Sun, Jul 20, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Bangladesh focuses on boat tragedies

REUTERS , DHAKA

Ten days after more than 400 people drowned in yet another ferry disaster, Bangladeshis are asking if authorities will ever do anything to improve safety in an industry that claims hundreds of lives every year.

"Ferry accidents have been more common than anything else in Bangladesh but unfortunately there is hardly any useful or tangible move to avert them," said Shaidul Islam, a Dhaka University teacher.

"But why? This is a question remaining unanswered for decades. And no one seems really worried about it."

Are ordinary citizens in one of the world's most impoverished countries simply not confident enough to press for a genuine solution or do they just not have sufficient faith in successive governments and in the legal system to bother?

The latest disaster occurred on July 8 when the triple-decker M.V. Nasreen was sucked into a whirlpool at a confluence of rivers near Chandpur, 170km southeast of the capital, Dhaka.

Over 600 people were aboard the vessel -- licensed to carry just 300 -- when it went down. Only around 200 people swam to safety or were rescued.

Ferry accidents are a frequent occurrence in Bangladesh and industry experts say only around 8,000 of 20,000 ferries that operate on Bangladesh's vast waterways are registered. Just 800 have fitness certificates.

Yet there have been no reports of ferries being stopped from operating or their owners penalized despite a succession of relevant authorities promising stern action after each accident.

The government on Wednesday suspended the chief engineer of its department of shipping and replaced a group of transport officials at Dhaka's Sadarghat ferry terminal.

Shipping minister Akbar Hossain said the previous incumbents would be prosecuted for negligence and punished if found guilty.

Ferry owner Jahangir Alam says some officials take backhanders to issue fitness certificates and licenses for vessels that are not shipshape.

Many ferry crews supplement incomes by selling tickets to as many people as are prepared to risk their lives on a trip -- regardless of how many the vessel is registered to carry.

"This is well-known to everybody, but hardly anyone takes action to stop this practice," he said.

"Nevertheless, there are some people in the navigation industry who want the business to run properly. But they are a minority and cannot force the others to respect the law," he said.

It isn't as if the laws don't exist. Lawyers say ferry accidents would be dramatically reduced if existing marine laws were observed.

"But it has not been the case, partly because families of ferry disaster victims dislike going through lengthy legal processes that also involve substantial expense," a lawyer said.

Transport union leaders blame irresponsible ferry owners and officials for river accidents.

"We ask them to abide by the law and keep adequate safety tools aboard. But they won't," said Chowdhury Ashikul Alam, a union leader. "They just care for money."

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