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     Volume 4 Issue 41 | April 8, 2005 |

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Cover Story

The Route that
Could Make a

Shamim Ahsan

Akbar Hossain, a middle aged vegetable seller, wears a puzzled look as he learns that he cannot go to Aminbazar by launch. There is only one launch and he has missed it for 15 minutes. Standing in one corner at the newly built Swarighat BIWTA launch terminal in an April morning Hossain waits for a few minutes before he makes up his mind to leave.

He is certainly not the first person to miss the Ashulia bound launch that starts daily at 7.30 am from Swarighat. Over the last one month the same scene has been played out again and again, confides the ticket seller. "Passengers don't want to believe us when we tell them that there are no more launches all day," he says in a complaining tone. "The number of passengers who miss the launch is often greater than the number of passengers who can avail it," he adds wryly. He says that the average number of passengers is 8 to 10 per day from Swarighat.

The circular waterway, opened to the public around a month back, does not seem to have brought about, what the government and a section of media termed, a revolutionary change in the city's wretched communication system.

Few would contest that Dhaka City's biggest worry is its horrendous traffic that makes commuting a nightmarish experience. There has been much talk to make Dhaka a commutable city. Some sporadic steps have also been taken -- like giving some roads the VIP status and making rickshaws off limits to those roads, setting up two huge fly-overs in Mohakhali and Khilgaon, the recent installation of the electric signal system and so on. But nothing seems to be working to make life for the city commuter a little easier. Clearly what is missing is a uniform, long term, economically feasible plan that can cope with a city that is expanding in terms of population without a corresponding growth of infrastructure.

The news of a circular waterway all around the city was thus welcomed with exuberance and relief. Finally, it seemed to be a real solution to Dhaka's greatest woe, its traffic jams. Conceptually, most experts in city planning agree, a circular waterway is the best answer to Dhaka's ever-growing traffic misery. So, in the run up to the official inauguration of this latest attempt to make the city's major spots more accessible, media optimism ran high. The expectation reached a climax on March 2 when PM inaugurated the waterway highlighting infinite potential including the most desired one of ridding Dhaka of its choking traffic.

Since then however, little has been heard about this grand solution, all the hype over the waterway suddenly evaporated as hastily as it was created before PM's launching ceremony. Over the last one month since the first launch set out on its maiden voyage the whole thing seems to have been gradually losing its ability to excite the road-weary Dhakaites. General Dhakaites appear almost unaware of what was advertised to be a revolutionary step in city planning. Very few people have taken advantage of the service and still fewer are holding their breath for their turn. Moreover, it has not yielded, till now, any noticeable results as far as easing the pressure on the Dhaka streets is concerned, the ultimate target of the project.

So why isn't this watery solution getting us all psyched up?
Well first of all, the system is not fully finished yet. Although the waterway is supposed to encircle the entire city, so far less than half of it has been completed. The 29 kilometres long waterway from Sadarghat to Ashulia that has been opened to the public last month is the first phase of the project. Work of the second phase under which another 40 kms waterway from Ashulia to Kanchpur Bridge via Tongi is to be built has not even started. (The project file of the second phase is awaiting approval of the ECNEC, and work will begin as soon as next June, hopes BIWTA boss.). There are also other hindrances that are not allowing the water route, as much of it is completed, working in full swing, even after one month of the PM's inaugu-ration. Preparations for the circular waterway to be in full operation have not been completed. Especially, the BIWTA authority hasn't managed to provide enough vessels for the route. There is only one launch service a day one leaves Swarighat at 7.30 am and ends in Shinnirtek and another starts from Shinnirtek at 2.30 pm for Swarighat. "BIWTA doesn't have any ship on its disposal, so we are to depend on private owned vessels. The launch owners are reluctant to come in this route because they won't earn enough money, as the passenger volume is very poor. The passengers aren't coming because vessels are not available," Dr. Md. Reaz Hasan Khondoker, Chairman, BIWTA, explains.

Apparently the more immediate objective of the project, that is, to ease the pressure of the city streets by diverting a sizeable amount of commuters into the waterway is yet to be achieved. Hasan however refuses to be worried at people's lukewarm response. "It has been just a month, people don't even know about it," he says. Hasan then reveals that around 10 launches are coming from April 12 and hastens to add that once there will be enough vessels they will go for publicity.

