Launch operators have been going through hard times as the number of passengers on river routes from Dhaka to Barishal and Shariatpur has plunged drastically to less than half following the opening of the Padma Bridge.
In contrast, the number of passengers on bus routes has jumped rapidly - up to 200% - as people are now eager to save time and enjoy the beauty of the much-cherished bridge.
"Most launches are operating with passengers at half their capacity from both ends. Sometimes the number of passengers has dropped to less than 50% after the bridge opened," said Nizam Uddin, owner of Adventure Launch, which operates on the Dhaka-Barishal route.
"We had assumed a drop of up to 20% after the bridge opening. But the over 50% drop is beyond our imagination," he said, adding that launch owners sat in a meeting on Saturday to consider ways and means of attracting more passengers.
Operators on the Dhaka-Barishal river route have lowered fares yet could not keep passengers in their desired numbers.
"We had around 600 passengers on our last trip against the capacity of around 1,500," said Rakibul Islam Sohel, director of Manami, a passenger river vessel, adding that most launches have passenger capacity from 1,200 to 2,000.
"We have to suffer losses on each trip from both ends due to the rapid decline in passengers. On some trips, we get 40% passengers against the capacity," he said, adding that one is not sure whether passenger numbers are declining permanently or for the time being.
The launch operators expect to get fewer passengers compared to earlier times as many people are now going by road to get new experience of travelling through the Padma Bridge.
To keep the river route in use, launch owners have demanded the removal of all the hassles for passengers from the Sadarghat and Barishal launch ghats immediately. They said passenger entrance tolls at terminals and tolls on goods should be exempted.
At present, each passenger has to pay Tk10 to enter both Barishal and Dhaka terminals and the tolls depend on the weight and size of goods.
"I am still on the launch for its comfort though we have to face some problems at the launch ghats, including harassment by porters if we have any loads with us," said Golam Bari Khan, the principal of Rajapur Government College who often uses river routes.
Launch operators say they are working to develop the services to make the journey more comfortable and enjoyable in a bid to attract passengers again.
On the other hand, buses have seen a jump in passengers on the Dhaka-Barishal route, according to bus operators.
Green Line Paribahan is now operating buses from both ends from 6am to 12.30am while BRTC buses are plying the route every hour between 6am and 6pm.
"Now we are getting a large number of passengers. Sometimes we even have to arrange buses every half an hour. Our tickets are relatively cheaper than other operators as we are charging Tk500 for AC service against Tk750-1,000 by private operators," said
Jahangir Hossain, manager of BRTC Barishal depot, adding that they had earlier got around 500 passengers but it has now increased to between 1,000 and 1500 passengers.
"It is the easiest and time-saving journey for me. I started my journey from Barishal at 6am and reached Dhaka by 10am. I could easily get to my office in time," said Sajjadul Haque, a director of Zamzam Nursing College in Barishal.
"I am going to Dhaka by bus to enjoy the beauty of the bridge and to get a new experience," said Jamal Hossain, a businessman of the city who usually goes by launch.
The launch owners and management on the Dhaka-Shariatpur routes have introduced a roster system to facilitate all the launches to get benefits, which move has also proved fruitless.
Launch owners association sources said that at least 10,000-12,000 passengers used to travel by launch on the three routes with Shariatpur daily, which would increase manifold during the festival seasons. The routes are Shariatpur-Sadarghat, Shariatpur-Chandpur and Shariatpur-Narayanganj.
The passengers of Shariatpur travel by 20 big launches, using 14 terminals and ghats on the Sadarghat, Narayanganj and Chandpur routes.
Besides, over one lakh passengers travel through the Shimulia-Majhirghat-Banglabazar routes by 87 small-size launches, each of which has 15 to 20 staff.
Noria-2 launch owner Milon Laskar told TBS that after the inauguration of the Padma Bridge, the passenger number on this route had fallen drastically. Even the roster system could manage only half of the launches with fewer passengers on board.
"Cabins are almost empty. It is impossible to manage the staff with the earnings from the deck passengers. Earlier, we could have earned at least Tk10,000 to Tk15,000 daily from which the staff could get salaries," he said, adding that there was income from the cabins too.
It needs about Tk2 crore investment to make and operate a launch, said Manik. Besides, there is a maintenance cost every year at the dock, he added.
"Having made such a huge investment, now we are in tension. The low number of passengers may force us to shut our business down by the next six months if the present trend continues," he said.
Noria launch ghat supervisor Lutfulla Ruhit said that he has already left work as there is a low number of launch and passengers.
There are other professions at the terminals which are also on the verge of extinction. Now he is looking for a new job.
Master of Redsun launch Mohiuddin said that he had to maintain his family with the income from the launch, which is the only work he has done since his childhood and he has no other skill. Four of the launches have totally shut down their operations as the owners are operating launches through a roster system.
"I do not know how I will earn my bread and butter if my launch closes operations," he said.
Master of Delwar Shah launch on the Shimulia-Banglabazar route Emdad Haque Sikder said that they are all frustrated as they have had no work for the last eight days due to low passenger turnout. The owners also do not ask them about their situation while many staff have already left jobs.
"There is the Eid festival ahead and we have no money to buy anything for the children if the launch owners do not pay us. No one will recruit us at this moment," he said.