The latest in the waterway accidents took place in the early hours of Friday (December 24) night on the river Sugandha near Jhalakathi Upazila. Strangely, it was not the usual case of sinking of a ferry, or launch, that happens often in the rainy season when the rivers are in spate or before and after the two major Muslim religious festivals. As expected, such disasters occur when launches are invariably overfull. And the circumstances under which those happen are in most cases uncertain.
The full-to-capacity three-decked launch, MV Obhijan-10, with hundreds of passengers (the exact number is yet to be ascertained) on board began its fateful journey on Thursday afternoon (December 23) from Sadarghat launch terminal of Dhaka for the southern district of Barguna. According to the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), the launch could hold 420 passengers, but it was carrying more than that. Whatever the case, the launch caught fire in the dead of night when the passengers were asleep. You can imagine how many lives could be lost in such circumstances. Clearly, the firefighting arrangement, if there was any in that launch, was neither adequate nor in order. Worse, the staff on board had little or no training about using those fire extinguishers. There are also reports that gas cylinders, containers of diesel etc were scattered around near the vessel's engine room. Small wonder that when fire engulfed the vessel, the launch staff, including the man at the wheel, just jumped into water and fled for life. Adrift, the veritable floating inferno finally ran aground near Diakul village in Jhalakathi.
Sinking of launches overcrowded with passengers is nothing new in Bangladesh. But in the present case, a water transport catching fire mid-river is indeed a rare kind of mishap. Many who could swim ashore alive from the burning launch said the engine was malfunctioning from the very beginning. But the operators of the launch still drove it full steam. "Who cares?" So, what was destined to happen happened. In fact, it is always the same story of irresponsibility and appalling callousness on the part of transport operators. What motivates them is just profit. Life of the passengers is never a priority to the transport service whether in the case of water transport or of road transport in Bangladesh. According to a conservative estimate, more than 2,500 people died in launch disasters over past two decades on different river routes of Bangladesh. In the present case, around 40 burn-related deaths have been recorded. Many probe committees were formed in every case of launch disasters in the past. In the present case, too, probe bodies have been formed by the Shipping ministry and the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) to find out the actual cause of the fire. However, surviving passengers of the ill-fated launch blamed the engine trouble. The findings of such investigation bodies, if they ever come out, constitute the obvious: lack of fitness, inadequacy of life-jackets and fire-extinguishers, etc on board; overcrowding by passenger; lack of visibility in case a launch happens to crash into another river vessel and so on. At a stage, the providers of water transport service, the water transport authority, the media and the public forget about the tragedy. Friday's launch tragedy will definitely generate discussions at different levels, perhaps for a longer period of time than others, if only because the accident did not fall into a pattern of the usual kind. The ongoing hot topic of 'launch fire', too, will eventually die down until there is a repeat incident. But that will not be the case with the families who lost their members in the tragedy.