The Al-Aswad – a lighter vessel – was carrying corns to Dhaka's Sadarghat from its mother vessel in the outer anchorage of the Chattogram port. But, on its way, extortionists intercepted the ship at Shaora Bikon, Lakshmipur.
Three armed men stopped the ship and demanded money from its captain, making off with Tk35,000 from the captain. Extortionists took more money from the Al-Aswad at four more points along the way.
The vessel paid an additional Tk5,000 at Horina Ferryghat, and Tk5,000 more at three other areas, including Chandpur and Mohonpur's Kanchikata area.
In this way, the lighter vessel had to pay total Tk45,000 in extortion from the outer anchorage of Chattogram port to Sadarghat terminal in Dhaka.
All sorts of cargo vessels, including lighter ships, oil tankers and bulkheads, have to pay between Tk30,000 and Tk50,000 to racketeers on all domestic water routes.
Kazi Nazrul Islam, captain of the Al-Aswad, said they are often harassed while carrying goods to different destinations. "Sometimes, robbers hold us hostage to loot our money and necessary belongings."
Lighter vessels reportedly have to pay Tk30,000 to extortionists on the Chattogram-Chhatak and Chattogram-Baghabari routes, and Tk50,000 on the Hiron Point route of the Sundarbans.
Importers said the amount of money they have to pay in extortion is added to the cost of the goods. They, however, expressed concerns over the increasing costs of carrying goods on domestic routes.
On Wednesday, four organisations, including the Bangladesh Lighterage Sramik Union, abstained from work at Chattogram port to press home their 15-point demands, including a stop to extortion and robbery on waterways.
Md Nurunnabi Bhuiyan, the senior vice president of the Bangladesh Lighterage Sramik Union, said every ship is compelled to pay the extortion money while crossing Shaora Bikon area of Lakshmipur.
"Robbers at these areas cast fishing nets in front of goods-carrying vessels. Later, they claim Tk20,000 to Tk50,000 in compensation on a pretence that their nets have been damaged. The armed plunderers come down on ship masters and crews if they deny," he said.
"We have drawn the attention of the administration in this regard, but that has gone in vain. We have no other way but to go on a strike," he added.
However, later at night, they called the strike off.
Bangaldesh Water Vessel Sramik League President Omar Faruque said, "We withdrew the strike following the assurance of the labour and employment minister. We hope that the ministry will meet our demands within a short time."
How goods' prices rise
Every day, each mother vessel has to count around Tk6 lakh to nearly Tk13 lakh ($7,000 to $15,000) to stay at the Chattogram port. If the products are not released in time, importing costs increase, eventually raising prices of the products.
Meanwhile, the cost of transporting goods from the mother vessel to different destinations by lighter vessels has risen significantly over the past 10 years.
Many captains of lighter vessels said the cost has increased to Tk30,000 to Tk50,000 which was Tk5,000 to Tk10,000 earlier. But the amount reaches Tk1,00,000 to Tk5,00,000 if the ships are robbed.
"The government should take steps to immediately stop extortion on river routes, said Mahbubul Alam," the president of the Chattogram Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
"On the other hand, the strikers should refrain from hampering operation activities in the port, he said," adding that the port should be functional all the time because a less stay by a ship at the port will ensure low prices of imported goods.