24 October 2016, Interview taken by Rajib Kanti Roy: Born to father Abdul Ali and mother Sofura Khatun in Ashutiapara, Karimganj under Kishoregonj district on 24 December 1956, Ilias Kanchan began his journey as a film actor on 26 March 1977 by acting in the central role of the film Bashundhara, directed by Subhash Dutta.
This movie, based on Alauddin Al-Azad’s famous novel Teish Nombor Toilochitro, was released on 31 December 1977, while Kanchan was studying in the Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka. In the subsequent years, he acted in more than 300 films. His versatile appearance and spontaneous expressions made him a heartthrob of the Bangla film industry. This dominant actor was awarded the National Film Award in 1986 for his exceptional performance in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Porineeta’s film adaptation by Alamgir Kabir. His 1989 romantic-folk venture Beder Meye Josna, directed by Tozammel Haque Bokul, remains as the highest commercially successful Bangla film till date. Ilias Kanchan lost his wife Jahanara Kanchan in a tragic road crash on 22 October 1993. He was busy shooting a film in Bandarban.
His wife and children were on their way to meet him. Somehow the children survived, but the fatal accident claimed the life of Jahanara near Chittagong. The premature death of his wife left Kanchan in deep grief and pain. He decided to leave acting. One of the senior journalists told him that you are frustrated, as you couldn’t save your beloved wife. Your countless fans love you. They are also becoming the victims of terrible accidents. If possible, do something for them. Keeping that in mind, Ilias Kanchan started a movement “Nirapad Sarak Chai” in the same year. His organisation has been conducting different programmes continuously and raising awareness among the mass people to minimize the number of accidents since last 23 years. His life is an example of how a human being can recover from a worst situation, bounce back and work for the betterment of ordinary people. 22 October was the 23rd death anniversary of Jahanara Kanchan. It is also observed as the National Road Safety Day. Ahead of this day, Ilias Kanchan has shared the story of “Nirapad Sarak Chai” movement with morning tea.
morning tea: Your wife was killed in a road crash in a time when you were at the peak of your acting career. You had to look after your tender aged son and daughter. Besides spending time in professional and personal works, how you managed time for the movement? How was it in the beginning?
Ilias Kanchan: Initially it was really tough and challenging. I had to work less to manage more time for my family and the movement. But I got full support from my film colleagues, fans and journalists. As I was very popular, the mass people were with me. Our first programme was a procession from BFDC to National Press Club on December 1, 1993. After that wherever I went to speak, people gathered to hear me out. Some arranged transport while the others brought food. I never had to struggle to run this movement. I must say that the journalists of our country played a significant role. They supported my cause with regular coverage. In the later years, many people left me, but the journalists are still with me.
morning tea: When you gave the movement a structural form?
Ilias Kanchan: Primarily my fans (Ilias Kanchan Fan Club, Ilias Kanchan Samarthak Goshthi) arranged many programmes in various parts of the country. I regularly took part in the programmes. It was clear to me that we need more time and we have to create continuous pressure on the government and different stakeholders to reduce accidents. We arranged a seminar on 22 October, 1996 where the then Home minister Major (Retd.) Rafiqul Islam Bir Uttam, MP suggested us to form an organised committee to run the movement. My colleagues, journalists and fellow activists sat in a meeting in my residence on 25 October, 1996 and finally we started to work under the banner of “Nirapad Sarak Chai” from 21 November, 1996. We got approval from the Department of Social Welfare on 13 January, 2003. Government permitted us to work as an NGO on 1 November, 2015. Now we have more than hundred branches and equal number of units in the country. We are also working in eleven other countries. We regularly attend international seminars, workshops and conferences on road safety on invitations of UN, UNICEF and WHO.
morning tea: How you collected funds to run “Nirapad Sarak Chai”?
Ilias Kanchan: We went to divisional cities, districts and upazillas and arranged human chains, processions, meetings and road safety campaigns. At first, I spent money from my own pocket. After structuring the committee, our members had begun donating Tk20 per month. Gradually our working areas and activities started to expand. Ten years later, observing our commitment and dedication some businessmen and companies like NTC, BSB Foundation, Ocean Group, Dutch-Bangla Bank Ltd. and Walton came forward. Walton made me their brand ambassador. When I go to inaugurate their show rooms in different corners of the country, they contact with the local schools and colleges so that their students assist us. They communicate with our local activists and promote our programmes to inform the local residents. We conduct processions and assemblies to create awareness about the road safety among the mass people. Till date we have arranged 386 public meetings. As a result, there is no place left in the country where we haven’t worked.
morning tea: How the government has helped your movement?
