Extortionists rule river route
Idhan Mia has been operating a trawler carrying construction materials from Sunamganj to Dhaka for the last five years. But now he gets scared each time he is hired to navigate a vessel on this river route because of wholesale extortion allegedly by police and local goons.
"On the waterway from Jamalganj in Sunamganj to Kanchpur in Narayanganj, we now often fall victim to extortionists," Idhan told The Daily Star on board his trawler as he watched his workers unloading pebbles.
The extortionists are comprised of a section of police and goons of different lessees of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authorities (BIWTA), claimed the 25-year-old trawler crew.
His claim was seconded by an association representing the trawler owners.
Idhan said he faced extortionists in the past, but those were stray incidents. What is happening now is a systematic way to rob pebble traders, he added.
He went on to say the extortionists travel by boats at different points of the waterways, cling to boats carrying commercial materials, forcibly climb up on board and start hurling abusive words wielding locally made weapons to collect tolls.
A refusal can be fatal for the crew members.
Besides, they also have to pay different amount to police at different points, he added.
The range of total amount for a trip varies, but on average they have to pay Tk 5,000, Idhan said.
This is happening to all 3,000-plus trawlers carrying construction materials and coals from Sylhet, Chhatak and Tahirpur in Sunamganj and Jamalpur to Dhaka and other parts of the country, says Bulkhead Naujan Malik Samity that represents the owners of such boats.
Samity President Tofazzal Hossain Badal said, "I along with other leaders went to the deputy commissioners concerned and even to the BIWTA chairman for their intervention in vain."
The association enforced a strike on January 3-4 on the waterway at Dighirpar, Bajitpur in Kishoreganj to protest against extortion, he said. During the strike local lawmaker Afzol Hossain, the DC and police officials requested them to call off the programme assuring them of checking extortion, he added.
In presence of more than 1,000 aggrieved owners and workers, the lawmaker pledged to check extortion within 15 days with the help of the authorities concerned, Badal said, adding, the situation, however, remains the same.
Though the government earns huge revenue from the sector involving over five lakh workers, the authorities concerned have paid no heed to their cries, he added.
Idhan with the help of three crew members recollected the toll points, "We paid Tk 200 in Jamalganj from where we started on Friday. At each of around 15 points we had to pay Tk 20 to Tk 50 in Itna, Pachhat, Dhanpur, Lipsa, Singpur and Elengjury and Tk 500 to BIWTA's lessee in Meghna police station area.
"We paid Tk 200 to Tk 500 at each of five to six points in an area of around two kilometres at Mukterpur in Narayanganj. Besides these, we paid police at several points," he continued.
On the three-day journey, he paid police Tk 50 at Meghna Bridge, Tk 30 to Bajitpur police, Tk 20 to Sarail police, Tk 40 to Bhairab police, Tk 90 at two points to Banchharampur police and Tk 200 at two points to Narsingdi police, he claimed.
Talking to The Daily Star, Superintendent of Police Mir Rezaul Alam denied police involvement in extortion and claimed some people in the name of owners' and workers' associations are committing the crimes.
He said the police on January 28 arrested four such extortionists in Itna in the act of collecting toll.
During a visit to Shimrail ghat at Kanchpur, some money receipts issued by lessees of BITWA were found that did not mention the amount or purpose of realising the money.
BIWTA Deputy Director (Operations) Mohammad Sultan Ahmed said, "Lease holders have no right to realise toll when a water vessel crosses the river. But if it halts, loads or unloads goods at a lessee's area, the concerned lease holder is entitled to realise the government-fixed toll."
However, the receipt must mention the amount of toll and the purpose of it, he added.
Speaking anonymously, a BIWTA high official said as most of the lease holders are local ruling party men, they cannot take action against them in case of any violation of rules.