Photo: AFP

Director’s Note: Youth protests in Bangladesh

Photo: AFP

In Bangladesh, tens of thousands of students have taken to the streets in recent days after a bus veered off the road into waiting passengers, killing two children. Students have come together to block streets and close down schools, demanding that the government act on road safety.

One person is killed on a Bangladesh road every two hours. This is partly an issue of poor planning, where the needs of the car-owning middle classes are usually placed above those of pedestrians and cyclists, and it also reflects a huge problem of drink driving, speeding, and the lack of an effective system of driving tests. The non-enforcement of traffic laws is also an issue. The bus driver responsible for the recent deaths of the two children had been racing another bus to capture business.

It is therefore unsurprising that the recent deaths have caused action. But what is remarkable about these student protests is their force and organisation. This is a major form of civil unrest. It spread first from middle and high school pupils to university students, and young people are now enrolling their parents in the struggle. The state is worried enough about the action to have slowed down the internet to discourage the coordination of protests.

Students in Bangladesh see road safety as symptomatic of broader problems: the police do not treat young people fairly, urban infrastructure is poor, and graduate unemployment or underemployment are major issues.

Governments across South Asia sometimes refer to their youth population as a ‘demographic dividend’ that can drive economic growth. But the apparent advantage to modern South Asia of a large youth population can turn into a threat where the aspirations of that population are not met.

The Australia India Institute will soon be launching a series of podcasts and articles on the forthcoming Indian elections which will develop these issues of youth as ‘dividend’ and ‘threat’.

From a broader global perspective, what is partly significant about the Bangladesh protests is the capacity of the young people to start working on the issue they are protesting about. A characteristic feature of many of the youth protests affecting the world since the mid-1990s has been a tendency for young people to drive to ‘be the change they want to see’. They channel their energy into performing the better future they seek – Bangladesh’s youth have started enforcing city traffic laws and re-routing vehicles, something scholars term ‘prefigurative politics’. Several Aii scholars are working on prefigurative politics in South Asia.

At a more fundamental level, the protests remind us of the power of young people to effect critique and transformation – the anti-gun protests of schoolchildren in the US and the involvement of young people in protesting against plastics in the world’s oceans are other examples.

The Australia India Institute is keen to bring together scholars and students interested in the topic of youth leading global change. If this is something that interests you, please reach out to the Institute by coming along to our events.