<%-- Page Title--%> Cover Story <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 157 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

June 4 , 2004

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Deaths In Water


A storm was brewing up in the evening sky, but it wasn't looking exactly threatening until midnight. At around 2.30am when the launch entered into the Meghna the so-far weak storm accompanied by light rains suddenly picked up great pace and turned into a terrible twister. The frightened master took the launch by a sunken char called Lagnipara and cast anchor. After some 15 to 20 minutes when the twister waned a bit the launched resume its voyage. When the launch was back in mid-river once again the twister made a sudden come back. Waves swelled into mountainous proportion and thrashed on the launch and it began to swirl sideways dangerously before it finally began sinking.

According to eyewitnesses who narrowly escaped a watery burial, some 70 to 80 passengers dived into the river when the launch was drowning. The screams for help from the passengers, though weakened by the whistling sound of the twister, still reached the riverside village Bishnudi. Thinking they had been attacked by robbers the villagers came out from homes with torch and sticks in their hands, but soon realised what was happening. Not all of them who jumped from the drowning launch into the wild, ferocious river, could make it to the shore. Eighty one men, women and children perished with more than twenty missing persons who are feared to be dead.

The series of deaths in the past as well as at present at the Padma and Meghna confluence has diluted the collective consciousness to such an extent that it has forever stained our minds with the tint of alarm. We are petrified by the whirlpool of water that dangerously go in circles in the middle of the sprawled-out watercourse as two giant rivers meet in their journey to the Bay of Bengal. The ferocity of the very place during the season of nor'westers and cyclones almost makes one forget how incompetently the rivers and river traffic are managed. Following each disaster, there is a loud outcry about how vessels ply overloaded with passengers, how it is often manned by unqualified sharengs and engineers, and how the very structure of the vessel was faulty from the day it touched the water. The multiplicity of problems that surface right after an devastating accident largely remain unattended. After the voices of concern die down, nothing substantial is done to change the vicious cycle that always ends in more accidents. The nagging indifference on the part of the owners and the authorities continues to punish a populace dependent on water traffic. As the problems linger on, or should one say, are kept alive to the benefit of a few and to a huge risk on lives of the rest, the number of accidents are on the up. So far, no solution seems to be in sight. No proper initiative has ever been given a full throat by the authorities, no concerted effort has ever been pursued to alter a dangerous precedent that every year results in hundreds of deaths.

Deaths at rivers are so common more because our vessels fail to meet the standard rules of design and construction than because of nature's caprice. It is the physical condition of the vessels that need a complete overhaul. This comprises of the fitness of the vessels as well as the continuous supervision to make sure that all rules of building and plying of vessels are being complied with. Among the facilities that are yet to be developed, is a network of radar systems to alert the river faring vessels during turbulent weather conditions. Although installations of radar systems in major ports are in the offing, nothing has been clearly stated by the authorities regarding the change in the faulty system of design approval and construction.

Khabirul Haque Chowdhury, an associate professor in the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), emphatically points out that as far as the 'D category' vessels are concerned, the very designs of these passenger carrying launches are not in conformity with standard safety rules. As an expert in this field, Chowdhury has been involved with the Supervisory Panel from its inception.

The panel came into being in 1986 after conscientious men like Chowdhury and Dr MS Baree, another BUET professor and others, forced the authority to bring about a change in policy regarding the system of design approval of vessels. It is the panel that categorised the inland vessels. Vessels that are not at all fit for plying in the rivers were put within the bracket of category 'D'.

It was in June 1986, after many devastating launch mishaps, that the authorities woke up to the reality for the first time and sought assistance of experts. Even a foreign expert from the International Marine Organisation was assigned to examine the causes and evaluate the state of inland marine traffic. The expert spent seven days examining the nitty-gritty. An expert committee comprising of professors from the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, BUET was also formed. The committee compiled a set of recommendations, which even after 17 years remain unimplemented.

New regulations along with a 17-member supervising panel came into being in 1986. The panel proposed a lot of things, but the only regulation the authorities managed to enforce was of getting the design approved by a BSc engineer in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering before setting out to build a vessel. Any BSc engineer is empowered to design a vessel. Before 1986, anyone, even one who completed his SSC could design a vessel. "The problem is that now the vessel owner gets hold of a BSc engineer and gets the relevant paper signed. The engineer complies as he gets paid for it, but what happens is that in exchange of money he certifies an already built vessel that is often sure to fail the fitness test. The inland vessels in Bangladesh are faulty from the very beginning," Chowdhury informs.

