The latest tragedy of launch capsize in Meghna has added another fatal event and more dead bodies in the long list of dreadful accidents and loss of life in our waterways. It has become a regular phenomenon in summer. After every accident, the government shows off some rescue operations, though belated and inefficient, forms committees, seeks recommendations from experts and finally, after few weeks, goes into hibernation again only to be woken up by another accident. One wonders how many dead bodies will be enough to make the government machinery sensitive to people's demand for a safe waterway?
On December 29, 2000, a passenger launch, M.V. Rajhangshi, capsised in the River Meghna upstream of Chandpur following a head-on collision with another passenger launch Jolkopot-2. The accident claimed 162 lives, all were on board Rajhangshi. The government constituted a committee to investigate into the accident. The committee submitted a comprehensive report, the first of its kind, in which it recommended steps for prevention of accidents, which included fitness of the vessel and efficiency of the crew. Since then, following every accident, at least-50 committees were constituted and specific recommendations were made by those committees, but very few have been implemented. In light of the recent launch capsize in Munshiganj, I want to reiterate some recommendations that should be implemented immediately.
The government did not learn anything from such marine accidents, nor were the private sector operators motivated in any way to enhance the fitness of their vessels or safety of their customers. It was recommended that an independent standing Investigation cell be constituted by the government to find out the causes of accidents, and regulatory steps be taken to remove those causes in future. This was not implemented, nor any was step taken by any government since 2000. On the contrary, committees are constituted with the personnel who are involved in the safety administration.
Survey and safety
Passenger launches have many areas that need to be looked into. The committees recommended that a team consisting of master mariner, marine engineer and naval architect should be engaged for surveying a vessel. At present, surveying is done by one person. From the number of vessels he has to survey it is clear that it is quite impossible to do a methodical survey. In almost every case, it was revealed after the accident that the launch was not built according to approved design. The surveyor's statement was that at the time of survey it was according to design, and it was modified or altered after the survey without his knowledge.
The Committee recommended a strong and independent inspectorate for strengthening the safety administration under the direct supervision of the Director General, Shipping. But, in fact, only four inspectors -- against approved eight -- work under the surveyors and they do not see anything wrong in the survey.
Recommendations regarding monitoring of passenger launches were partially implemented with introduction of a voyage declaration from the port of origin containing number of passengers, life saving devices, names of masters and drivers, etc. But this is mere paperwork. This declaration cannot be authenticated any way. Further, after departure from the port of origin, loading and unloading at wayside stations or from midstream cannot be monitored.
Training of the crew
This is the greyest area. For a competency certificate of mastership or drivership only experience is required. Comprehensive module of training is yet to be prepared for obtaining such competency. Though the members of the crew are interested in on-the-job training, the owners do not want to give their crew training along with pay. There are two institutions for deck side and engine side crew but those are underutilised. Private sector owners are not interested in engaging the cadets passing out from those institutions.
Dissemination of information
Dissemination of navigational and met information to the inland vessels on the move is still primitive. Met department partially implemented a project for this purpose without any benefit. There is no system to disseminate digital hydrographic chart prepared by BIWTA to those vessels.
The writer is a former Secretary, BIWTA.