Right under the authorities' noses, unskilled drivers have been operating unregistered speedboats on the Padma's Shimulia-Bangla Bazar route for over a decade.
The issue has come into the limelight after one such motorboat crashed into a sand-laden bulk carrier near Bangla Bazar Ferry Ghat in Madaripur's Shibchar upazila on Monday morning, leaving 26 passengers, including women and children, dead.
Sources in the Shimulia Ferry Terminal in Munshiganj said around 400 speedboats are operated on the route, flouting the safety rules.
Only a few of them have registrations while the rest are operating illegally, said an official of the Department of Shipping (DoS), a government body authorised to regulate the country's water transports.
The drivers do not have any institutional training or license. They move up the ladder from a driver's assistant to becoming the driver after a few days of gathering experience, said multiple sources in the Shimulia terminal.
After the accident on Monday, the local administration, law enforcement agencies, DoS and Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) are busy trading blame over the malpractice.
Talking to The Daily Star, Manjurul Kabir, chief engineer and ship surveyor of DoS, said registration of a speedboat is a must before it starts plying the country's waterways.
He also said drivers will not apply for their licences unless the relevant law is strictly enforced. The responsibility of enforcing laws falls upon law enforcers and other government bodies concerned, he said.
"It is our collective failure that we have not been able to force all the speedboats to complete registration," he added.
As per the Inland Shipping Ordinance, 1976, the owner and the driver of unregistered waterway transportscan be handed two years' imprisonment or Tk 2 lakh in fine, said BIWTA officials.
Munshiganj Deputy Commissioner (DC) Moniruzzaman Talukder said the BIWTA is responsible to check the malpractice. The naval police and the coast guards will enforce the relevant law if any unregistered speedboat is operated, he added.
"Nevertheless, we have directed the local administration officials to ensure that unregistered vessels, including speedboats, are stopped from plying the Shimulia-Bangla Bazar route. The BIWTA, however, did not seek any cooperation from us," he added.
Contacted, Sirajul Kabir, in-charge of naval police at Mawa of Munshiganj, said his department does not have the authority to stop operations of such unregistered speedboats.
Rather, the terminal is "controlled" by the BIWTA and the leaseholder, he said, adding, "We have asked them [the BIWTA and the leaseholder] to stop such speedboats and train all drivers. But we have not received any response yet."
Earlier on Monday, Lt Ashmadul Islam, commander of the coast guard's Pagla station in Narayanganj, told The Daily Star they are only responsible for ensuring safety measures like wearing of life-jackets and controlling overloading. The BIWTA is responsible for the overall services, he said.
Asked, BIWTA Assistant Director Md Shahdat Hossain said, "It is not possible only for the BIWTA to stop the malpractice. Rather, we need cooperation from all including police, coast guards and local administration.
"We have even asked naval police, coast guards and the leaseholder to take necessary measures so that speedboats cannot operate during the ongoing lockdown. But no action was taken," he said.
Contacted, Ashraf Hossain, elder brother of the terminal leaseholder Shah Alam Khan, said the process of registering speedboats was initiated a few years ago, but the initiative did not see any progress due to a lack of cooperation from speedboat owners and workers.
Meanwhile, a case was filed against four persons in connection with Monday's accident with Shibchar Police Station in Madaripur.
The accused are Shimulia ferry terminal's leaseholder Shah Alam Khan, the owners of the speedboat involved in the accident Chandu Miah and Jahurul Islam and the motorboat's driver Shah Alam, said police.
The driver is undergoing treatment at Dhaka Medical College Hospital under police surveillance. The three others are on the run, said Miraz Hossain, officer in-charge (OC) of the police station.