The nation-wide strike of transport companies and the subsequent fare hike has met with protests by consumers and has been the talk of the country this week. In comparison, a similar situation in the waterways missed public attention.
Practically, the strike in waterways is more intense than the one in road transportation. Most of the southern districts-bound passengers use waterways as there are no easy alternatives. The rail network cannot connect the southern region due to its riverine nature. There is no seamless bus route from the capital either to every district in the South.
There are other parts in the country too, which are not accessible through road or rail and water transport is their only way to connect to the rest of the country.
According to statistics, more than three lakh passengers move through the waterways on a regular basis using different river ports and terminals. During the religious festivals like Eid and national holidays like Bengali new year, this traffic though waterways increases around five times.
Naturally, an impromptu and indefinite strike caused immense suffering to the commuters of the southern districts. Thousands of the passengers were stuck in Sadarghat, the prime port of the capital city, situated on the Buriganga River.
Fortunately, the strike was called off after a four-hour tripartite meeting among government officials, waterways transport owners and the workers leaders. Held on Sunday evening at the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) office, the meeting fixed the new fare chart for launch or ferry services.
According to reports, the authority has announced a 35% hike in launch fare for a distance of less than 100 km, and 43% hike for more than 100 km.
The new fare is Tk 2.30 per km for the first slab, up from Tk 1.70. For the second slab, the rate is Tk 2.00 per km, up from Tk 1.40. The minimum fare has been fixed as Tk 25, instead of Tk 18. The outgoing chart has been setting the fare since 2013.
This fare is for the passengers who are boarding on the deck of the launch. As per the chart, the fare for a single cabin will be four times higher than the deck fare. So, the double cabin fare will be double of the single cabin fare.
The launch owners' body, Bangladesh Inland Waterways Passenger Carrier Association (BIWPCA), initially demanded doubling of fare. The stand of the Bangladesh Water Transport Workers Federation (BWTWF), also present in the meeting, regarding fare hike was not clear from the media reports.
This fare hike in waterways is unfair in many ways. The meeting for fare fixation should have included representatives of passenger or consumer associations, along with the government body, owners' association, and workers' federation.
It may not be as organised as the owners or workers association, but there is a passenger association - Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity.
Day after the fare hike was announced; BJKS called a press conference and termed this new chart as unacceptable. The leaders said- "Instead of protecting the interests of passengers, the new fares have invited a crisis for the lower and middle income people of the country."
A blanket fare hike is unacceptable considering the class of launches too. All the vessels' operation expenses are surely not the same. Lower income people usually choose the non-luxury launches particularly for the cheaper price.
Besides this, luxury launches ferry between the cities only, like Dhaka-Barisal route. Local or inter sub-district routes get normal vessels only. Now irrespective of the quality of the vessel, all the passengers have to pay the same price.
In Bangladesh, waterways usually connect the districts which are in disaster-prone areas. Due to extreme climate changes; the frequency of crop damage has increased in recent years, and so has unemployment.
Covid-19 has worsened the scenario further. People from these parts of the country commute to Dhaka for their livelihood. So, hiking launch fares will certainly add to their fragility.
Ensuring collection of fares according to the chart is another area of concern. The media has reported that launch employees are forcing people to pay more than the notified fares.
It is reaching a 45% to 50% increase in cases, instead of 35% rise in accordance with the fare chart. Passengers have nothing to do except express their helplessness.
It is true that the authorities have hiked the price of diesel fuel by Tk15 per liter. So the operating expenses will rise. A luxury launch on the Dhaka-Barisal route takes around 6,600 liters of diesel to up and down.
According to the previous price, this amount of diesel is to cost Tk5,08,000. Cost of buying the same amount of diesel at the increased price is now Tk6,24,000. That means launch operators have to spend Tk1,16,000 more.
In my opinion, the authority should have subsidised that extra cost; as waterways supplement sustainable development. Waterways are an important feature of any river, as an adequate flow of river is the precondition of navigability, it ensures the health of a river. Also encroachment is very difficult for a free-flowing river.
In the backdrop of climate change, when a carbon-neutral communication system is a major imperative; passengers should have been encouraged to use environmentally-friendly waterways. This latest fare hike is definitely going to discourage them.
Sheikh Rokon is the founder and secretary general of Riverine People. He tweets at @skrokon.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.