Lighter cargo ship capsizes on several routes in Bangladesh are on the rise due to violations of ship operation rules, disregard for weather signals and inadequate safety equipment on the water vessels.
As an instance, the lighter ship MV Akhter Banu and MV City-14 sank in the Bay of Bengal on August 15 amid cautionary weather signal three – at a time when the ships were not supposed to be in operation.
The sunken ship MV Akhter Banu, worth around Tk8.5 crore, was carrying Tk6 crore worth of wheat. Though the cargo consignment was insured for any damage, the vessel was not. The ship could not be rescued yet, said the shipping agent.
Like MV Akhter Banu and MV City-14, at least ten lighter ships sink every year while transporting goods from Chattogram port to other areas of the country. The ship owners' association said a lighter vessel costs Tk5-10 crore, according to size.
Allegations are rife against the authorities concerned that they have been allowing water vessels with inland water transport licenses to ply in the coastal areas. Besides, people associated with shipping have alleged that some inland water transport inspectors issue fitness certificates without visiting the vessels.
Currently around 5,000 lighter vessels transport imported items from Chattogram port outer anchorage to different parts of the country. Of them, the private ship operator Water Transport Cell (WTC) controls1,200 smaller cargo ships.
According to sources at the cell,87 lighter ships met with accidents from 2007 to August 6, 2019. Of them, 48 ships were rescued while 39 could not be salvaged. Apart from the WTC report, smaller ships owned by several business groups of the country also sank during the period.
Sailors said the sunken ships lying in the water and siltation make water routes riskier. Water vessels that could not be salvaged at Chattogram port outer anchorage and port channel areas pose navigational hazards for the port channel.
For repair, the salvaged ships require a huge amount of cash depending on vessel size. On the other hand, since 80 percent of lighter vessels do not have insurance, ship owners do not get any compensation for the capsizes.
While contacted, the Principal Officer of Mercantile Marine Office (MMO), Captain Mohammad Gias Uddin Ahmed, pointed the finger at rampant violations of the Inland Ship Operation Act-2001as being responsible for the capsize of lighter ships.
He said the water vessels within land water transport licenses are not meant to cruise in the Bay. The coastal area-plying ships have to meet ship classification society requirements, while inland vessels do not have such any standards.
Many lighter ship owners allegedly are carrying goods in the coastal areas through inland-licensed vessels since coastal ship building expenditure has been hiked by 60 percent.
The MMO issues licenses and survey certificates to coastal water vessels while the Inland Shipping Inspection Office gives licenses to inland water vessels.
Under shipping regulations, vessels with inland water transportation licenses will not go to coastal areas, except in the dry season with the permission of the MMO.
MMO Principal Officer Captain Mohammad Gias Uddin Ahmed said if in land water vessels keep sailing in the Bay, marine accidents will be more frequent. And those ships that capsize willput Chattogram port and its outer anchorage at risk.
Until last July, the MMO issued licenses for 135 coastal cargo ships, 24 container carriers and 220 tankers.
Meanwhile, lighter vessel mariners said operating ships with unskilled crews are also responsible for capsizes.
Bangladesh Cargo Vessel Owners Association Secretary General Nurul Haque saidmost of the lighter vessel capsizes took place in Sandwip channel and there has been no initiative from the government to rescue the ships in most cases.
He believes capital dredging of the channel could lessen the number of marine accidents.
Nurul Haque agreed that some sailors cruise, defying the rough water, but he claimed that the owners do not force them to do so. Besides, he categorically denied allegations of operating unfit ships in collaboration with some government officials.
However, Bangladesh Lighterage Workers Association President Mohammad Isa Mia claimed ship owners often force sailors to operate vessels in rough weather.
"Sailors have to obey the owners to save their jobs. The August 15 capsize could have been averted had there been no pressure for cargo operations in the inclement weather," he told The Business Standard.
He further alleged that many shipping officials issue fitness certificate and renew those annually without visiting the vessels.
The sailor of a lighter ship echoed the association president's views. In condition of anonymity, he told The Business Standard, "The owners often do not ensure enough life-saving equipment for the crews. Each ship is supposed to have sufficient life jackets, buoys, life rafts. Old life jackets and life-saving-buoys sometimes add to the risks instead of saving lives."
While contacted, the Inspector at the Inland Ship Inspection Office, Chattogram, Mir Abu Jafar denied issuing fitness certificates, survey and registration papers without field visits.
Deputy Director of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC) Mohammad Selim said, "We are taking stringent measures to stop ship operations amid cautionary weather signals. Ship capsizes will remarkably drop if it can be controlled properly."