After basking in dominance in the country's rivers for over a couple of decades, the engine-run boats and their operators appear to be making an exit. An age-old spectacle seems poised to re-enact itself in the country's big and small rivers. The visual is composed of country boats moving languidly across these waterways. Boats not long ago were integral to the rivers and navigable canals of Bangladesh. Apart from the rowing ones, boats used to speed along with sails fed with wind blowing from the opposite direction or pulled with long ropes by men walking along the nearby bank. This centuries-old view of rural Bangladesh began disappearing with the entry of the improvised mechanised boats. Owing to their being retrofitted with shallow irrigation pump engines, the boats came to be known as 'shallow boats'. These noisy and oil-leaking small and large vessels eventually filled large portions of the river space. The country boats and the largely hand-to-mouth boatmen became rarer as years wore on. Sailing and paddle boats disappeared from the river-dominant country.
That country boats in considerably large numbers would one day be seen again carrying passengers across a major river was an absurd possibility even the other day. But it is turning out to be a reality, and that, too, on a busy river like the Buriganga beside Dhaka. The photograph printed recently in this newspaper showing a segment of the river filled with country boats ferrying passengers might prompt many to feel delighted. Labour rights protection groups will feel triumphant upon seeing boatmen manually operating the boats. Environmentalists in all likelihood will take heart from the river view cleared of pollutants in the air and water. It's pertinent to mention here that the water of the Buriganga has become horridly polluted by waste and fuel seeping from launches and trawlers. It has long been declared unsuitable for human use, except in the days of monsoon. The river is now completely hostile to the growth of all kinds of aquatic organism.
Boats and rivers are entwined in Bangladesh. The return of boats to the Buriganga and the other rivers points to a major development: the country's dying water bodies including 'haors' are set to experience a new lease of life. Apart from robbing the rivers of their inherent nature and beauty, the ubiquitous shallow boats have led to mass-scale extinction of fishes. These engine boats still continue to dominate the rivers in many areas of the country. The return of the country boats may put an end to this dominance. With the manually wielded boats back to their earlier glory, a change in the rural job situation is poised to set in. The change in the spectacle will mean a lot to the owners of country boats, as well as the boatmen.
The reason the river-crossing people are opting for country boats after travelling by shallow-engine boats for years has much to do with man's inherent pragmatism. With the increase in the fare and freight charge on mechanised boats, many passengers have started switching over to the country boats again. The charm of speed and comfort takes a back seat when the question of overspending starts pinching.
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