Bangladesh is a delta crisscrossed by numerous rivers and boasts of 24,000 kilometre-long waterways. But the navigable river-routes vary from 3,865 km during the dry season to 5,968 km during the monsoon period. Inland water transportation (IWT) is still an important mode in the country, not only for carrying passengers and freight but also for transporting export and import goods to and from the sea-ports. Around 25 per cent of the rural households have access to the IWT network due to its high intensity of penetration. The sector is characterised by positive attributes like economy of costs, environment-friendliness, lesser propensity of accidents and lower maintenance cost. The waterways help maintain ecological balance in addition to supporting the growth of other sectors in the economy. Currently, around 88 million passengers and 58 million tons of cargo are carried by the IWT sector every year, accounting for nearly 50 per cent of the total freight traffic.
IWT has three distinct planes or modes of operation having divergent stakeholders. The national plane consists of trunk haulage of freights and passengers along the main corridors between ports and major economic centres. The second or local-level comprises feeders, distributions and local traffics. The third level or ferries link road sections separated by large water channels in the absence of bridges. The sector still enjoys certain advantages like its status as a cheaper mode for transporting goods and people compared to the roads and railways. It is more energy-efficient than the other two modes, which makes it cost-efficient as well as beneficial for the environment.
However, when we look back, we find that successive governments have paid little attention to this sector and allocated scanty budgetary resources for its growth. The meagre resources allocated are mostly used for developing major routes that are plied on by large mechanised vessels. The secondary river-routes used by country boats have always been accorded least priority, although these traditional boats have been moving on our rivers for centuries. Till recently, the IWT infrastructure facilities in Bangladesh consisted of 11 major inland ports, 23 coastal island ports, 133 launch stations, and over 1,000 landing points spread across the rural terrains.
The state-owned Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) is responsible for the maintenance and development of waterways, which include dredging and hydrographic services, providing pilots and navigational aids; management and administration of inland ports and landing facilities; regulation of transport operations and fixing tariffs. Another public sector body - Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC) - is a service-oriented organisation that is involved in carrying passengers, cargo and vehicles. The four functional units of BIWTC are: ferry service unit; passenger service unit; cargo service unit; and ship repair service unit. It has 44 stations and ghats for rendering services under these units.
Historically, mechanised steam-powered vessels were first introduced in Bangladesh territory during the British colonial era by two private sector entities, viz. Indian General Navigation (IGN) and River Steam Navigation (RSN). They not only played a dominant role in water transportation, but also carried out river conservancy work in important waterways and provided landing facilities. They dominated the scene even during the Pakistani period up to 1960s, when they were joined by a few operators like Pak Bay, Sinclair Murray and Chalna Lighterage. At that time, the entire passenger and cargo traffic was operated by the private sector, with the British-owned companies accounting for 70 per cent of the total. The situation changed swiftly with the establishment of East Pakistan Inland Water Transport Authority (IWTA) in 1958. It led to the setting up of Chalna anchorage, increase in waterways mileage and installation of numerous embarkation/disembarkation points. The monopoly of the British-owned companies was broken when IWTA imported and distributed 400 gray marine diesel engines to the local operators. This led to the plying of many wooden passenger vessels on the country's waterways by the local operators. The IWTA then amalgamated RSN and IGN into Pakistan River Steamers (PRS). The PRS along with some abandoned companies including Pak Bay Flotilla were taken over by the BIWTC after the country's independence.
During the British colonial era, the IGN and RSN used to operate cargo services from Calcutta to Assam via the Bangladesh territory. The governments of India and Pakistan entered into an agreement during the late 1950s to utilise the waterways of both the countries for trade and passage of goods. The agreement titled 'Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade' was, however, suspended after the Indo-Pak war of September 1965. But the governments of Bangladesh and India revived it on March 28, 1972. There were eight trade routes under the agreement, viz. Calcutta-Raimongal-Chalna-Khulna-Mongla-Kaukhali-Barisal-Nandirbazaar-Chandpur-Aricha-Sirajganj-Bahadurabad-Chilmari-Dhubri; Dhubri-Chilmari-Bahadurabad-Sirajganj-Aricha-Chandpur-Nandibrbazaar-Barisal-Kaukhali-Mongla-Khulna-Chalna-Raimongal-Calcutta; Calcutta-Raimongal-Mongla-Kaukhali-Barisal-Nandirbazaar-Chandpur-Narayanganj-Bhairab Bazaar-Ajmiriganj-Markuli-Sherpur-Fenchuganj-Zakiganj-Karimganj; Karimganj-Zakiganj-Fenchuganj-Sherpur-Markuli-Ajmiriganj-Bhairab Bazaar-Narayanganj-Chandpur-Nandirbazaar-Barisal-Kaukhali-Mongla-Raimongal-Calcutta; Rajshahi-Godagari-Dhulian; Dhulian-Godagari-Rajshahi; Bhairab Bazaar-Mithamoin-Itna-Lalpur-Sunamganj-Chhatak; and Chhatak-Sunamganj-Lalpur-Itna-Mithamoin-Bhairab Bazaar.
These routes have remained highly underutilised, mainly due to rapid siltation, dearth of adequate navigational aids as well as limited number of ports of call (four ports on either side). Besides, there has been no inter-country passenger movement under the protocol till today. According to the protocol, the ports of call on Bangladesh side were Narayanganj, Khulna, Mongla and Sirajganj; while on the Indian side they were Kolkata, Haldia, Pandu and Karimganj. Both the countries have now agreed to designate 'Ashuganj' on Bangladesh side and 'Shilghat' (near Guwahati, 100 km upstream of Pandu) on the Indian side as the 5th ports of call.
The protocol on inland water transit and trade signed by India and Bangladesh in 1999 currently regulates the water transport transit between the two countries. It broadly covers four routes linking Dhaka with Kolkata through the Sundarbans (south-west route), Farakka (north-west route), Karimganj (north-east route) and Dhubri-Guwahati (north route). The protocol has been extended over a dozen times since its approval, but has remained an obstacle in some respects to the fuller utilisation of IWT for enhanced trade and transit between the two countries. The river infrastructure is not a hindrance except for the north-western route, which cannot be utilised due to insufficient depth of water caused by limited discharge from the Farakka barrage. Some improvements and sustained maintenance would be required for facilitating more cross-border transit and trade between Bangladesh and India.
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