At least 26 people died last Monday when the speedboat they were on crashed into a sand-carrying bulkhead in the river Padma.
Five other passengers of the boat were rescued alive by the local people.
As expected, the accident triggered lots of discussion in the media, particularly because the speedboat that was ferrying passengers across the mighty Padma was operating illegally.
The boat involved in the accident was not the only one operating without registration and a qualified operator. As many as 200 or more such boats carry passengers between Shimulia ferry ghat in Munshiganj and Kathalbari and Majhkandi in Madarupur.
Accidents on roads and river routes are nothing unusual in Bangladesh. Road accidents, however, are common and those claim, on an average, a dozen lives a day. Passenger launch accidents are not so frequent. But some accidents are major ones as those claim many lives.
In most accidents happening either on roads or in rivers, there is a common feature. The vehicles/ vessels/ operators involved in such accidents, in most cases, fail to meet certain legal or technical requirements.
Lots of discussions and debates do follow the accidents. Probe committees are formed. But things go back to old ways after a few days.
This time also there were debates on the private TV channels and newspapers wrote editorials and articles asking many questions about the illegal plying of speedboats.
No appropriate answer has so far come by from the relevant agencies. But one unusual thing--- arrogance--- was on display centring around the latest accident. Top officials of a couple of government agencies were found to be either evasive or aggressive while responding to logical questions from newsmen.
The speedboat service started from Mawa ferry ghat more than a decade back. The size of the fleet has grown over the years. These vessels did not ask for official approval as required under the law. Nor did the government feel the necessity of bringing those under a legal framework and regulating properly.
In recent years, there have been a few accidents and incidents of robbery involving speedboats. Passengers, reportedly, have also complained of charging exorbitant fares and inefficiency of boat drivers. But illegal plying of the speedboats or complaints involving those could hardly draw the attention of the top notches of the relevant government agencies, including the department of shipping (DoS) and the Bangladesh inland water transport authority (BIWTA).
When a discussant at a virtual talk show, aired by a private TV channel Monday evening, alleged indifference of the relevant government agencies towards illegal operations of speedboats, the head of one of the agencies, who also took part in the programme, lost his cool and invited the discussant in question to take over the responsibility of overseeing the operations of the speedboats. The anchor of the TV show had to intervene and save the situation.
Similarly, when a DoS top official went to Shibchar soon after the incident, a TV reporter wanted to know from him who would take responsibility for the loss of so many lives. The official, it seemed, was not prepared to face such a question. He took a couple of minutes to answer and said, "All will have to shoulder the responsibility". The DoS is the agency that is responsible for getting all the motor vessels registered and regulating those as per the Inland Shipping Ordinance 1976.
Now the authorities have deputed police personnel at the BWITA's ferry ghat to stop the speedboats from operating during the 'lockdown period'.
It is most likely that the speedboats would again be pressed into operation as soon as the lockdown is lifted.
The business of ferry service is a lucrative one. It fetches handsome income for their owners, ghat lessee and many others who remain in the background.
The service is popular because it is fast and handy.