Bangladesh is a riverine country endowed with 24,000-kilometre long waterways. But the navigable water network for mechanised vessels varies from 5,968 km during monsoon to 3,865 km during the dry season. Inland water transportation continues to be a vital mode of transport both in terms of the movement of inland freight and passengers, as well as for exports and imports through sea ports. There are 11 major inland ports, 23 coastal island ports, 133 launch stations and 1,000 minor landing points across Bangladesh.
Broadly speaking, inland water transportation (IWT) system has three broad functions with distinct modes of operations cum stakeholders. At the national level, there is the trunk haulage of freight and passenger carriages along the main corridors between ports and major economic centres, which involve medium and long-distance trips as well as high volume movements. The local level consists of feeders, distributions and local traffics, where trips are mostly for short distances and low volumes, and the demand is predominantly for passenger movements. The third function involves the ferries, which link sections of roads separated by large channels of water-bodies in the absence of bridges. The latter is functionally a wholly separate category, as ferries may also be considered to be part of the road transport system instead of the inland water transport (IWT) system. However, it is considered operationally sensible to integrate certain aspects of ferry services with those of IWT system.
The inland river transport system plays a pivotal role in the communication sector of Bangladesh. Ferry services across the rivers that connect roads and highways of different regions in the country are vital for maintaining the mobility and dynamism of the economy and society. Take for example the Paturia-Daulatdia and Shimulia-Kanthalia ferry routes. These are the two most important ferry crossings connecting the highways of southern and south-western regions of the country with those of Dhaka. But it is quite deplorable that numerous man-made problems have cropped up at these ferry terminals over the years, which have been creating hindrances to smooth operation of ferries and easy movement of passengers and vehicles on these routes. As reported in the print media, the concerned authorities appear to be turning a blind eye to various irregularities and routine sufferings of motor vehicle passengers and travellers on these routes.
Let us consider the case of Paturia-Daulatdia ferry route that links Manikganj with Rajbari. Dearth of sufficient ferries on the route and their recurring mechanical troubles are regular phenomena here that lead to unnecessary delays on a routine basis. In addition, extortions by middlemen and thugs including ruling party-men in the name of giving serial numbers, lack of coordination among the relevant officials, mismanagement in booking counters etc. worsen the situation. Regrettably, goods-carrying trucks are often forced to wait at the ferry ghat for even 2-3 days, although the length of the route is only three to three and a half kilometres. The situation at the Daulatdia ferry-ghat appears to be the worst, where allegedly not a single vehicle can be booked without the consent of some ruling party bosses. Amid these anomalies and irregularities, around 3,000 vehicles pass through this ferry-route every 24 hours.
It is now common knowledge that a group of middlemen have become very active at Paturia and Daulatdia ferry terminals. Although some discipline is observed in front of the counters because of police presence and CCTV cameras, these middlemen facilitate breaking of queues by vehicles through collusions with the counter officials in exchange for money. Anomalies also take place in the name of VIP transports, which surprisingly include even some favoured bus services. Regrettably, the authorities appear to overlook all these irregularities.
There are also anomalies galore in the other major ferry service on the Shimulia-Kanthalbari route, which connects Shimulia of Munshiganj with Kanthalbari of Madaripur. There are complaints that double the regular fare is charged whenever there is excess pressure of passengers at Shimulia ferry ghat. Alongside the ferries, speedboats and launches also ply on this 12-kilometre long route. Although the launches and speedboats are not authorised to transport passengers after dusk, they continue to do it even up to 10 pm at night in connivance with the law enforcement agencies. Robberies, hijackings, murders and other crimes are also on the rise on this route. Many people are also falling prey to the Malam (balm) party who make people unconscious by applying balms and then usurp their possessions. Allegations are rife that the traffic police also resort to bribery by targeting goods-carrying trucks, especially on Thursdays and Fridays when there are long queues of vehicles.
On the other side of the river Padma, the Kanthalbari ferry ghat in Shibchar of Madaripur lacks adequate basic amenities including toilets. Anomalies with regard to speedboats and launches are also rampant here, as these services ply even during night time and charge a high premium above the approved fare. Extortions are also rampant, collected illegally from both water and surface transports. There are allegations that many of the transports lack fitness, which are especially risky for plying during the rainy season.
While the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC) owns the ferries, the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) is the state organisation that has been shouldering the responsibility of running these vital ferry ghats with support from the administration and the police. It takes up different projects from time to time to improve the management and logistics of these terminals. But apart from allegations of widespread corruption and wrongdoings in the implementation of projects, its role and performance have been seldom commended. For example, ten fog lights were bought at a cost of Taka 60 million recently for improving the visibility on Paturia-Dauladia route. But these have been rendered almost useless during heavy fogs in winter. Under the circumstances, the government should draw up realistic action-plans for rectifying the past mistakes and improving services, as these ferry-routes are critically important for the country's society and economy.