The seventeen Supervising Panel members that include Khabirul Haque Chowdhury are under the aegis of the Department of Shipping, and the certification of design is the jurisdiction of the BIWTA (Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority). It is BIWTA that asks a launch owner to get the design approved by an engineer. The Supervisory Panel is in charge approving three things, one is 'stability and inclining', the other is 'load-line', and lastly 'safe construction'. The loopholes lie in the fact that any one member of this panel holds the authority to certify a vessel in all three counts without the knowledge of the rest. citing it as a major problem, Chowdhury adds, "these three papers are often

irresponsibly signed by some, and in the last 17 years we could not make it mandatory for all the members to work together." If a procedure could hold the whole panel accountable for issuance of the certificates things would have substantially improved.

Today only a handful of the members of the Supervisory Panel are certifying the fitness of vessels. As most of the members are living abroad, only few remain to check the deviation in vessel design and construction. Three of the 17 members have already been ousted for their malpractice. Chowdhury believes that the panel member must follow a process that would involve all members. Only then can the malpractice of issuing the certificates by a member be stopped.

Surveys that are required for registration as well as yearly surveys of the vessels should undergo a similar process. This will arrest the practice of issuing registration by the Inland surveyors without even seeing the vessel.

Last year, after the sinking of MV Nasrin-1, a ship that had faulty structures, one of the designers, Abdus Samad had to face an investigation committee. The committee in its report held Samad responsible for approving the faulty design of Nasrin-1. As a result, his name was struck off from the list of designers. Chowdhury also points out one major problem in co-ordinating all the steps that finally go to provide the green light to a vessel. "That two organisations -- BIWTA and the Department of Shipping -- are involved in a series of actions that in the end declares a vessel fit, make things more complicated. The whole procedure needs to be supervised by one organisation, it will help do away with the problem of one organisation pointing fingers at the other when problems surface," observes Chowdhury.

BIWTA approves the design, and the registration is given by the Department of Shipping, and in the end, no one is there to own up to the responsibilities when a launch sinks. A surveyor who is referred to as the inland surveyor is the key person. He is usually a Marine Engineer, Naval Architect and a Master Mariner, and is in charge of clearing the way for registration," says Chowdhury. Chowdhury emphasises the rampant corruption that is the biggest hurdle in maintaining safety standards of the vessels. He stresses that the whole system is corrupt due to pervading nepotism. "Even after the ousting of some professionals, they are using their signature using earlier dates" Chowdhury reveals.

There are three key areas that are subject to scrutiny when an expert like Chowdhury finds himself vis-à-vis a sunken vessel. While safe manoeuvring is an important consideration so are safe designing and the safe construction. According to Chowdhury, most vessels in Bangladesh fail to qualify in these key areas. It is the Naval Architect and the surveyors who are involved in the whole process.

Even after a series of disasters that forced the government, the experts and the owners of the launches to awake up and find a solution to the extremes of discrepancies in constructing and plying of vessels, no effective steps have been taken that could have prevented this year's mishaps.

Overloading is often cited as the cause of capsize, which is a misconception that often distracts our attention from the real causes of accidents. Although in some cases, overloading is one of the causes, often it plays only a small part in the compound of problems that ail this sector.

"The two passenger vessels that sunk recently were not overloaded. A design of a vessel takes into account all the factors," affirms Chowdhury. "And if a vessel has the capacity to take one and a half hundred people, it can easily carry two hundred. Vessel design should also take into account the fierce weather during May and June, otherwise it will have a handicap from the beginning" Chowdhury adds.

Another scapegoat, after any terrible mishap, is the shareng. In an article published last year in The Daily Star, Dr. KH Shahriar Iqbal, an assistant professor of the department of NAME in BUET, wrote, "The government is putting too much emphasis only on the skill of operation and maintenance of engines and machinery for manning the maritime administration. All other disciplines are treated as secondary." This simply shows that often the authorities were dealing with imaginary problems.