Ilias Kanchan: We didn’t get any financial assistance from the government till 2010. We never requested the government for any project. Government’s Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) receives funds from different countries and organisations to implement various projects. LGED got a German fund to work on road safety. LGED couldn’t spend the money and the deadline was about to end. “Nirapad Sarak Chai” was asked to work with the fund. We got only three months to spend it. With the financial help of Rural Infrastructure Improvement Programme (RIIP-2), we placed reflectors at the backsides of small vehicles and on many bridges in the village areas so that transport drivers can see those in the night. We opened driving and mechanical institutes in 23 districts to train SSC pass unemployed youths as drivers at free of cost. Seeing our success, the US Embassy in Dhaka came forward to sponsor similar programmes in 5 more districts in 2012. We have thousands of members all around the country. They cordially want to work to secure road safety, but often we can’t provide enough funds for their work. When we allocated money to the local branches, they worked really hard and made our projects successful. One of the German officials regularly visited to see our activities. He highly appreciated our efforts. We invited ministers and different level government officials including secretaries in some of our programmes. They also understood our methods of operation and recognised our efforts. As a result, in 2015, when Asian Development Bank came to work on securing road safety we were again called by the government. Under Sustainable Rural Infrastructure Improvement Project (SRIIP) currently we are working in 21 new districts. After watching our achievements BRTA is also following us and conducting similar kinds of projects.
morning tea: What are the main reasons of road accidents in our country?
Ilias Kanchan: There are so many reasons including insensible driving, excessive speed, unhealthy competition of overtaking, use of mobile phones by the transport drivers and pedestrians, excessive passengers, dilapidated roads, unfit vehicles, carrying goods in passenger transport, carrying passengers in goods transport, violation of traffic rules, lack of road dividers, shops on roads, keeping construction materials on roads, faulty vehicles like Nosimon, Korimon, Easy Bike, Bhotvoti and CNG, free movement of animals on roads. Lack of awareness is also another important reason for accidents in Bangladesh.
morning tea: How vital is the role of drivers behind a road crash?
Ilias Kanchan: Most of the drivers in our country become drivers from helpers. The offices related to certify drivers are drowned in corruption. Anyone can collect driving license by spending money. That is why insensible driving is a major reason for road crash, but drivers alone are not responsible for accidents. In the recent years, the government has been constructing quality roads but our drivers have been running vehicles for so many years on poorly built roads. Many transport owners force them to drive fast. Sometimes, passengers also push them to drive fast. There are many workers’ organisations. They collect money regularly from every vehicle and worker, but none of them has established a single driving school! Transport owners never set up any driving school. They only invest in their transports. Now the situation is changing. Few days back I went to a transport agency to brief their drivers. I told them if they drive at a speed of 80 to 100 km per hour, they have to know where their vehicle will stop when they will push the brake. Otherwise, they can never save anyone who comes suddenly in front of their vehicles. There are hundreds of linking roads besides the main roads. As they drive regularly, they have to know where these linking roads are and which spots are accident prone. Driving is something which you can’t learn within a limited time. You have to practice it every day and develop your sense of driving. Later I found out that the drivers heard such kind of speech for the first time!
morning tea: How you observe the development of roads and transport sector in our country?
Ilias Kanchan: Maximum sectors of our country developed without planning. If one government takes a plan, the next government rejects the previous government’s plan and comes up with a new plan entirely. Most of our roads once were isles on fields. When the system of election was introduced, political leaders thought to do something for the people. As communication was a vital necessity, first one leader turned isle in to a road, few years later another leader expanded it. Again, before another election a leader provided bricks and concrete to structure it. Some years later, a new leader paved it. Our roads were developed following this way. Similarly our transport sector developed freely. No one thought that it would be as massive as it is today and provide employment to so many people. Right from the very beginning, rich people have been involved with the transport sector, as the business requires money. They are powerful so they can influence the policymakers easily. This is ultimately hampering the balance of the total sector.
morning tea: What roles different governments played to reduce road accidents in Bangladesh?
Ilias Kanchan: Governments tried, but they couldn’t get enough success, as the transport owners and workers are united and they have strong influence on politics. During the Ershad regime law could punish drivers with maximum 10-year imprisonment for an accident. Even then, the then government decided to increase it to 14 years. Then workers and drivers started demonstration programmes. It was a time when Awamileague, BNP and other parties were conducting anti-autocracy movement. They involved the drivers and workers in their movement. To bring the drivers and workers in favour of the government, the maximum punishment was reduced to 5 years! Few years later, Ershad government decreased maximum punishment to 3 years to save its minister’s son, who was accused for injuring journalist Rudro Shahriar in a road crash! In the democratic era, all the governments have been highly influenced by the transport owners, drivers and workers. The last example can be connected to the movement before the 5 January election in 2014 and non-stop three-month blockade in 2015. Opposition party activists wanted to paralyze the transport sector. They set fire on the transports, passengers and workers. In response the ruling party leaders carried out a counter movement comprising the transport drivers and workers. They became injured and even died, but ran their vehicles regularly. Opposition parties couldn’t get success in their movement because of the rejection by the transport drivers and workers. It ultimately proved that success and failure of any movement depends on the transport owners, drivers and workers. They can decide the fate of politicians. As a result, no government can take any action against them. Political leaders often speak about national unity to fight against terrorism and for an impartial election commission, but never think about a national unity to reduce road crash. If they do politics for the people, then why don’t they stand beside a cause of the mass people?
morning tea: What about the present law to prevent road accidents?
