Vol. 5 Num 694 Sat. May 13, 2006  
Front Page

Terrible Travel
Another round of launch disasters looms large

Despite a number of catastrophic river mishaps in the recent years, faulty vessels continue plying the river routes, threatening the country with yet another round of disasters in the coming monsoon.

The owners of some vessels, which were declared unfit, are plying them after changing their colours and names.

But Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) officials argue they do not have enough manpower to inspect all the vessels. There are only nine inspectors for nearly 8,000 passenger vessels plying the inland river routes.

The absence of an early warning system is a major cause of accidents. "The problem is, we can't communicate with the vessels or warn them once they leave the launch terminals. So they find themselves suddenly in rough weather, quite ill-prepared to face the hazards," says an official stationed at Sadarghat in the capital.

Over 100 launch disasters have taken place since the present shipping minister came to office. But, he has done nothing that makes a real difference in the accident scenario except distributing black goats among the accident victims.

The ministry now owns two salvage vessels, Rustam and Hamza, but they are not capable to work withstanding strong river current during the monsoon. Last year, the launch MV Raipura sunk near Aricha with hundreds of passengers on board. But the authorities had to wrap up the rescue and salvage operations due to the severe current in the river, with 120 passengers still missing.

To correct the situation, the ministry to date has spent several years to devise a plan to procure two modern salvage ships. However, "It's in the process. Soon we are going to buy those salvage ships," assures a high official of the ministry.

Abdul Zabbar Akhand, an employee of Dhaka University, received a Tk 20,000 compensation for his wife's death in a 2004 launch accident.

His wife, Achhia Khatun, was one of some 100 passengers killed in a stormy night in the Jamuna as their launch capsized near Chandpur. She was on her way back to the capital from Madaripur.

Abdul Zabbar should consider himself lucky for getting the lump sum compensation. Most of the families of Achhia's fellow victims reportedly received nothing.

In some cases, the families do not even get the bodies of the river mishap victims to provide them a decent burial.

The BIWTA claims only 385 launch accidents have taken place in the 30 years since 1976, killing 3,597 people and injuring 396 others, while over 252 people remain missing.

But, the BIWTA figures are merely the tip of an iceberg. Because, the Inland Shipping Ordinance of 1976 empowered only the vessel crew to file a case about an accident or report it to the police, and, in most cases, the crew would rather flee the scene as soon as possible after a mishap. So, many accidents and casualties have never entered the official record.

It was only last year that the ordinance was amended, making way for anyone reporting a river accident to the police.

"When an accident happen, we estimate the number of passengers on board based on the vessel's official capacity. But, in most cases, the actual number of people on board is much more than that, sometimes even twice or thrice the capacity," a senior official at the shipping ministry tells The Daily Star.

"So, the bodies that float away after an accident are never recorded," he says requesting anonymity.

According to shipping ministry officials, design faults of vessels, poor signalling system, and over-loading are the main culprits.

Typically, a river transport operator construct a vessel at will and then manages the approval of its design from the shipping department, one of them reveals. "That's why so many passenger launches capsize, and so often. Sometimes, you may find some vessels have fitness licences, but if you dig into the matter you would find the officials did not observe proper procedure in issuing the certificates," he adds.

But, it is very rare that any of the people responsible, including masters or pilots and owners of the vessels, is tried or penalised for causing the deaths and injuries of hundreds of innocent passengers.

"As far as I know, nobody get punished. After filing a case against the launch owner or master concerned, you have to produce witnesses before the court. In most cases, the witnesses do not appear in the court, being intimidated or bribed by the wealthy defendants," says a magistrate who presided over the country's lone marine court.

Hundreds of cases including some lodged as far back as 1988 are pending here, says an official of the court.