Toll collection at Daulatdia ferry terminal has its roots apparently in the ‘silent support’ of none other than Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan.
The minister, who is also the top boss of Bangladesh Sarak Paribahan Sramik Federation, an apex body of all road transport workers’ unions, attended several meetings at Daulatdia terminal in the last two years to resolve the malpractice.
However, he did not take any steps in this regard, which has led to the rise of a large gang at the terminal.
The gang, comprised of ruling party leaders and activists, police and staff of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation, illegally realises around Tk 5 lakh from vehicles every day.
The minister, a lawmaker from Madaripur, himself does not deny his tilt towards the toll collectors.
“Toll collection will go on until and unless we introduce paying a fixed service charge,” Khan told The Daily Star as he came up with a new idea to legalise toll collection two months ago.
“I can challenge you that no government will be able to stop toll collection, not only in Daulatdia but anywhere in the country, if my proposal is not introduced,” he said, claiming he had tried but failed to stop it.
As per Khan’s prescription, 60 linemen can be appointed at Daulatdia terminal, who will work in three shifts and collect Tk 20 from each vehicle.
“Vehicles which can pay Tk 200 to Tk 400 as toll can easily pay Tk 20 as service charge. This will bring discipline in the system as well,” claimed the shipping minister.
Toll collection at bus, launch and ferry terminals and at different points on roads and highways has become rampant. Politicians, police, highway police and various trade unions and associations are openly involved in this business of making quick bucks.
Shahjahan Khan’s organisation alone collects at least Tk 51 crore a year from across the country in the name of raising funds for workers’ welfare, according to a parliamentary sub-committee, which said the amount was only the tip of the iceberg.
He is the executive president of Bangladesh Sarak Paribahan Sramik Federation, a federation of all road transport workers’ unions across the country with about 30 lakh members.
The amount of toll collected by police across the country may also be several crores of taka, sources in the transport sector say.
When trade unions and other associations give money receipts, police in some cases provide tokens as a sign of payment in different districts, according to transport drivers and locals at Daulatdia terminal.
They said tolls were being collected from 10 to 15 points on the route between Dhaka and the southern districts, but Daulatdia ferry terminal is the hub of the malpractice.
Against this backdrop, transport owners and workers last week began an indefinite strike between Dhaka and 21 southern districts to press home their six-point demand, including an end to extortion, traffic jam and harassment of passengers and motor workers at Daulatdia.
They called off the strike on Monday night following assurances by the district administration of Rajbari of meeting their demands.
The Daily Star correspondent talked to a dozen truck drivers, helpers and locals of Paturia and Daulatdia ferry terminals who said paying police, especially the highway police, at different highways and at the ferry terminals had become a ritual.
Giving an account of toll collection, a truck driver said vehicle operators regularly pay Tk 50 to Tk 100 in Jhenidah and Tk 100 each in Magura and Faridpur at Ramnagar, Madhukhali, Kanaipur and Goalundo on the way to Daulatdia ferry terminal from Jhenidah district.
“In many cases the police demand more than Tk 200 and we just pay them,” said truck driver Belai Chandra Barman.
“If you don’t pay, they will not only harass you but also file cases against you as harassment,” Barman added before boarding a ferry at Daulatdia.
“Truckers from Dhaka also pay regularly at Ashulia, Savar, Utholi, Barangail and a few other points of Tangail district. The toll amount ranges from Tk 50 to Tk 200,” said Ayub Ali, who was driving a goods-laden truck from Dhaka and was on his way to Satkhira.
He said whether driving at day or night, truckers always kept the police payment in mind. “Driving at night is a little better as rates of toll and harassment by police are less then,” he told The Daily Star.
Deputy Inspector General of Highway Police Humayun Kabir refused to talk on the rampant toll collection by highway police members. He suggested that Superintendent of Police (West) Israil Howlader be contacted on this issue.
Contacted, Howlader said highway police were a small body and had no separate identity yet. “This police wing works in coordination with the police department and Rapid Action Battalion where drivers cannot distinguish between the two forces,” he added.
“Extortion is taking place on the highways openly under various banners like owners, workers and trade associations in which civilians are engaged. It is not possible for us to check,” he told The Daily Star over phone.
Superintendent of Police of Rajbari Rezaul Haq denied that there was any rampant toll collection.
“There may be some isolated incidents involving some lower grade police personnel,” he said. He noted that writing on toll collection on the highways had become an easier as well as cheaper topic nowadays.