Ilias Kanchan: Still the maximum punishment for a road accident is 3 years in Bangladesh, where in UK it is 14 years, 15 years in Australia, 14 years in Japan and in the US it varies from 1 to 99 years. In 2012, the Ministry of Communication prepared an excellent draft of 372 pages to finalize a modern law suitable with time spending Tk 3 crore to minimize the number of accidents. They displayed it on their website and asked us to provide our opinion. The draft was so appropriate that we didn’t need to provide much suggestion, except for the increase of punishment to 10-years instead of proposed 5-years. We also suggested for fixing the compensation according to the monthly income of the victims during the accident time. The draft was made ready for placing in the winter session of the National Assembly, but suddenly in December 2015, ministry officials decided to organise a new draft rejecting the previous one. Then they made a draft of 23 pages and told us to provide opinion within 15 days! We appealed for time and gave our opinion. Officials assured us that they will inform us about which of our suggestions are going to be included in it, but they didn’t get back to us. The first draft was rejected only because of the political influence of the transport drivers and workers.
morning tea: You appealed to the government to observe National Road Safety Day through a gazette notification…
Ilias Kanchan: National Road Safety Council announced 22 October as National Road Safety Day orally, but we claimed to declare it with a gazette notice. Instead of doing that, through a faulty system NRSC officials asked people to choose a particular day from several given options. We went to the High Court and the court issued a rule asking the government that why 22 October will not be observed as National Safety Day?
morning tea: What is the theme of this year’s National Road Safety Day?
Ilias Kanchan: “No blame-game, we have to identify the reasons for accidents, all will have to abide by the rules.”
morning tea: What are the achievements of “Nirapad Sarak Chai” movement in its 23 years?
Ilias Kanchan: Government took many steps according to the demands of NISCHA. They formed Highway Police, National Road Safety Council and Accident Research Institute following our claims. The high court order for cancelling all fake driving licenses, construction of higher road dividers, mandatory law for prohibiting the use of mobile phones while driving a vehicle and wearing seat belts for transport drivers and front seat passengers and helmets for motorcycle drivers and riders are the results of our continuous efforts. We assisted road accident victims and their families financially. NISCHA donated wheel chairs, cattle, rickshaws, vans and candle making machines to them. We opened driving and mechanical training institute and worked successfully under different projects, which I have mentioned earlier. NISCHA conducted awareness campaigns in several hundreds of schools. We submitted a draft to the Education Ministry to educate students studying in different schools about road safety and create awareness by integrating the topic in school textbooks and curriculum. The biggest success is that we have become successful to aware a huge number of people about road safety through our numerous programmes.
morning tea: What are the demands of “Nirapad Sarak Chai”, that have not been fulfilled yet?
Ilias Kanchan: A key problem for the victims of road accidents is that they don’t get any rescue team to save them. Another issue is lack of immediate treatment. Maximum road accident victims die because of excessive bleeding. If people could contact the authorities by dialling an emergency number, immediately after an accident, and a local rescue team consisting of highway police and other officials could rush them to the local hospital within 30 minutes, many of the victims could be saved. That is why establishing trauma centres within every 50 km beside the highway is very important. Most of the road accident victims and their family members don’t find a place to get justice and compensation. We appeal to form a highly powerful committee to monitor accident related cases and ensure proper compensation for every victim. We demand to operate mobile courts on the high ways and import modern technology to control speed of the vehicles. We have been repeatedly telling the government to pass a more powerful law to punish the perpetrators responsible for accidents. An information centre should be established to provide complete data about the road accidents. And government should set up driving institutes in all the districts of the country.
morning tea: What are the future plans of “Nirapad Sarak Chai”?
Ilias Kanchan: I became the victim of a deadly road crash in 1988. Local doctors said that they have to cut a hand and a leg to save my life. Then my wife protested and took me to Singapore for better treatment. I had to stay there for four months and when I came back to Bangladesh I had completely recovered. From that incident, I understood the importance of proper treatment for accident victims. I dream to establish a modern trauma centre and orthopedic hospital with latest equipments, helicopter facility and dedicated quality doctors. I asked for a piece of land to different governments, but they didn’t provide it. I bought a land couple of years ago spending my own money. Mubasshar bhai (architect Mubasshar Hussein) has assured me that he will create a plan for my hospital without any fees. When he will complete the plan, I shall start that work. Initially I shall try to construct it with my money. If I struggle, then I shall ask everyone to help.
morning tea: What do you dream about Bangladesh?
Ilias Kanchan: During our Liberation War in 1971, I was a teen-age boy. I saw what kinds of brutal incidents took place at that time. Our freedom fighters fought bravely to liberate this country. Many of them sacrificed their lives and couldn’t breathe in an independent country. We shouldn’t forget this. I don’t expect any reward from the state; rather I want to work for the country and the countrymen. I want to see a country where citizens are truly educated and aware about the laws. I dream of a Bangladesh where people love each other and the country.
morning tea: Thank you very much for your time.
Ilias Kanchan: Thank you too.
– This interview was published in the weekly publication ‘Morning Tea’ by the Daily Sun