way, such as it is, definitely belongs to the largest and heaviest vehicles. The buses, with passengers sitting on the roofs, relentlessly pushed ahead, their horns blaring and the driver’s assistant hanging out of the door, waving at slower and smaller vehicles to move aside. The brightly painted Tata and Leyland trucks joined the chorus of horns. With almost every vehicle using its horn, it’s difficult to figure out who’s getting in the way of who, but that’s the way they drive here. You have to wonder if the bus and truck drivers use a jumper wire to bypass the steering wheel so that the horn is permanently active. If you’re busy dodging and weaving and riding the bumps, you don’t want to add the tiresome task of actually having to push the horn. 

Many studies have shown that Bangladesh’s road system is totally inadequate for the traffic it carries, but shortage of funds and corruption have left many major highways, especially in rural regions, in a state of disrepair.  In monsoon season, roads and bridges are washed away, and traffic faces long detours. The Khulna-Kushtia highway takes a heavy pounding from overloaded trucks. I don’t know if there’s a law on the books about weight limits, but if there is it’s almost never enforced.  There are definitely no weigh stations on the Khulna-Kushtia road, and if there were, a few hundred taka ($1 = 80 taka) would likely ensure the right of passage. Trucks are piled high with bricks, building materials and agricultural produce, lashed down with ropes; often the tailgate is left down, so that the load hangs a foot or so off the back of the bed.  Because they are loaded so high, the center of gravity shifts upward, making the truck liable to keel over if the driver turns sharply to avoid oncoming traffic.  We saw a couple of trucks lying on their sides on the road bank and another jacked up with its cargo precariously leaning to the left. We saw no accidents but the statistics are horrible, with an average of 17 deaths a day on the country’s roads.

This highway is particularly crowded because at the city of Jessore, about midway between Khulna and Kushtia, it joins the east-west road from the border with India at Petrapol. Bangladesh imports coal, petroleum and other goods, including cars, from India, and exports textiles and agricultural goods. The coal, from the mines of Bihar and West Bengal, is off-loaded at rail junctions where laborers transfer it to railroad cars that transport it to power stations and manufacturing plants. Some goes to fire the large brick kilns that line the southern section of the highway from Jessore to Khulna. Khulna Division is still primarily an agricultural region where the rich alluvial soil deposited from the rivers provides good arable land.  With ample water supply, it’s a major rice-growing region with paddies stretching far into the distance; fruit, vegetables and peanuts are also grown. Its most important cash crop is shrimp, raised in fresh and saltwater ponds; along the road we saw blue nets stretched across the ponds and small fields of red—harvested shrimp drying in the sun.  

Every few miles, the agricultural landscape gives way to industry, with the tall chimneys of the brick kilns, cement plants and vast factories with rows and rows of workers’ bicycles parked outside. The small-scale industry consists of sawmills with stacks of logs on the roadside ready to be cut and planed by hand. The finished products—wooden beds, tables and chairs—are displayed outside.  Most of the lumber, I was told, comes from private plantations, but some is illegally logged in the Sundarbans, the delta area that has the largest continuous mangrove forest in the world (two thirds in Bangladesh, one third in India) and is home to deer, wild boar, otter, saltwater crocodiles, river dolphins and the last surviving Bengal tigers. Officially, it’s a protected area, but its vastness and lack of roads make it difficult to police.

Khulna, where we stayed overnight after a visit to the university, is an old river port and industrial city.  It used to be a center of the jute industry, but today shrimp is its major export. With a population of just over one million, it’s the third largest city in Bangladesh, but it’s a distant third; Dhaka has a population of 17.5 million and Chittagong, the major port on the Bay of Bengal, 4.5 million.  But it’s still a noisy bustling place, crowded with trucks, buses, auto rickshaws and cars, and the usual traffic congestion. I was happy that the windows at the City Inn closed tightly.      

From UNICEF’s perspective, there’s a lot to do in western Bangladesh.  Poverty rates are high, and many children suffer from poor nutrition. Overall, the country has improved its maternal and childhood mortality rates, but some districts in Khulna Division lag behind. Many children work in agriculture and small industry, so child labor is an issue. On the other hand, why would parents send their children to school when the quality of primary education is poor and the poorly-paid teachers sometimes don’t show up? The government’s failures to provide education, health and social services have created needs which are partly filled by development agencies and by the mosques which operate madrassas. As in other Muslim-majority regions, girls are often married off in their teens.  It’s a social norm that’s hard to break (although UNICEF is trying) but it’s also driven by economics; marrying your daughters early reduces dowry amounts and the number of mouths to feed.  I’ve been told there are also training camps in the region where young Muslim men are radicalized and then sent to Iraq or Syria. At the Islamic University of Kushtia, which has a large department of religious studies, I tried to tread carefully in my discussions with faculty members.  But I need not have worried—they were typical academics, contemptuous of all authority. I would have likely faced more hostility from the motorcycle gang we passed on the road near Jessore, waving red flags. The region, like its Indian neighbor West Bengal, is a stronghold of the Communist Party.  I thought they all looked rather revolutionary chic—sooooo Che Guevara—with their red bandanas embossed with the hammer and sickle.  But I was not about to stop and commend them on their sense of fashion.