Dhaka Saturday April 28, 2012

How to prevent launch disasters?

The Daily Star organized a roundtable on 'How to prevent launch disasters?' on March 27, 2012. We publish a summary of the discussions .

-- Editor

Mahfuz Anam , Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star
River transport is the largest transport sector in Bangladesh and it will remain so in the future because of our increased internal movement due to population growth and rapid economic development. So river transportation system should be made safer and comfortable.

Recent launch disasters show the dire condition of the sector. We should focus on the real causes of launch disasters rather than blame each other. We do not want a single loss of life. Through this discussion we would like to identify solution and create pressure on the authority to implement those suggestions.

One issue is suitability of river vessels. It is often reported that launches do not comply with the original design or lack proper maintenance and improvisation which seriously hamper suitability of the launches and make them vulnerable to accidents.

Second issue is controlling of navigation at night. If we look into the recent accidents, those could have been absolutely prevented if traffic control system were followed. We want to know whether there is proper traffic control system for river crafts.

Third issue is training of master and Shukani (driver) who handle the vessel.

Fourth issue is overloading. There exists a dilemma. Some years ago our government issued an order prohibiting overloading of launches then we saw a large number of people waiting at the ghat. So we have to also consider the issue of pressure on the vessels. As the number of launches or their capacity is poor so overloading becomes a part of the system.

Through this discussion we would want to find out doable solutions upon which The Daily Star would campaign, write, raise public awareness and urge the government to take effective actions to prevent launch disasters because such huge loss of public life is totally unacceptable.


Ashis Kumar Dey, Convener, Nou, Sarak O Railkhat Jatio Committee
There is a tug of war between BIWTA and Department of Shipping ( DoS) on the issue of control over river vessels . Here it is to be clearly mentioned that DoS is the only regulatory body, not BIWTA. To avoid bureaucratic red tape, regulation authority should be handed over to the DoS.

BIWTA is authorised to regulate internal water transportation. They have adequate manpower. BIWTA made a special body styled Nounirta during the immediate past BNP government who was assigned to give timetable and route permit. Port authority is authorized to check certificate of the master, fitness of the vessel and overloading and. After keeping copies of all these papers the launch is allowed to operate. But this is never done. Gross irregularities exist in the functioning of these departments.

After accident, several probe reports come out with suggestion but those suggestion never see the light of implementation. So we are not learning from the mistakes.

Commodore Jobair Ahmad, Director General, Department of Shipping
Gradual narrowing of the routes and lack of dredging is one of the main reasons. In 1969, Bangladesh had navigation route of around 20,000 km which, today, have shrunken down to 3869 km only. We do not have adequate dredgers to cover the vast area.

Some points finger to weak and substandard design of the vessels. Every design has to go through several supervising bodies and DoS also supervises twice annually. I do not think design is a problem. Our inland vessels are far better than Indian vessels in terms of design, structure and speed. The recently sunk launch MV Shariatpur was one of the finest ships in terms of design, thickness of plate and other indicators. It is not possible for us to use first class plates because of high cost.

Second point, we have seen that most accidents occur in the monsoon period (April June). So we should take extra caution in this period.

Accidents occur due to collision with barge filled with sands at night. Plying of such vessels at night is totally prohibited. Our monitoring system suffers from lack of manpower. I have only 5 inspectors with which it is not possible to keep control over such large number of ships. Again, all the vessels are not registered. In 2003, the number of registered vessels was 1750 which grew to 8,230 in 2012 which is a success of our department. We have asked the ministry for a project to conduct a survey of water vessels. The number of plying vessel is more than .2 million including both registered and non-registered. So it is quite difficult to supervise such a large number of vessels. To offset manpower shortage we have forwarded a recruitment requirement to the ministry and constantly pushing for passing the order as soon as possible.

The last point is training of master and sukani . I have conducted a 7 days training in Barisal and was surprised seeing that they are adept enough. We took an exam after the training and 95% of them passed successfully.

Dr. Abdur Rahim , former Teacher of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering ,Buet
We cannot get rid of accidents totally but our goal is to minimise it. We should investigate properly every accident and avoid repeating the same mistakes. It is my concern that there are some technical loopholes in our investigation procedure. After accidents we used to look for perpetrators and violation of laws rather than exact cause. So we remain away from the ground and submit same recommendations again and again which fail to prevent accidents.

