Labony Akhter shedding tears on her uncle Shahidul Islam's shoulder at Mawa ferry terminal yesterday. She lost three members of her family -- her sister Rozina Akhter, aunt Ayesha Akhter, and cousin Sara Islam -- when Pinak-6 went down. The uncle in the picture had managed to swim ashore. Photo: Anisur Rahman
Each time a launch capsizes claiming lots of lives, a probe committee would be formed and in some instances, a case would be filed, but the probe findings would ultimately be shelved and the perpetrators would go scot-free.
This has become a common occurrence in the country and there has been no solace or rightful compensation for the family members of thousands of people killed in launch disasters in the country over the last two decades.
Hundreds of probe committees had been formed during this period and only a few cases were lodged with the country's lone Marine Court, said a court official requesting anonymity.
Some 35 launch accident cases are now pending with the court which is ill-equipped in absence of marine experts (assessors). The experts assist the judge in trying a case, he added.
A lawyer at the court, Md Jahangir Hossain said after an inquiry into a launch accident, the authorities concerned require the approval of the director general of Department of Shipping for filing a case with the Marine Court.
“It depends on the government's willingness whether a case would be filed or not…. As there is no assessor at the Marine Court, the accused often file appeals with the higher courts and secure acquittal,” he pointed out.
Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan said it takes years to dispose of a case at the lone Marine Court. The court lacked mandatory marine experts due to a shortage of such specialists, he claimed.
All the Marine Court verdicts drag for years in appeals with higher courts, said Jahangir.
According to shipping ministry statistics, there had been 393 launch accidents in the country in the last 25 years, including the sinking of Pinak-6 in the Padma on Monday. The disasters claimed around 3,700 lives while another 490 went missing.
However, private organisation National Committee to Protect River, Road and Railway, put the death toll at around 5,500 and 1,500 missing in 658 launch tragedies over the last two decades.
The government so far filed 308 accident cases with the Marine Court. The accused in 187 cases were either handed imprisonment or fine, while the rest of the cases were either dismissed or pending.
According to Inland Shipping Ordinance, 1976, the court can hand down a convict a maximum jail term of five years or a maximum fine of Tk 50,000.
The government formed over 500 probe committees, but only three probe reports have been made public, said official sources.
On making the probe findings public, the shipping minister said the government will publish all the reports if anyone asks for it.
The probe committees had been invariably dominated by non-technical bureaucrats. Besides, the bodies included no independent technical experts despite the fact that the entire issue of vessel capsize is technical in nature.
Any technical person either at the shipping department or Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) is involved someway or the other in the approval and operation of a vessel. So they are not supposed to reveal their own faults, said a BIWTA official.
He added: If any probe report holds the negligence and malpractice of some officials responsible for a launch accident, the accused start lobbying with the committee members and department high-ups or reach some underhand deals with them to shelve the report.
BIWTA Chairman Md Samsuddoha Khandaker said, “I've to look into the office records to say how many accident probe reports have been shelved and why.”
The government, said the shipping minister, this year has identified 21,000 unregistered passenger and cargo vessels plying the waterways in six districts alone. The government doesn't take any responsibility for loss or damage of life and property from those vessels, he added.