The Financial Express

Reining in anarchic river traffic

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Mid-river collisions between motor launches are not infrequent in Bangladesh. With the fast increase in river traffic movement on the country's rivers, these mishaps have also kept rising lately. But the incidents of hitting or running over a small vessel by a cargo ship are rare. Small motor launches or engine boats normally keep a safe distance from massive ships. Still terrible accidents do occur involving these river transports of uneven sizes. In most cases, the larger vessels are found responsible. Like with the heavy trucks on roads crashing in on tiny vehicles, the formidably large cargo or passenger ships also collide with smaller vessels. In most cases, post-collision probe bodies point their finger at the bigger carriers. The March 20 collision between a large cargo ship and a 50/60 passengers-capacity launch on the Shitalakkhya River has added, once again, to the risks posed to small vessels plying the busy river routes.

Probe committees must have been formed by the authorities concerned to dig out the truth. Like in many such accidents, this one may also be made to get lost in different types of labyrinths. The probe results may also remain elusive to the families of the 10 dead, and those missing, for an indefinite period. The tragic river accident has once again demonstrated the extent of anarchy which has lately started gripping the country's river traffic movements. As seen on the big-city roads, myriad types of vessels, both passenger-carrying and cargo-laden, ply the river routes. There are multi-storey motor launches and passenger ships, smaller passenger vessels including makeshift trawlers and engine boats. Amid them, the country boats move about in fear of being hit by speedy, large vessels.

After the March 20 deadly launch accident in the busy Narayanganj port area, river traffic experts have once again underscored the need for disciplining the river traffic. At the same time, some of them might become nostalgic about the serenity that used to prevail even in and around a river port. The ports at Dhaka's Sadarghat, Munshiganj, Chandpur, Ashuganj, Barisal etc and Narayanganj in the 1960s-70s, Goalando in the 1930s would normally wear a semblance of pure quiet despite their hectic activities. It is true there is a great difference between a seaport and a river port. Despite their great hustle and bustle caused by the passengers' boarding vessels and disembarking from them, the 'Ghats' never seem strange. One of the main reasons behind it is the fixed numbers of river transports using the active ports. Nowadays, both big motor-launches and passenger-carrying engine boats have to engage in fierce competitions to have a proper place for their docking at terminals. In spite of spaces designated to vessels for using the 'Ghats', heated arguments between the managements and crew of different vessels have become common views lately.

A similar spectacle is encountered at the nearby terminals dealing with cargo vessels. To the 'Ghat' authorities, the task of maintaining order there is much more challenging. It's because the vessels using these terminals have to follow tight schedules of arrival, cargo loading and departure. Many of these large cargo vessels are linked to sea-going ships at the Chittagong Port through railway.

The most critical moments facing both types of these river transports comprise the imperative of keeping their schedules of arrival and departure. Perhaps this binding rule on their part prompts them to go by their schedule without the least dilly-dallying. Given this strictness in following routine, both the larger ships and small vessels are always in an invisible race to maintain deadlines. As a corollary, it leads to a chaotic situation in and around river terminals. At times the race starts at a considerably longer distance ahead of the port destinations. As could be feared, this frenzied rush of vessels toward the terminals and leaving the places create a veritable river traffic gridlock. Since they have to make their way through water, they cannot use their brakes on emergencies, like when another vessel is discovered taking suddenly a wrong turn and begins careening at the front of a large vessel.

Gridlocks created by vessels moving or taking turns unpredictably are common scenarios around terminals nowadays. A remarkable number of them result in both minor and fatal accidents. Experts are unanimous on one point: the unabated rise in the number of both cargo and passenger vehicles; and the absence of any powerful agency to streamline the movement of rule-flouting and compulsively errant vessels.

Every year, a hundred people on average die in river vessel accidents in Bangladesh. According to a media report published in 2021, inland vessel accidents killed nearly 4,000 people in Bangladesh the previous 30 years. River accidents do not involve only the loss of lives and cases of missing. Due to economic losses incurred by river port-based traders using various waterways, the journeys often turn dreadful. Of late, the accidents mainly occur due to various reasons. They range from nor'westers, rooky operators at the driving seat of both cargo ships and passenger launches, vessels hitting underwater shoals created by sand lifting and river drying. It is the 'sarengs' and 'sukanis' who are supposed to play the greatest role in operating the vessels safely. The river transport movement experts home in on the reckless manoeuvring of the vessels as the chief culprit. Collisions of vessels caused by both reckless and shaky driving are a new addition. Unless stringent rules are framed and enforced effectively, the river vessels in the country cannot be expected to be a secure means of passenger and cargo movement.


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