Reining in anarchic river traffic

Mid-river collisions between motor boats are not uncommon in Bangladesh. Recently, with the rapid increase in river traffic on the country’s rivers, these mishaps have also continued to increase. But the incidents of a cargo ship hitting or running over a small ship are rare. Small powerboats or powerboats usually keep a safe distance from massive ships. Terrible accidents still happen on these river transports of different sizes. In most cases, the larger vessels are responsible. As with the heavy trucks on roads that collide with tiny vehicles, the mighty large cargo or passenger ships collide with smaller vessels. In most cases, after the collision with the finger, the probe bodies point towards the larger carriers. The March 20 collision between a large cargo ship and a 50/60-passenger capacity barge on the Shitalakkhya River has further increased risks for small vessels navigating the busy river routes.

Investigative committees must have been set up by the authorities concerned to uncover the truth. As with many such accidents, this one can be made to get lost in different types of mazes. The findings of the investigation may also remain elusive for the families of the 10 dead and those missing indefinitely. The tragic river disaster has once again demonstrated the extent of the anarchy that has begun to grip the country’s river transport in recent times. As can be seen on the streets of major cities, myriad types of ships, both carrying passengers and cargo, ply the river routes. There are multi-deck motorboats and passenger ships, smaller passenger ships including makeshift trawlers and motorboats. In between, the land boats move for fear of being hit by fast, large ships.

After the fatal launch accident on March 20 in the busy port area of ​​Narayanganj, river traffic experts have again stressed the need for river traffic discipline. At the same time, some of you might become nostalgic about the serenity that used to prevail even in and around a river port. Ports in Dhaka’s Sadarghat, Munshiganj, Chandpur, Ashuganj, Barisal etc. and Narayanganj in the 1960s and 70s, Goalando in the 1930s usually wore a semblance of pure calm despite their hectic activities. It is true that there is a big difference between a sea port and a river port. Despite the hustle and bustle caused by passengers boarding and disembarking, the “Ghats” never seem alien. One of the main reasons for this is the fixed number of river transports using the active ports. Today, both large powerboats and passenger-carrying powerboats face fierce competition to have adequate space for their berthing at terminals. Despite the areas allotted for ships to use the ‘ghats’, heated arguments between the management and crew of various ships have recently become a commonplace.

A similar spectacle is presented at the nearby cargo ship terminals. For the ‘Ghat’ authorities, the task of maintaining order there is a much greater challenge. This is because ships calling at these terminals have to meet strict arrival, loading and departure schedules. Many of these large cargo ships are connected to seagoing vessels by a railroad at the port of Chittagong.

The most critical moments faced by both types of these river transportation are the need to meet their arrival and departure schedules. Perhaps this binding rule, in turn, will induce them to stick to their schedule without the slightest dawdle. Given this rigor in following the routine, both the larger ships and the small ships are always in an invisible race to meet deadlines. As a logical consequence, this leads to a chaotic situation in and around river terminals. In some cases, the race starts at a significantly greater distance from the port destinations. As was to be feared, this hectic rush of ships to the terminals and the abandonment of the places leads to a veritable traffic jam in the river traffic. Because they have to make their way through the water, they cannot brake in an emergency, such as when another ship suddenly takes a wrong turn and tumbles in front of a large ship.

Traffic jams caused by vessels moving unpredictably or alternating are common scenarios around terminals these days. A notable number of them result in both minor and fatal accidents. The experts agree on one point: the uninterrupted increase in both freight and passenger cars; and the lack of a powerful agency to streamline the movement of irregular and compulsively wandering vessels.

Every year, an average of 100 people die in river boat accidents in Bangladesh. According to a media report published in 2021, almost 4,000 people have died in accidents involving inland vessels in Bangladesh over the past 30 years. River accidents involve not only loss of life and missing persons. Because of the economic losses incurred by traders in inland ports on various waterways, the journeys often become dreadful. Recently, the accidents happen mainly due to various reasons. They range from Nor’western, novices at the helm of cargo ships and passenger boats, to ships encountering underwater schools created by sand lifting and river drying. It is the “sarengs” and “sukanis” that are said to play the greatest role in the safe operation of the ships. The inland shipping experts identify the reckless maneuvering of the ships as the main culprit. New additions are ship collisions caused by both reckless and shaky driving. Unless strict rules are formulated and effectively enforced, the river boats in the country cannot be expected to be a safe means of transporting people and cargo.

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