Living dangerously

Sadiqur Rahman writes how the mandatory use of life-jackets on passenger vessels is being flouted by vessel-owners in the country, leading to more deaths during accidents on the waterways each year

The shipping ministry imposed a seven-month long ban on the plying of risky passenger carrying vessels on eight routes in the danger zone of Meghna and Tetulia estuaries and coastal areas. The ban came into effect from March 15 to October 15, as nor’easters and cyclones during the period threaten safe journey.

Such measures are very common by the authorities at trying to check deadly accidents on the waterways. That these regulations are hardly ever implemented by the authorities and the vessel operators can be underlined as one of the main reasons behind the increasing number of disasters on the waterways in recent years, according to shipping sector experts. One such measure is the mandatory use of lifejackets for passengers plying the waterways on vessels.

Last year on July 19, shipping minister Shajahan Khan decreed the mandatory use of lifejackets for the passengers plying on speed boats through the Shimulia-Kewrakandi route over the mighty river Padma. After a visit to the Mawa river port of Munshiganj, the minister also directed the speed boat owner’s association to arrange at least five hundred lifejackets to that effect. But the minister’s order could not bring about any drastic changes to the situation initially.

Two weeks later, on August 4, the double decker ML Pinak-6 carrying more than 200 passengers against its capacity of just 91, sank near the Mawa river port. Till August 14, 49 dead bodies were found and the others are still missing.
Authorities later found that the 23-years old capsized Pinak-6 lacked life saving gears. According to regulations, the vessel required at least 23 lifebuoys for 91 people, including 85 approved passengers and six crew members, at a ratio of one is to four. Also although it was required to have as many life jackets as passengers on board, it did not have a single one.

A recent visit by New Age Xtra at the Mawa river port found that passengers using different vessels were not carrying safety gears while crossing the mighty Padma. Many passengers allege that lifejackets allotted by the vessel owners are not enough to cover hundreds of passengers.

Lessee of the Mawa river port, Mohammad Ashraf Hossain admits that the owners are still in shortage of enough life saving gears like lifebuoys and lifejackets. He says, ‘Passengers are not interested in wearing lifejackets. Rather, they cover their heads with these as a shade while on the vessel during sunny days.’

River port sources inform that vessel-owners bought only 90 to 100 pieces of lifejackets last year, despite a ministerial order for 500 pieces.

Ashraf, however, tells New Age Xtra, ‘The ministerial order will be implemented 100 per cent this year.’

Dhaka Inland River Port (Sadar Ghat) is among the longest ports in the South Asian territory. From 6:00 AM to 12:30 PM, at least 70 vessels load and unload passengers and goods at the port every day.

New Age Xtra, in a recent visit to the port, found that most of the vessels, except some high-powered launches, are not equipped with necessary safety gears defined by the authorities.

MV Shurovi-7, a Dhaka-Barisal-Dhaka bound passenger vessel with a capacity of 1,205 passengers have 200 lifebuoys, 42 fire extinguishers, 20 fire buckets and four sand-boxes. Staff of the launch informs New Age Xtra that the launch has only 40 lifejackets.

‘But the lifejackets are stored in a remote cabin and the passengers do not know about it. These lifejackets are on the verge of rotting away due to no use,’ a staff informs under condition of anonymity.

MV Parabat-11, another Dhaka-Barisal-Dhaka bound launch has 130 lifebuoys, 12 fire buckets, 12 fire extinguishers and two sand boxes against its capacity of 1,025 passengers. Its staff members inform New Age Xtra that there are no lifejackets in the vessel.

MV Tipu-7, a luxurious launch for the same route, has only 222 lifebuoys, fire extinguishers, sand boxes and no lifejackets for its capacity of nearly 1,200 passengers.

Managers of the aforementioned launches have denied to comment on the issue.

Bangladesh Inland Waterways (Passenger Carriers) Association (BIWA) is the central organisation of vessel owners. Its member secretary Siddkur Rahman Patwari denies responsibility to arrange lifejacket in the vessels, ‘We are not bound by laws to arrange lifejacket for all passengers.’ He adds, ‘There is an adequate number of life saving gears on the vessels.’

Concerned people feel that profit-mongering vessel owners always avoid the installment of necessary safety gears to save money. Ironically, passengers have to pay for it through deadly accidents on the waterways.

Kallol Mostofa, a rights activist, opines that lifejacket on vessels will actually be more beneficial for the government. ‘Price of a single lifejacket ranges from Tk 300 to 500. On the other hand, government has to pay One lakh and five thousand takas from the public fund for each of the deceased passengers killed in the waterway accident.’

Tusher Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Jatri Odhikar Songrokkhon Parishad, a passenger-rights movement, suspects that lifebuoys installed in many vessels are out of order. ‘Recently I found substandard lifebuoys in the launch-MV Kajol-7 during a trip from Dhaka to Patuakhali. Plastic covers of the buoys were so fragile that I could easily break one of its outer parts by applying some pressure,’ he says.

The number of lifebuoys was only 16 on the second and third floors of the launch where around 400 passengers were there in that time,’ he informs. Tusher urges, the government should immediately implement mandatory arrangement of necessary life saving gears in the water vessels before passing another year full of waterway accidents.

Siddikur Rahman of BIWA waives off the allegations of keeping substandard life gears in the vessels.

Parliament member Nurul Islam Sujan, also a House Committee member for the ministry of shipping, admits that lack of policy implementation encourages vessel owners to violate issues on passengers’ safety. ‘There is a strict order on mandatory arrangement of adequate life saving gears like lifebuoy and lifejacket. But we find serious negligence upon investigating the accidents on waterways.’

Sujan assures, ‘I will raise this issue in the next parliament session.’

A study of National Committee to Protect Shipping, Roads and Railway sectors revealed that at least 4,621 people were killed and 977 others went missing in around six hundred incidents of vessel capsize from 1999 to 2013 across the country.

Recently on February 22, MV Mostofa carrying hundreds of passengers capsized in the Daulatdia-Paturia crossing on the river Padma. Till February 24, 78 dead bodies were found and five are still missing.


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