Waterways Accidents & Remedies
We have heard the tragic story of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. We also have heard the stories of Jonathan Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels' and Daniel Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe' written in the 18th century. In both cases we get the heartbreaking scene of the shipwreck. That scene seems to be becoming a reality in our riverine Bangladesh. The difference lies only in one thing. That is, the reason for the shipwreck in both the travelogues is adverse weather where most of the reasons in our country for the same cases are our own negligence and incompetence.
Our country is crisscrossed by more than 600 rivers. About 30 percent of the people in the country are still using about 24140 km of our waterways. Almost every city, big town or commercial area of Bangladesh is built on the banks of rivers. In the southern part of the country, waterways are the main means of public transport. There are still many areas where roads or railways are not available, so waterways are the only means of communication.
But sadly, every year hundreds of our lives are lost in waterway accidents. Although the picture of road accidents is more visible, the consequences of naval accidents are more severe and more frightening. For example, we have seen a maximum of 10 to 12 deaths in a bus accident with 50 passengers, but there are more than half of the deaths in a launch accident with the same number of passengers. The death toll in the accident of the ship 'Morning Bird' in the Buriganga on June 29 is the best proof of this.
Mourning in waterway accidents is even more so because even if dead bodies are recovered or identified in road accidents, it is not possible to rescue many dead bodies from underwater in naval accidents.
According to the newspaper, 580 small and large vessels have been submerged since 1991. More than 3654 people lost their lives in these. Of these, 469 bodies could not be recovered. From this calculation it is understood that at least 130 people have to die on our waterways every year. The death toll is certainly alarming enough.
In 2009, 47 people were killed in a ferry accident on the river Daira in Mithamin upazila of Kishoreganj, 103 killed in Pinak-6 and MV Miraj-4 accidents, 6 killed in Padma ferry accidents in 2015, the deaths in a launch accident on the Kirtankhola river in 2016, the death in a trawler sinking in the Bay of Bengal in 2019 and the drowning of 'Morning Bird' in the Buriganga on June 29 are notable among the recent waterway accidents.
The Department of Shipping (DOS) has blamed the collision of one vehicle with another for most of the shipping accidents in Bangladesh. Although the causes of the above accidents are different, many common causes are also noticeable. These are 1. excess capacity of carrying goods or passengers, 2. drivers' negligence and incompetence, 3. instrument error, 4. adverse weather, 5. defective structure of the vessel, 6. unsafe naval route, 7. vessel expired fitness, 8. collision between two vessels, 9. unlicensed operator, 10. inadequacy of radar or radio equipment, 11. excessive currents, 12. surveillance or control inefficiency 13. overtaking tendency, and 14. the non-application of exemplary punishment etc.
Analyzing the causes of past accidents in our country, it appears that the accident rate is higher due to the incompetence and negligence of the drivers or operators. The recent accident of 'Morning Bird' in the Buriganga has also raised the issue of incompetence and inattention of the operator of 'Mayur-2'. The weather and mechanical problems are also two of the reasons for which the indifference of the authorities is no less responsible.
The government has three departments directly or indirectly involved in the protection of shipping, namely the Ministry of Shipping (MOS), the Department of Shipping (DOS) and Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA). The Ministry of Shipping is responsible for formulating policies on waterway development and management. The Department of Shipping (DOS) is responsible for ensuring the safety of all types of vessels under the authority of the government. On the other hand, BIWTA is engaged in ensuring the transmission of information regarding the safety and weather conditions of waterways and anchorages. It is also learned that due to the shortage of manpower and necessary modern equipment, the progress of the expected work in the departments is being hampered. According to BIWTA, the number of boats registered in the country is only 9825. Apart from this, many unregistered vessels are regularly plying the waterways and people are also suffering from many accidents caused by them.
To ensure a safe and secure waterway, there is the 'Inland Shipping Ordinance-1976' which deals with all matters relating to shipping laws and penalties for violators. My guess is that no driver, vehicle owner or passenger is aware of this. So we have to see the scene of accidents again and again due to the arbitrary movement of vehicle owners, drivers and passengers.
Now is the time to take remedial action to avoid maritime accidents. Only joint efforts can overcome the accident without blaming each other. The shipping departments need to be more administratively active. Shippers, masters, port supervisors and vehicle owners should be held accountable for their actions. Violators must be brought under the law with the help of a mobile court or the relevant department to ensure punishment. Annual training should be arranged for masters, drivers and all those involved in driving through BIWTA or any other such organization. BIWTA needs to check the fitness of the vehicle at least once a year. Waterproof rooms must be ensured on all launches, ships or steamers, including large passenger boats. It is important to check before boarding whether the passenger ship or vessel has ancillary equipment, including small life-saving boats.
Immediately before departure, passengers must be instructed on how to recover from the accident. In many cases, it is seen that despite having the equipment to survive in the accidents on the launch or ferry, but most of them remain unused due to the ignorance of the passengers. Passengers who do not know how to swim need to be provided with life-saving jackets.
Ascending as extra passengers must be strictly suppressed. In this case, the authorities as well as the passengers themselves must be aware. Despite the obstacles of the shipping authorities, many people travel as extra passengers to speed up the accident. Moreover, good quality vehicles with more skilled and trained drivers or operators need to be ensured in accident prone areas. In the haor regions of Sylhet, Moulvibazar, Sunamganj, Habiganj, Netrokona and Kishoreganj, many small and big boats are being used for crossing passengers and goods. Most of these vehicles or drivers have neither certificate nor experience. There we notice big and small accidents in rainy seasons. These need to be closely monitored.
The saddest part is the post-accident rescue scene. The collision with the bridge in the path of the rescue ship 'Pratya', which came to rescue the 'Morning Bird' after it sank in the area near the banks of the Buriganga, made us think more. If the rescue ship itself is the victim of an accident, the rescue operation will be prolonged. If there is a shortage of rescue ships, the concerned department should pay attention to this matter.
In a low-income country like ours, it is natural for people to choose waterways as a means of transportation due to low fares. And if our waterways regain their lost heritage, the pressure on vehicles on the roads will be significantly reduced. We no longer want to hear the cries of losing loved ones in waterway accidents.
(Badrul Huda Sohel is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Ishakha International University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)