Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 7 Issue 10 | March 7, 2008 |

  Cover Story
  Straight Talk
  Special Feature
  Human Rights
  Writing the Wrong
  A Roman Column
  View from the   Bottom
  Dhaka Diary
  Book Review

   SWM Home


The Price of a life
From Tk 200
to Tk 22,000

Nader Rahman

Laxman searches for his son and niece using a rented boat after losing his wife and daughter in last months launch accident. Photo: Star File

Bangladesh has a history of regular launch disasters yet each time one occurs we are all left in shock. The stories are more or less always the same, over crowded boats and human error combine to end lives with startling consistency in a country where for many people the rivers are the only way to travel. Every time we hear of a tragedy there is a flurry of bureaucratic help, slow and inconsistent they always promise a report on what happened rather than what they should and how they will go about it. On February 28, there was yet another tragic incident to add to our never ending list of boat accidents and the rhetoric to come out of it is all the same.

The accident in question took place on the afternoon when the double-decker MV Shourav-1 bound for Taltola in Munshiganj left the Sadarghat Launch Terminal and was hit from behind by the sand-laden cargo vessel Al Amin. Within seconds the launch veered out of control and tilted sharply. There was barely any time for people to recover from the initial jolt of being hit and from first hand accounts the boat was submerged within minutes. Those who knew how to swim and who weren't in their rooms somehow managed to reach the banks of the river, while the other were left to fend for themselves.

Initially there was widespread panic as there were no clear records as to how many people were aboard the ship when it went under. One early estimate said that as many as 100 people could have died but that was quickly put to bed as a clearer picture of the accident came to light. As with every boat and launch in Bangladesh the sunken vessel was suspected to be overcrowded. But it was found out that the launch was not as over crowded as during other disasters, where the capacities of a boat have been at times more than doubled. The capacity of the MV Shourav was somewhere between 60 and 70 people while there were actually over a 100 passengers on the boat with their personal belongings. This tragedy did not occur because of an over crowded boat but due to the haphazard way our river ports are dealt with. The loss of lives which currently stands at 47 would have been significantly smaller if the ship was not over crowded but the accident itself was not caused by the increased number in passengers. The finger must also be pointed to the cargo vessel that slammed into the MV Shourav. Who let such incompetent people on to that boat, let alone navigate it through tricky waters?

The blame must fall on the government and the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA). According to official estimates in the last 30 years there have been 408 river mishaps that have killed 3,657 and yet the waters seem to be getting no safer. Over 3000 people have given up their lives and yet the BIWTA has still to clean up its act. Some estimates put the real figure of deaths nearer to 5000 with over 500 accidents. The constant probes into accidents lead us to common problems and the same solutions yet no one seems to want to implement those recommendations. In 2000 the High Court heard a public interest litigation writ petition and subsequently directed the government to make certain that all vessels carry lifebuoys and other safety measures before their voyages. It was nothing sensational; all they did was direct the government to implement laws which had already been passed. Yet since then there have been many accidents and hundreds of others have lost their lives. A high court ruling means nothing on the banks of a river if the government does not have the will to support it. The same court also ordered the authorities to take necessary measures to stop the overloading of passengers, yet as we have seen every year and almost every day, even that is being flouted. Both the Awami League and the BNP must share the blame equally for not being strong or bold enough to follow up on that high court ruling. The ports moreover, were common hunting grounds for their cadres who were always on the lookout for tolls to extract. The vessel owners often claimed that because they had to pay such large sums of money to keep the cadres at bay that was why they often overloaded their boats. That is nothing short of a blatant lie.

People gather on the banks of the Buriganga while relatives of passengers who died wail at the sight of their deceased loved ones. Photo: Star File

The consistency with which boats have been overloaded point to nothing but the owners' insatiable greed. Official figures say that roughly 90 million trips are made through inland water transport but if one is to factor in the real figure then the amount of money made by the owners is staggering. The personal greed of owners drives them to double and treble the capacities of boats which should have been decommissioned years ago and then when an accident actually occurs they act as if they are the ones who are the victims! Governments meanwhile have been completely indifferent to the lack of health and safety regulations of these boats. The rules they flout are often more basic than safety regulations as they hire cheap unskilled masters to guide their ships along with the fact that many of those ships are unregistered and do not comply with the prescribed designs.

In a research paper on Launch disasters there are some rather interesting ideas to help make the waters safer for travelling in Bangladesh. They say that all launches should be equipped with radar and radio instruments. This is rather simple and relatively cheap to take care of yet people still view it as something of a luxury. But it would make transport much easier and it would help eradicate the number one cause of accidents, which now occurs through collisions. If the boats were to constantly keep in touch with one and another along with a port authority then they would know what speed to travel at and when to dock so as not to cause an accident. It would make the waters easier to travel on and faster for the customer if everything was flowing smoothly. Other suggestions include a mandatory annual inspection of motor launches; severe punishment to officials found guilty of providing unwarranted fitness certificates; compensation by launch owners to survivors or family members of passengers who perished in accidents caused by human negligence or misconduct.

Obviously the owners must be held accountable for such avoidable disasters but this cannot absolve the responsibility of the government, which is the ultimate authority to monitor and control these boats. Currently the government has to pay compensation to the family of a passenger who dies in such accidents but there is no hard and fast rule just how much they should be paid. Only in death a life is given monetary value and the invisible hand of the market is what guides the price. In 2003 when Nasrin-1 capsized and hundreds lost their lives the government paid Tk 200 to the families of those who perished while for the current tragedy they have promised Tk 20,000 per person along with Tk 2000 to move the body to its final destination.

While governments have set the price for the dead they have ignored the value of life. Unless the government takes drastic measures to prevent these accidents, by holding owners accountable and enforcing regulations, commuting by river for millions of people will always be threatened by unspeakable tragedy.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007