Vol. 5 Num 400 Tue. July 12, 2005  
Front Page

Launch Disasters
Empty promises take the toll

The government has completely failed in fulfilling its promises to improve the shabby condition of the inland water transportation, causing the wholesale death of hundreds of people in a series of launch disasters on the one hand, and protecting the launch owners from any reasonable punitive measures on the other.

More than 6,000 people have been killed in launch disasters since independence, with half of the death toll in the last five years, thanks to severe lacks of safety, monitoring and improvement in the sector. The official figures, however, are much less, at 3,120 in 261 major launch disasters since 1977. Since February this year alone, launch disasters have killed over 500 people.

Many dead bodies washed away after the launch-capsizes remained unrecorded, according to sources.

Mohammad Badiuzzaman Badal, vice-chairman of the Bangladesh Inland Water Passenger Carriers Association (BIWPCA), claims that the reason behind this increase is the government's failure to fulfill any of its commitments for improving the sector.

Against this colossal number of deaths, there is not a single instance of any launch owner having been punished for the faulty designs of their launches--the main reason for such disasters unanimously blamed by shipping experts.

Interestingly, after each of the accidents since 2001, Shipping Minister Akbar Hossain has made huge promises regarding improvement of the sector. All his promises have, however, proved elusive.

After the latest launch disaster near Aricha on May 16, in which at least 200 people died, the shipping minister said his ministry will initiate a month-long drive to identify unfit vessels and take stern actions against them, which was supposed to start from May.

However, there are allegations that because of powerful launch owners - like the prime minister's sons, Tarique and Arafat Rahman, and their friend Giasuddin Mamun - the shipping authority is rather serving the launch owners' interest instead of protecting public interest.

Also, overlooking the passenger launches, the government has recently raided cargo vessels and the marine court officials apprehended over 60 such vessels so far during the four-day block raid on the rivers Buriganga and Sitalakkha.

Asked why the faulty and defective passenger launches were not brought under the block raid, Akbar said, "It is very difficult to seize passenger vessels as they have survey certificates and licenses." The government decided to examine the condition of all the vessels and identify the ones with defective and faulty designs, Akbar added.

According to sources, Akbar took such steps several times but could not implement them because of pressure from the influential quarters.

The maximum financial compensation the owners pay to the families of victims is also an only Tk 5 lakh, irrespective of the number of people killed.

The government also failed to rescue all the victims of launch disasters and recover the sunken vessels due to lack of powerful salvage vessels, the collection of which has been delayed over the years.

The government's initiative to introduce life insurance for the marine passengers has also failed following opposition from the launch owners. Instead, a passenger welfare fund was introduced offering a negligible amount of compensation to the victims' families.

Unfulfilled promises

Immediately after taking office, on February 10, 2002, Akbar Hossain made a series of commitments to improve the condition of the ailing shipping sector but none of the commitments has yet to be implemented, alleged Badiuzzaman.

The promises included buying two powerful salvage vessels, collecting adequate dredgers, introducing insurance for marine passengers, setting up radar stations, installing echo sound system and solid ballasts on passenger launches, checking over-load, preventing travelling on the roof and carrying goods on the deck, introducing a local classification society for checking design and construction of the vessels, regular survey of the vessels, banning all unregistered vessels and construction of vessels at unregistered dock yards.

According to government sources, all the above decisions are at various stages of implementation.

Three years into its tenure, the government is still hoping to issue an order by next November to buy two powerful rescue vessels from South Korea, which is unlikely to be collected in next one year due to its unavailability in the market.

"We have to issue an order [for such vessel] and then they will build the vessel," Akbar said.

As for introducing a local classification society, it took the government three years of official procedures to select three companies recently for awarding the job, but nobody yet knows when the private companies would be able to start functioning.

Setting up of 10 radar stations is also being delayed, pending clearance from the Ministry of Defence. The installation of the echo sound system and solid ballasts on the existing launches is also unlikely to be implemented in the face of opposition from the launch owners.

Failure in salvaging
Due to lack of powerful salvage vessels many launches were not recovered at all. According to unofficial figures, with the latest MV Nasreen-1 and MV Raipura over 90 big launches could not be salvaged since independence.

The salvage capacity of the MV Hamza and MV Rustom is only 60 tons each against the average weight of 150-250 tons for a double-deck launch.

Demand for resignation
Facing public demand for his resignation for failing in his handling of matters, Akbar Hossain said, "Why should I resign? I will resign only after bringing discipline in the sector."

Earlier, after the MV Nasreen-1 disaster that killed over 500 people, Akbar had committed to The Daily Star that he will resign if any major launch disaster takes place again during his tenure.