DESPITE many deaths from launch accidents, no effective passenger safety measures are in place. Irregularities in inland waterways, as shown in a photograph published in New Age on Friday, are in plain sight. The photograph shows that a single-deck launch and a speedboat carrying passengers beyond capacity in the River Padma in Munshiganj. Many fatal accidents occurred in recent times from similar kind of violation of passenger safety rules. In September 2016, in a collision between an overcrowded launch and trawler in Barisal, 25 people were killed. According to records of the shipping department, at least 4,420 people have been killed and 520 people injured, and 400 people have gone missing in more than 550 launch accidents since 1979. This is a conservatively estimated casualty and the list has not been updated for years. After each accident, a few investigations are instituted and promises made, but no real changes take place in the river transport sector. In January 2002–July 2013, only five to seven investigation reports were made public following some major waterway accidents. Almost all the recommendations towards putting an end to such loss of lives remain unimplemented. Therefore, the photograph published in New Age portrays an alarming negligence and indifference on part of the shipping department and the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority.
Fatal accidents continue to occur either because the launches were unfit or overloaded, collision with other vessels or structures and untrained people running vessels. Accidents happen also because there are no sufficient alternative for passengers or authorities to take action. Since a large number of vessels ply river routes without any valid documents, there is no reason to believe that licensed drivers would be employed to operate them. Moreover, there are only three government training centres — in Narayanganj, Barisal and Madaripur — to train inland deck and engine personnel, which is way below the demand. It is also reported that higher authorities in the sector are themselves involved in water transport sector and their alleged conflict of interest often pose hurdles to implementing passenger safety rules. This unholy alliance between water transport owners and regulatory authorities often become an obstacle to investigations of any accidents. According to a platform working for safe waterway, the reports of 863 committees formed to investigate 535 accidents were not made public. At the same time, the recommendations of the committees have hardly been implemented by the government. As a result, these accidents continue to recur in the waterways.
All the authorities concerned must, therefore, immediately stop the plying of unfit launches, and strictly monitor the fitness certification process for water transport by increasing the number of ship surveyors and inspectors in the shipping department, bring all the inland vessels under marine insurance, and arrange formal training for the drivers. In order to make the changes happen, the modernisation of the Inland Shipping Ordinance 1976 is also necessary.
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