With the Eid approaching, there's a growing fear that unscrupulous launch owners will operate unfit vessels to cash in on the huge rush of passengers, putting numerous lives at risk.
Like every other year, many rundown vessels were going through extensive repairs, apparently botched, at different dockyards in Keraniganj on the outskirts of the capital, this correspondent found during a recent visit there.
As per law, ship surveyors of the Department of Shipping (DoS) issue registration and annual fitness certificates after surveying vessels. No unregistered vessel can get route permit from Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA).
Traffic inspectors of the BIWTA are responsible for checking the route permit when a vessel anchors at a port.
Dhaka is home to around 160 million people and a large number of them, if not most, go to their native areas outside the city to celebrate the biggest Muslim festival with their near ones.
"As the home rush gets momentum ahead of Eid, some owners engage in underhand dealings with [BIWTA] traffic inspectors to get clearance to operate unregistered and unfit vessels," said a DoS official.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes most of these unfit vessels ply on different inter-district routes outside Dhaka as Sadarghat, the key launch terminal of the country, in the capital remains under strict monitoring of both the government and the media.
Prof Mir Tareque Ali of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology said the process of examining vessels' fitness is faulty and most of the times, vessels are not even properly inspected.
As a result, numerous lives are put at risk, especially during this time of the year as the vessels are mostly overcrowded.
For example, Pinak-6 capsized in the Padma river in August last year, just couple of days after the Eid-ul-Azha, claiming at least 48 lives. Sixty-two others still remain missing and are feared dead.
The launch had no valid fitness certificate and was carrying passengers more than twice its capacity.
In May last year, 55 lives perished after MV Miraj-4 sank in the Meghna during a storm. Later, a probe found the launch's faulty design as being a key reason behind the tragedy.
At least 147 lives were lost after MV Shariatpur-1 sank in the Meghna in March 2012 due to overcrowding and structural faults in the vessel.
According to DoS data, 180 people on an average die every year in accidents in waterways.
However, the average was put at 326 by National Committee to Protect Shipping, Roads and Railways (NCPSRR) -- a non-government organisation.
So, what are the authorities doing to ensure safety of the passengers?
"We are very much cautious about passengers' safety. No unregistered vessels will be allowed to ply. Stern actions will be taken against any traffic inspector, if found involved in corruption," said Bholanath Dey, member (planning and operation) of the BIWTA.
Badiuzzaman Badal, senior vice-chairman of Bangladesh Inland Waterways (Passenger Carriers) Association said, "We can assure you that no unfit vessel will operate during the Eid rush."
"We have given strict directives to all the launch owners not to operate any unregistered or unfit vessel," he told The Daily Star.
According to DoS statistics, there are over 750 registered passenger vessels in Bangladesh.
However, the DoS officials could not say anything on the number of unregistered ones. The NCPSRR claims at least 9,000 unregistered vessels operate on different inter-district routes of the country.