IN a country that stumbles upon calamity, mostly man-made, with unerring regularity and embraces disaster with disturbing stoicism, death's sting has long been blunted. For disaster-prone Bangladesh, the blows came in came quick succession. Before people could recover from the shock and grief of a launch disaster that claimed 15 lives when a launch carrying about 60 passengers sank in the Golachipa river during a nor'wester on May 3, another passenger launch M.V. Miraj-4 heading for Shariatpur carrying about 250 to 300 passengers went down in Meghna in Munshiganj on May 15 -- the second launch capsize in just two weeks. According to local administration and fire service quoting locals, around 40 to 50 people could swim to the shore, and death toll stood at about 150. But the saddest part is that, despite availability of two modern rescue vessels, efforts to raise the launch took about 48 hours.
In most of the launch disasters, it is evident that human factors like launch owner's indifference and greed, and the launch driver's incompetence and tendency to flout navigational rules heightened the scale of tragedies. Reports from the survivors of MV Miraj-4, revealed that the launch driver's incompetence, or rather over-confidence, caused the accident. As a violent storm was brewing, passengers requested the captain of the launch to drop anchor at the nearest shore. But he turned a deaf ear to their entreaties, and the vessel sank during the storm.
Launch disasters are not new, especially in the Dhaka-Barisal, Dhaka-Chandpur and Dhaka-Sharitpur routes in the monsoon season. It is evident that these disasters happen in the month of May when nor'westers batter the coastal region, taking heavy toll of lives on the waterways. With sophistication and innovation in vessel construction lacking, the riverine districts weathered disaster after disaster, and hundreds met a watery death. Even though the country faced catastrophes regularly in the last 12 years, the deaths and disasters could hardly sensitise or jolt the administration to action.
The problem isn't one of resources, but one of leadership, motivation and political will, which are appallingly missing. All these disasters, which have become annual events, reinforce our belief that there is something awfully wrong in the whole system of administration in the inland water transportation sector.
It's no use picturing these tragedies as acts of nature and taking refuge in the old saying that humans are just pawns in the hand of nature. Several thousand people met watery graves in the last one decade while we frittered away our energy and money in grandiose projects that never saw the light of day. In spite of the improvements in digital technology, there is no system to disseminate navigational and meteorological information to the inland water vessels till now.
The concerned ministry has failed to check the river fitness of the vessels plying the waterways of the southern part of the country. Shockingly, both the officials and the owners of the launches have always closed their eyes to the carrying capacity of the vessels and the engine condition that must be compatible with the load. It has been reported that M.V. Miraj-4, was declared unfit because of its infrastructure incompatibility, but it plied on the river routes taking advantage of the special permission accorded by the ministry of shipping in 2008 to about 57 vessels. And the inevitable has happened.
Other than the incompatibility factor arising from loss of equilibrium due to overloading and flawed design, incompetence of the vessel operators and shoddy inspection of vehicle fitness are largely to blame for the frequent disasters we are facing in the river routes. It was reported that M.V. Miraj-4 was being operated by a novice replacement driver on that fateful evening.
Whatever the cost factor, no launch should be allowed to ply on the rivers without adequate number of buoys tallying with the number of passengers on board. Rules are not strictly enforced and navigational permits are reportedly given in exchange of kickbacks. Most importantly, there is a big question mark about the skill and experience of the drivers of about 8,000 launches operating in the country. Most accidents occurred because of the total absence of training facilities of the drivers.
The job for the present shipping minister seems to be exacting, because he needs all the political and administrative acumen to extricate himself from the fall-out of the two recent disasters. In view of the colossal loss of lives and alarming frequency of disasters, the government must without further delay enforce mandatory provision of marine insurance before floating a launch in the river. The measure will automatically discourage overloading of passengers and unhealthy competition in the river routes.
Unfortunately, as the scale of tragedies -- both man-made and natural -- increased during the last ten years, so did our apathy before and after accidents on the highways, fire incidents in factories and launch disasters in the river routes. They were mostly preventable. Yet we never learned our lessons. We have become inured to the sight of human suffering. The big question in people's minds is whether they were natural disasters or accidents due to human negligence.
Most of the launch owners are high profile businessmen who have substantial clout in politics. But it seems that the shipping minister would rather not walk in the corridors where politics is played. Otherwise, how come the recommendations of the enquiry committees formed after every disaster have not been implemented till now?
Preventing accidents is most crucial and must take precedence over anything else. People are inclined to believe that all these accidents happened because of the shoddy construction and faulty design of the vessels, and the corrupt practices resorted to. The question that strikes the public mind is, shouldn't the officials who closed their eyes to what was going on be punished?
The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.