If we look into some recent accidents that after the ship gets struck in no time it goes down because the engine room is not watertight. But newspapers ubiquitously find overloading as the reason which does not establish the exact cause. They often mention faulty vessel but do not pinpoint the fault. Here I will appeal to journalist friends to avoid using this term superfluously and mention details of the fault.

Syed Monowar Hussain, former Secretary, BIWTA and Secretary, POBA
We should set up an independent body to probe into the accidents like Marine Accidents Investigation Branch in UK. They look after the accident events and make comprehensive suggestion beyond departmental approach.

If we look into the accidents, particularly from 2000 to 2012, DoS have been prescribing same recommendations but implementation remains elusive. So I suggest giving the investigation onus to BUET where a standing investigation body would be set up at the cost of public money to make independent and objective investigation.

According to the World Bank statistics, fatal rate in land route is more than five thousand per year whereas in the river route it is 141.If we compare this with traffic intensity we will see that proportion of river route decreased to 8% from 16% at the dawn of our independence. Road carries the 88% of the traffic. It shows that river route is much safer than the land route.

Professor Dr. M. Rafiqul Islam, Head, Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, Buet
In 2003, I was one of the members of a committee formed by the Ministry of Shipping for investigation of the passenger vessels plying in inland waterways. Since then I started to carry out a research work on marine accidents. A research project was carried out on 442 accidents which took place during 1981-2007 out of which 156 accidents were because of collision. These vessels are both passenger and cargo carrying.

A vessel should not sink immediately after the collision because in general, vessels are provided with bulkheads in such a way that even if a single compartment is flooded due to collision or grounding, the vessel would still remain afloat. But here what we see is that ships capsize within minutes of collision. So there are some serious technical faults in construction where water tightness in bulkheads is not maintained due to faulty design or welding. It is also found that 80% of the impact arising out of collision could be eliminated by using proper fender.

It is suggested that all the old and poorly built inland vessels should be checked to make them retrofitted to prevent river accident and accident related casualty in the country. Government should take long term plans for enhancing the institutional capability of the plans approval authority. The procedure they are currently following is an ad-hoc one. The institutional commitments regarding accident investigation and scientific recording of incidents for reference and future research do not have the required importance. For proper investigation, expert opinion is necessary which is totally absent in recent committees formed by the Department of Shipping.

Our research suffers seriously due to inadequate facilities like a ship model testing centre (towing tank) by which performance, stability, resistance and sea-keeping of a ship is tested. Such facility would not only help take remedial measures in case of any design fault but also contribute towards enhancing overall safety aspect of inland ships. Establishment of a Towing Tank will help to produce knowledgeable, competent and skilled manpower in shipbuilding and which will eventually help Bangladesh to get the shipbuilding nation in the Globe.

Mohidul Haque Khan, Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA)
The whole thing is related to good governance. We have to ensure decisions from the top level that would be responsible for implementation and monitoring. Experts should be included in the investigation committees.

Abu Naser Khan, Chairman, Bangladesh Poribesh Bachao Andolon ( POBA)
Development of river route is closely related with river protection and preservation of healthy environment. Pollution rate of water vessels is much lower than the road transports. Government should take the issue totally.

Another thing, employees in the department themselves do not want to recruit more man power fearing loss of their extra pies.

Rotation is one of the main causes of overloading which is maintained by launch owner's syndicate. Government should take stern action against these syndicates.

Badiuzzaman Badal, Acting Chairman, Bangladesh Inland Waterways ( passenger carrier's ) Association
We have to get rid of multiple authorities: BIWTA for design, DG Shipping for survey and registration. All these should be handed over to DG Shipping so that we can stop the blame game.

General people do not know about the duties of the DoS. They think BIWTA is for inland water and DoS is for sea. This is very unfortunate. We have proposed a new name for it but nothing has changed yet.

Launch owners should be included in the investigation committee so that they can learn about the mistakes and get proper measures.

There is no rotation or syndicate. Our ticket rate is fixed so there is no scope of syndicate. Where we find more customers we provide more launch.