In the face of one launch disaster after another, the Shipping Minister Akbar Hossain remains unfazed. His usual excuses include either the shortage of funds or the non-co-operation from the relevant people of his ministry. It is certain that a group of people have been scheming to gain financially from the present state of mismanagement. Meanwhile the series of major disasters that started from last year have taken close to a thousand lives.

The recent mishaps have forced the minister to confront a strong voice of concern that not only questions his competence but also demands his removal from the concerned ministry. But even eight days after the capsize of two passenger carrying launches and another two barges, on May 22, when the official death toll was rising and more than fifty remain unaccounted for, the minister still seemed complacent. He declared that an allocation of 200 crore taka could help solve the problem.

The honourable minister, as usual, confirmed that there would be actions against people who failed to do their duties. To quote his exact words uttered to the journalists after the recent capsize of four launches, "You will see a series of firing and transfer of people within a couple of weeks." Promises were made in many prior occasions, but in reality actions were never in conformity with the resolve that the authorities usually showed after each accident.

After the recent accident, the minister, however, admitted that there is a bunch of corrupt people in his ministry. These are the people that are helping the apathetic owners of launches to get their own way. This means getting certificates of fitness through unfair means. Not that there are cases of falsification of certificates, but the procedure of getting the fitness certificate signed and readied by a certain quarter in exchange of money has become standard practice. "There are groups of people who are jointly operating with only mercenary motives, people who are arranging for all the signatures at all the stages that finally help obtain the fitness certificates and registration," says Chowdhury.

Though the minister has emphasised the need of a Local Classification Society, in reality no progress has been made along this line. In a Daily Star round table last year, a consensus among the experts, the government and the representatives of the Launch Owner Association was reached. The decision was that there would be a body called the Local Classification Society, which would monitor the designs and construction of launches. In that round table, Chowdhury was a participant among others. To his and his other fellow concerned engineers' utter disappointment, the idea did not go any further than evaluation, which has been rejected by the ministry of shipping, says Chowdhury with dismay. After nine months there is no such society in sight.

Chowdhury served as a member of the inquiry committee that was formed last year after Nasrin-1's disastrous accident. Headed by BD Mitra, the deputy secretary of the shipping ministry, the inquiry committee surveyed the system of getting approvals on all the stages and examined 57 D category vessels and later submitted their findings to the ministry, but nothing progressed from that point on.

None of the 57 vessels were found stable. They all failed the fitness test, yet they all had certificates that declared them fit. It was in last August that the authority said they would form the Local Classification Society, but that still remains to be materialised.

Later there was a decision to assign a few companies to supervise the whole procedure; that too got stalled, for so long that it took another great disaster to bring these issues on the table again.

A company named Bashundhara built 50 launches certified by Abdur Rahim, an associate professor of BUET. A member of the Supervisory Panel, he signed the clearance certificates for many unfit launches resulting in his removal. The Department of Shipping had hired him again, it is in this occasion that he okayed the design of the recently sunk M V Lighting Sun.

The minister voices his discontentment over this matter saying that a vested quarter in his ministry and the Department of Shipping have been putting obstacles in forming the local Classification Society that will replace the Supervisory Panel. A tender was called on August 4, 2003 inviting applications for enlisting members of a Local Classification Society that would be responsible for maintaining the quality of design, construction and operation. But it is because of the uncontrolled corruption that it did not materialise.

Meanwhile fraudulent registration practices continue to take a heavy toll on a nation that has, in the last two years, seen an astonishing number of its citizen lost to accidents at rivers. On the occasion of most investigations, the Department of Shipping religiously blame it on natural catastrophe. As an expert in the field of Naval Architecture, Chowdhury is of the opinion that no matter how many people the authorities involve in it, it won't result in proper investigation. "As it is the lack of ability to conduct modern investigation that keeps everyone far off from the facts," exclaims Chowdhury. He also testifies that it has become so easy to get the papers straight that owners often change the name of the launch. "You wouldn't know whether this Lighting Sun was called Rising Sun before, one launch keeps getting many names to evade complying with the rules and to elude the authorities," he reveals.

The problems are known, so are the solutions. What is needed now is the resolve to implement what the experts have so far prescribed, only then a change in the status quo could be hoped for.


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