Khabirul Haq Chowdhury, Professor, Marine Engineering Department, BUET, is not convinced. "When a system runs efficiently you don't need publicity, the thing itself will act as advertisement," he says. He asks how can the government expect people to use the water route when they are providing one launch in 24 hours. "If they don't have their own launches they will have to arrange for them. May be they can provide launch owners some sort of incentives," he suggests.

Inadequate water transport is certainly not the only worry. Three basic things are needed for any waterway to yield results. These are ports, also called landing stations or touching points, a waterway and transport Haq says. He adds that if any one among these is not working or not working well the entire system is bound to suffer. For the moment the most apparent shortcomings seems to be inadequate public transport, but questions are also there concerning the waterway and the ports as well.

The waterway has in fact evoked a lot of criticism. Allegations are there that it was done hastily without much thought being given about the maintenance of required depth and width throughout. But more serious allegations have been raised about dredging. Dredging has traditionally been the preferred area for contractors to siphon off money. A dredging machine can be run with varying power and on its speed depends how much oil is being burnt. Very often although the engine is run at its slowest bill is made by showing that it were run at its highest by corrupt contractors. When asked about reported corruption in dredging Haq avoids to a straightforward answer. "It is not really possible to say for sure if there was any mischief committed as I don't have data on this. But corruption in dredging is fairly frequent in our country," he observes.

Maintaining the navigability, too, could prove to be another problem area in the future. The water flow changes from season to season and with it the depth and the width. Regarding navigability Haq says, "We will have to wait for some time to see how it copes with seasonal changes. Continuous monitoring and arrangements for quick remedial measures should be in place to ensure navigability of the waterway. I don't know if they have developed any system for that."

Hasan however categorically dismisses any foul play involving dredging. "I myself have travelled on quite a big two storied launch a couple of days back and there wasn't any problem whatsoever," he assures.

The landing stations--there are 10 from Swarighat to Ashulia--are not problem free either. The waterway, especially, has not yet and perhaps never will be able to draw a large chunk from the vast commuters who travel daily within Dhaka. It is not possible for someone who lives in say, Arambagh to go all the way to Swarighat to get on a launch and then after getting down from the launch in Ashulia board a bus to go to Uttara. The landing stations do not appear to have the potential to attract a large number of passengers. If one lives in Tajmahal road and wants to catch a launch from the nearest land station in Basila he will have to hire a rickshaw for Tk 15 to first go to the Beribadh and then get in a tempo and pay Tk 4 more to reach Basila. Obviously such practical drawbacks are major considerations.

However those who live along the water route like those in Shadarghat, Banglabazar, Tantibazar area might consider catching a launch from Shadarghat and these are the commuters who can be targeted. "But for that to happen the connecting route from land to the landing station will have to be in good shape," he says. Haq however, thinks the route will benefit cargo transportation. The thousands of trucks that enter the city through Gabtoli daily could be diverted to Aminbazar Terminal and then the cargo could be ferried to the landing station nearest the destination. This will have two possible benefits. The transportation cost will come down and the pressure on the city street will decrease to some extent. In fact Hasan claims that a sizeable amount of construction materials are being regularly ferried to Aminbazar and Ashulia.

Haq also suggests arrangements for the cargo to be put in launches in the same conditions, as it was when it was in trucks. It will make the business people confident that their goods won't go missing as the unloaded goods will be put on launches intact. In that case they will also be spared of the cost for security staff during unloading and loading.

Waterways have an inherent advantage over other modes of communication--Nature has given it to us, we don't have to build it like roads or railways. Communication through waterways usually costs half or in some cases as less as one-third of the expenses roads or railways cost. Visit any European cities and you would find how they have maximised the utilisation of their waterways. There are also canals across many of the cities which have not only had tremendous effect on their transportation system, but have greatly added to the scenic beauty of those cities. "Dhaka, though endowed with natural waterways, we have not only failed to take advantage of them but have strangled them to death," Haq regrets.

As we now see circular waterways being built it seems the city planners have at last decided to redeem themselves. While the circular waterway in its present conditions has shortcomings, it has nevertheless the potential to deliver. It all depends on how sincere the government is in making this waterway a real solution to Dhaka's claustrophobic traffic.

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