That hundreds of vehicles in long queues are waiting to be ferried on both sides of the two ferry channels of the Padma is nothing new. What is remarkable is that strong current forces ferries to suspend operation and at the same time lack of navigability in the river also limits operation of ferry service, leading to this imbroglio.
No wonder, the authorities at Shimulia and Kathalbari, worse hit as the channel between these two points is, are diverting vehicles to Paturia and Daulatdia in order to ease the pressure. Ferry service on the route came to a halt on Wednesday after two got stuck on shoals. But the Paturia-Daulatdia channel also is not in a good health. Although ferries there have not been suspended, those have to operate on a round-about channel, requiring far more times than usual. Also at the entry point of the dock, only one ferry can pass. This handicaps ferry operation even further.
Now isn't it an ambivalent situation as the river current is awfully strong and at the same time the river bed, once one of the deepest rivers not in this country but in comparison with other mighty rivers elsewhere. This may happen in mountainous terrains where the current gets energy but the channel is blocked by mountains on both sides. On flat beds of plain lands this is rather unusual. Does it not perturb engineers, particularly those involved with river engineering?
If it has not so far, it should do now. Only a month or so ago, the engineers responsible for construction of the Padma bridge could not set up a span on two pillars because of powerful current. Current is non-negotiable only when a river like the Padma is in full steam. But how can an ailing Padma becoming shallow beyond imagination be so invigorating?
The answer lies in the faulty dredging much of which owes its legacy to corrupt practices. This is no lean season. There is no reason for the river becoming shallow and in spate at the same time. The recurring floods with visitations three times in the country's north and north-east caused most rivers to flow above danger levels. Now waters are receding and in the middle part of this land the pressure is more than usual. So there should have been no question of riverbed becoming shallower, restricting movement of ferries on the two channels.
Strangely it has happened and happened for a combination of half-way-house approach to dredging and continued corruption resorted to for milking the exchequer. Dredging is done on a piecemeal basis as a contingency measure and understandably under no comprehensive plan. The sediments dredged are deposited nearby within the river and those do not take long to spill over the dredged channel. Thus, there are allegations, time and again the act of dredging is repeated in the same riverine areas. The latest cutter suction dredger (CSD) has the advantage of using artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor details of dredging and avoiding obstacles. But use of traditional dredging with motives not always clear has been the root cause of the navigability crisis.
The problem of navigability in the river Padma on Nagarbari-Aricha and Daulatdia-Aricha route became so acute and endemic that the policymakers had to build a bridge on the Jamuna and shift the site of ferry point from Aricha to Paturia. Even the pontoons at Daulatdia have to be dispersed depending on seasonal variations. The Mawa or Shimulia-Kathalbari route, although a late addition to the road communication between the capital city and the country's south-western region also had to face a similar fate. All this is both direct and indirect consequences of the Farakka Barrage on the river Ganga. The mighty Padma has lost much of its force and fury to become a shadow of its own.
Now the under-construction Padma bridge also comes as a compulsion of socio-economic development and geo-morphological changes this Gangetic basin is going through. But before the Padma bridge is open to traffic, the sufferings of passengers and transport operators continue to mount. Truck-loaded perishable items rot as the freight is naturally not given preference to passengers. Some of the operators of trucks and covered vans have to wait for five days to a week. Thus some of them empty their pocket money in the process and face uncertainty of deliverance from their travails. The economic losses due to delay and damage are huge, sometimes enough to trigger market volatility of certain items.
Several organisations and institutes have come up with the daily or annual man-hour loss and the consequent economic losses on account of traffic jam in the capital city. Hardly any such exercise is done in case of the long delay at ferry points.
However, a TV channel has reported that the flow of traffic on the Shimulia-Kathalbari route has fallen from 7,000-8,000 a day to fewer than 5,000 a day. Its immediate bearing is reflected on the revenue income of the government. Last month the toll collection dwindled to just Tk 80 million as against Tk 240 million earned during the same period of the previous year.
Clearly, much of the problem is man-made and had there been a clear purpose and resolve to maintain the navigability of the river channels, the situation would not be this deplorable. Even if the Padma bridge becomes fully operational, the river must retain its natural flow in order to avoid large-scale floods during the monsoon and in the interest of sustaining the country's environment and marine ecosystem.