Md. Emdadul Haque, Director ( C&P), BIWTA
As DoS is suffering from manpower shortage and BIWTA have enough manpower in the field level, these two bodies can cooperate and some inter ministerial committees could be formed for this purpose. A Presidential order came out in 1995 to employ 22 BIWTA officers for inspecting and reporting to abet manpower shortage of DoS. We do not have enough magistrates. But if the officers play an active role we can do some recommendable job with the existing manpower.

Fakhrul Islam, Chief Engineer, Department of Shipping
For the last few years, I have seen that launches ranging from 30-45m are the most vulnerable to accidents. Another vulnerable category is single engine ship. Double engine launch is not in the most vulnerable group. So we have taken measures to improvise one engine ship.

Another corrective measure that has been taken to replace existing ballast with solid ballast so that lower part of the ship become heavy than the upper part which makes the ship more stable. The “Shariatpur” was also equipped with solid blast. We have seen that, in this low water season many unconscious owners scrap this solid blast which make the ships vulnerable.

Existing steering wheels are chain driven. It becomes difficult to maintain the steer in time of strong wind. We are trying to replace these with hydraulic steering. For the last 5 years we have been giving permission only those 45 m and above ships that have hydraulic steering. It is mandatory not only for passenger ships but also for cargoes which are above 50m.

Another important point is traffic separation. If BIWTA maintains separate plying channel for incoming and down going vessel with proper signal mechanism then we can substantially reduce the number of accidents.

Using rubber fending is good but difficult for us because of our poor berthing facility. We usually do nose berthing and use steel fender to avoid collision damage. So we should improve our berthing facility.

We are taking measures to use free boat so that after collision a ship can resist up to 33 degree rolling. We are trying to make this provision compulsory for new designs.

In case of sinking, provision of rescue route is very important. Usually we use tripole (a hard cloth) in the launch to get protection from rain and cold weather. When an accident occurs people get obstructed to find a way out. Another dangerous element is current net used by fishermen which is a death trap. Using current net is strictly prohibited but nobody cares. Again, proper monitoring is needed.

Shuman Shams, Secretary, Nongor
We are discussing various aspects of launch accident, specially its technical side, but we often miss the victims' point. Some money for the dead people is not sufficient. It is not a matter of monetary loss. So we should look at the human side of the accidents.

Several times we have proposed for observing a week every year to make people aware about river related accidents but authorities do not pay heed to our demand. This is frustrating.

I have heard of River Police but never find it in reality. So who is monitoring at the field level?

Our rescue system is very weak. Rustom and Hamza are not enough to bear the load. It takes several days for the rescue ships to reach the spot and their lifting capacity is very poor.

Siddiqur Rahman, Secretary, Bangladesh Inland Waterways ( passenger carrier's ) Association
We urged the DoS to make it compulsory to have a certificate of Passenger Carrier's Association for getting registration but so far there is no headway. We have a trust which compensates the victims if our association's launch meets accident. So having such certificate is very important.

Due to the rocket hike of leasing price of the port the leaser force launch owners to carry unauthorized goods. Whereas according to the provision, only perishable goods could be loaded in a launch. DoS should strictly handle this irregularity.

Syed Abul Maksud, noted Columnist and Social Activist
We have to focus on human rather that statistics. Every single life is valuable to us. Government cannot spare its responsibility. Government's probe reports are meaningless to the victim. Every year probe results repeats but nothing goes for implementation. The probe report is absolutely bogus.

Government should set up a high level committee to find out the reasons for the accidents and take immediate actions to minimise the causes as well develop the river transportation system a comfortable one . We want a holistic reform of the sector. We civil society will give our full support to this reform appraisal.

Brig ( Retd.) Shahedul Anam Khan, Editor, Op-ed and Strategic Issues, The Daily Star
It should be made clear as to who will take the responsibility for accidents. There are loopholes in our oversight system. We fail to take stern action against the perpetrators. So they do not care about their responsibility and repeat the same mistakes.

The river transportation sector gets poor focus as if it is only the poor people who use water transport. We need to change this mindset. River travel is comfortable, safe and economic .This is a complete naive to underestimate this sector.

We need to create a movement to raise awareness among the people to reduce such accidents so that no single casualty occurs in further.