• Friday, December 19, 2014

Freedom in the air

Routine tragedies on rivers

Adnan Morshed

It is gut-wrenching to imagine the primal fear the passengers of MV Pinak-6 felt before the ill-fated vessel vanished in the swollen waters of the Padma. Seeing the brief video of the launch's quick sinking provides any viewer with a visceral experience of death. After his heroic rescue effort, a speedboat operator broke down because he couldn't save a 10-year old kid, who pleaded for his life as he was drowning.

Yet, I kept wondering about the unrealised Padma bridge. If the much politicised project had been completed, many of the Pinak-6 passengers would have most likely taken the bus route. They didn't have to risk their lives in an overloaded launch, operating stubbornly despite the warnings of inclement weather.

The Pinak-6 disaster reminds us how remote the southern part of the country remains even after four decades of independence. The people of this region continue to suffer because a bridge couldn't be built for reasons that are a national disgrace. If constructed, the 6.15-km bridge will connect over twenty southern districts to capital Dhaka directly. It is estimated that the bridge would increase the country's GDP by 1.2%.

I have traveled many times to Barisal by road and crossed the Padma in precarious conditions. Some people and I got lucky, but the passengers of Pinak-6 and many vessels that had sunk before didn't. Once, crossing the Padma from Maoa Ghat by a speedboat, I experienced firsthand the terror of drowning. Typically, rickety ferries and launches cram as much human cargo as possible and leave them at the mercy of nature. River disasters in Bangladesh are often not accidents, but results of reckless negligence by both launch owners and the authorities.

Politically, the task of building the Padma bridge appears to be an impossible undertaking. However, if corruption and political shenanigans disappeared in an ideal world, the bridge is actually not that expensive, nor is it difficult to build.

Let's contextualise. According to the latest estimate, the bridge's construction cost would be approximately $1.6 billion. Compare this price with the yearly monetary loss due to Dhaka's traffic congestion: $3.8 billion (excluding less-tangible losses in quality of life). By managing Dhaka's traffic conundrum for a year, we can actually build two Padma bridges! On another front, Bangladeshi's remittance inflow in July 2014 alone was $1.48 billion. Money isn't the roadblock to getting things done; our national lack of management skills and an entrenched culture of corruption are. All it would take is political courage to corral a group of honest bureaucrats to realise the Padma bridge.

Building a bridge, of course, doesn't mean the policy of ensuring safety in water transportation has to be overlooked. Bangladesh is literally a 'liquid' geography of rivers, canals, and wetlands. Yet, we have not developed a modern culture of living harmoniously with water. Harmony means incorporating the nature of water and its seasonal behaviour into the ways we plan to live our lives and build river-based transportation systems. Harmony is designing and regulating naval vessels that can withstand the demands or quirks of a riverine geography. Inherited from the Mughals and the British, our planning attitude, unfortunately, has always been to cherish land as revenue-generator and fear water as enemy.

Our continued misunderstanding of water's role in the country's geographic existence has routinely led to yearly river disasters. Examples abound. A double-decker launch called Atlas Star sank in 1986 killing nearly 500 people. MV Shamia capsized in 1986 in the River Meghna. The death toll was one of the worst in human history: 600 people. MV Dinar sank in 1994 and 300 souls were lost. A ferry disaster in 1999 killed 200 people. Two ferries collided in 2000. At least 178 people were killed. MV Salauddin-2 sank in the river Meghna in 2002 and 370 people perished. MV Nasreen-I, a triple-decked vessel traveling from Dhaka to Lalmohan carrying 750 passengers and a large volume of cargo, far exceeding its capacity, capsized at the confluence of the Padma, the Meghna, and the Dakatia. Over 500 people died.

As tragic as it sounds, Pinak-6 is this year's entry for river disasters in Bangladesh. Launches will sink next year and the year after and the year after, unless and until the bureaucracy of river transportation changes. In 2002, the government indeed sought to tighten safety standards after the sinking of MV Salauddin-2. Nothing changed.

There is a pattern. History tells us that launches sink during the monsoon season due to turbulent waters, often exacerbated by the overloading of passengers. Some launches sink during winter months due to collisions in conditions of poor visibility, as well as tropical storms.

It is time the Pinak-6 tragedy provoked some soul-searching.

First, why always rearguard actions? There are jittery reactions from the authority after launches sink, and then a week or so later everything goes back to normal. What stops prior actions, so that future disasters could be averted? The authorities have charged the Pinak-6 owners with culpable homicide. It is a predictable, dead-end, and rearguard response that prevents nothing from happening in the future. Enacting and enforcing river safety laws should be the policy priority instead. Yes, accidents happen everywhere. But, in Bangladesh, conditions are always ripe for accidents to happen.

Second, safety in rivers must be a shared responsibility. Why do passengers risk their lives by getting on a launch that is literally tilting with the weight of excessive passengers and cargo? Yes, there are way too many people and too few launches. But what is more important? Your life or getting to the destination? As much as the authorities and launch owners ought to play their part in safety, passengers must also exercise their civic responsibility by not undertaking unsafe river journeys. They must demand and help the enforcement of laws by abiding by laws. A culture of reverence for laws can never be fostered by top-down government interventions.

Third, as politically incorrect as it may sound, there is a class element, understood but seldom spoken about, that often frames the popular perception of river tragedies. I have not come across a serious study of economic profiles of river disaster victims in Bangladesh (possibly because launch owners don't maintain passenger logbooks). However, news reports and visual evidences suggest that most victims come from the lower economic strata of society. These tragedies generate distant middle-class sympathies in the media but hardly prod the nation's collective conscience and its body politic. Except for the relatives of dead passengers, it is a sad spectacle that people have become accustomed to seeing every year. It is, thus, easy for a minister to hide behind a peculiarly hubristic fatalism: Allah'r mal Allah niyeche (God has taken back his creations). 

It is time to build the Padma bridge. It is time we understood the phenomenology of our rivers and ensured the safety of river transportation as culture. It is time we treated all our citizens fairly and justly. Recurring river disasters due to criminal negligence should be seen as violations of human rights.

 

The writer is Associate Professor of Architecture and Planning in Washington, DC, and author of Oculus: A Decade of Insights into Bangladeshi Affairs.

Published: 12:00 am Sunday, August 10, 2014

Last modified: 9:49 pm Saturday, August 09, 2014

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