Although the inland waterway transport sector carries more than a quarter of the country’s total passenger traffic, it faces many accidents every year. The security of this sector is neglected, unlike the roads. Although the Inland Water Transport Authority Ordinance, 1958 does not say much about waterway safety, the Inland Shipping Ordinance, 1976 does contain some provisions on the subject.
Section 55 of the 1976 Ordinance prohibits the carrying of passengers on any journey when a warning signal for a storm is announced or when there is a reasonable apprehension of a storm. In case of violation of this article, the captain of the ship faces a maximum prison term of three years or a fine of 30,000 BDT, or both (article 61A). However, relatively smaller launches usually attempt to break this rule, which is why we often hear of launches sinking due to storms or cyclones.
Section 37B mandates the Director General to conduct periodic training programs on crowd management, fire fighting, personal survival and tanker safety for engineers, masters, engine operators, greasers and other persons primarily responsible for the safety of passengers.
In accordance with article 56, it is forbidden to proceed on any journey without being equipped with life-saving appliances, fire-fighting equipment and without taking appropriate measures against explosions, fires, collisions and other accidents. . In case of violation of this provision, the owner and the master of the vessel are separately liable to imprisonment for up to two years or a fine of BDT 30,000, or both (Article 61). The range of penalties seems insufficient given the greater severity of accidents and lives lost on the waterways. For example, around 49 people died in the recent Abhijan-10 launch incident due to lack of firefighting equipment and proper blast protection measures.
Section 58A states that no inland vessel carrying passengers shall embark on a voyage unless its passengers and crew are insured with an insurance company. Failure to comply with this provision will result in the imprisonment of the offender for a maximum of two years or a fine of BDT 30,000, or both (Section 68B). However, many launch owners do business without having insurance and are not punished by law.
According to article 67, if during a voyage the ship carries more passengers than the number specified in the certificate of inspection, the owner or his representative or master of the ship shall be liable to a fine of 300 BDT for each passenger so in excess, up to a maximum of TK one lakh. But the launchers defy the rule and carry excess passengers during the festival period. This is why sinking of rowboats due to overloading is common in Bangladesh.
Article 47 gives jurisdiction to the maritime courts composed of a magistrate of the first class to hear the offenses punished by the ordinance. There is only one maritime court located in Dhaka. In March 2020, the Court issued a statement to the Dhaka Chief Judicial Court, noting that 1,517 cases were pending before it. It is quite impossible for one court to handle so many cases. The 1976 order contains no provision allowing the court to release offenders on bail. Thus, offenders frequently go to other courts for bail, which closes the door for the maritime court to pursue the case. Another concern is that the Court falls under the Department of Merchant Marine, which is contrary to the concept of separation of powers.
The year 2021 ended with the nation in deep mourning following the Abhijan-10 launch fire incident. Relevant authorities must take appropriate measures as soon as possible, otherwise we will end up witnessing more maritime disasters every year.
The author is a law student at Bangladesh Professional University (BUP).