With about 24,00km of waterways Bangladesh boasts of a wide network river routes. Waterways have been the common, traditional and cheaper mode of transportation for the people here.

But frequent maritime accidents and massiveness of some recent ones have led many to wonder over whether the maritime transportation system in the country has evolved with time or it has been totally forsaken by the authorities.

In the last 30 years from 1991 to 2021, some 902 waterway accidents had been reported in the country that claimed 3,735 lives, injured 926 people and left over 500 missing, according to the Department of Shipping.

The amount of loss in these accidents was not estimated but would cross some millions of taka, according to the data available from the department.

In one of the most recent disaster on December 24 last year a pre-dawn blaze broke out around on the Barguna-bound launch Avijan-10 carrying some 800 passengers from Dhaka in mid Sugandha River claiming more than 45 lives. Dozens have still been missing.

The same day, the shipping ministry formed a seven-member probe committee which submitted its report finally on January 4, this year after its deadline expired.

The report revealed that the two engines used in Avijan-10 were 24-year old and had more horsepower than the vessel could capacitate. The faults of the engine were identified as the main cause of the massive fire that night.

Moreover the dockyard had its license expired where the engines were installed in the launch. Having no insurance certificate the launch that was sitting idle almost for three months, was allowed to ply without any examination by the Shipping Department's surveyor and researcher.

The horrific fire on Avijan-10 that night caused the death of a number of people which could have been avoided if the staff operating the launch were not negligent, wrote the committee in its report.

This tragic event created a ripple among the concerned authorities as safety of the water transportation sector of Bangladesh was questioned once again.

Undetermined number of unregistered vessels

According to a UNB investigation, a vessel can be made after its design gets approval from the Department of Shipping.

After the vessel is built, following the approved design, surveyors from the department examines it and provides a fitness and registration certificates. Showing these certificates a vessel gets route permit which is the final approval that implies the vessel is qualified to operate.

The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) says they have given route permits to only 780 passenger vessels to date. But it couldn't start providing any permit to freight vessels due to lack of approval for fees.

BIWTA and the Shipping Department under the ministry of shipping supervise the overall operations of vessels in the country. Some senior officials from these two organisations confirmed that until December, 2021 there were 13,486 registered vessels operating in the country but the number of unregistered ones will exceed it.

According to vessel owners and worker's leaders some 20,000 unregistered vessels including sand carrying ships (bulkhead), trawler and speed boats are currently plying in the country's inland waterways.

Legally there is bar on operating unregistered vessels with above 16 HP (Horse Power) engine, but in effect the punishable crime has remained unrecognized.

In 2016, the Shipping Department proposed a Development Project Proforma (DPP) titled National Ships and Mechanised Boat Database Management and Capacity Building. The project with estimated cost of Tk 44.43 lakhs was planned aiming at creating a database of all boats in the country within three years.

But six years into the project proposal the government is yet to finalise the DPP and a statistics for unregistered vessels in Bangladesh is yet to be prepared.

The government even has no data on what type of freight or passenger vessel plying in rivers of a region. The number of unregistered boats on one hand is increasing the disorder in the shipping sector on the other hand depriving the government of revenues.

Whom to hold responsible?

When asked about the weakness in authority's monitoring over the recent launch accidents, State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury told UNB that the monitoring process will be strengthened and if any negligence is found actions will be taken in this regard.

He said, "From the ministry we are issuing directions on a regular basis by holding monthly meetings. But the concerned authorities need to be held accountable as those are not being implemented."

"From the very beginning I am telling the passenger launch designs are not up to date and need changes. Old designs are not suitable for this age anymore and we are currently focusing on this issue," said the state minister.

Regarding the recent waterway accidents he said that there is an assumption that waterway accidents have increased recently. "Actually it has declined but some major accidents have occurred recently which is true," he said.

In case of fire on Avijan-10 Khalid held the dockyard authority responsible and assured of taking actions against everyone involved.

Khalid said," The shipping sector for a long time has become immobile with irregularities. It's impossible to make an overnight change in this huge sector. We are working to make it safer for now."

Meanwhile the owners and workers of this sector claim there are many sub authorities like police, coastguards and local administrations who are being managed by operators of illegal vessels running on different routes.

Over the time those illegal vessel owners have become so powerful that sometimes the legally registered ones become helpless before them, some owners said.

The causes and possible solutions

Mozammel Haque Chowdhury, secretary general of Bangladesh Passengers' Welfare Association (BPWA) marked the lack of a proper monitoring system of the relevant state organizations as the main reason for the increasing number of waterway accidents.

He said naval accidents can occur for many different reasons but two of the main ones in Bangladesh are the unskilled launch drivers and faulty vessels.

Mozammel also mentioned technical faults, carrying passengers exceeding two or three times the limit, competition between launches, reckless speed, lack of safety measures and lifebuoys as cause of many accidents.

According to BIWTA and the Shipping Department some 15,000 unregistered bulkheads moving in the waterways are a serious threat for passenger carrying launches.

The bulkheads are prohibited to move at night times but the unregistered ones don't comply with this rule. Most of them having no lights and only the front and back floating over the water often cause launch accidents at night, said the authority.

BPWA's Mozammel Haque Chowdhury said building a strong taskforce involving the naval police, coastguard and BIWTA is necessary to ensure safe water transportation.

Along with that training the drivers, staff and suspending the launch operation in unfavourable weather is a must, he said.

"Along with increasing the numbers of surveyors mobile courts are need to be conducted so that no boat can operate without having a sea survey certificate," he added.

BIWTA has its own laws and guidelines which need to be implemented properly and also some of the conventional laws need modernization, said Mozammel.

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