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Teknaf to St Martin's Island: Precarious journey on the Bay of Bengal by inland water vessels

  • Published at 12:03 am January 12th, 2020
P1_File-photo-by-Syed-Zakir-Hossain
Passenger tour vessels, designed to operate in inland rivers, navigate about 30km searoute between Teknaf and St Martin Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Of them, MV Farhan has started operating regularly between Teknaf-St.Martin route since 2017, while the other two vessels have been travelling since November 2019

The three water vessels - not having the industry safety standards to withstand high tides, rough seas, and extra loads - are crossing the bay to St Martin's Island in the Bay of Bengal on a commercial basis - gives the impression that they are destined for disaster while putting many lives in harm's way.

These inland vessels, were particularly designed to operate in the inland rivers. MV (motor vessel) Farhan, MV Parijat and MV Doyel Pakhi all navigate about 30 kilometres of the sea-route with the permission of the High Court division of the Supreme Court.

Of them, MV Farhan has started operating regularly between Teknaf-St.Martin route since 2017, while the other two vessels have been travelling since November 2019. And they are permitted to operate on a commercial basis until February 28, 2020. Of them, Parijat operated in the previous year.

Of these vessels, MV Farhan was built in 1999, and it's phase out date expired in 2014 after 15 years of service. Following an overhaul including general maintenance fixes, renovation, and rebuilding of the vessel, MV Farhan secured a permit for 5 more years to sail across the sea-route as per general rules. Golam Kibria Tipu, Jatiya Party politician and a lawmaker from Barisal-3 constituency, is the owner of the river vessel.

While, former Jatiya Party secretary general ABM Ruhul Amin Howlader is the proprietor of MV Doyel Pakhi, and Kazi Wahiduzzaman owns MV Parijat.

Owners of the latter two vessels sought permission from Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) to run between Teqnaf and St Martin’s Island, however, they did not get the permit. Later, they went to the High Court and obtained permission to operate.

Delowar Hossan, a legal counsel representing the petitioners, said: "The court rejected the petition and ordered not to run in the sea."

"We appealed against the High Court order with the Appellate division, and got the authorization to ply," he added, "BIWTA afterwards investigated into the matter, and issued permission. The Appeal court gave the bay crossing permission."

Later, Greenline Paribahan appealed against the order with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court and the apex court upheld the previous order.

During the registration for commercial purposes, these inland river vessels were given that particular bay crossing permission by the Department of Shipping. 

Talking to Dhaka Tribune, Manager of these three vessels Tofayel Ahmed said: "We run the launches from Barisal to Moju Chowdhury Hat (during rainy season). They offered services near the sea."

Like other ocean-going ships, he claimed these river vessels were ‘safe’ enough.

Mercantile Marine Department (MMD), is entrusted with the responsibility to carry out survey and provide a seal of approval for the sea-going vessels. One of the marine engineers of MMD and expert in ocean-going vessels, seeking anonymity, said: "These are for sure not fit (to operate in the sea). Authorizations are being secured rather under duress."

About the High Court's permission, he said: "The HC couldn’t understand technical issues. We have nothing to do whatsoever if it permits. More precisely, if there are any structural weaknesses (HC could not know)."

Rough weather, high seas and series of accidents in the past has made this water way dangerous for these vessels. In spite of such a clear and present danger,  devious attempts made by these inland water vessels, to run in the sea, could claim scores of innocent lives in the event of even a minor weather change.

"Obviously, it is unsafe. We calculate every single aspect. We examine ship building steps. We also make several follow ups. Even during a minor storm, the bottom hull may suffer cracks. Guarded approval should be given to these launches to cross the bay," an MMD engineer said.

Officials at MMD said, the bay crossing permission for vessels are nowadays given by the Department of Shipping, however, it should not be given to launches due to the lack of safety measures.

Some high officials at the Department of Shipping didn’t even want to talk about the issue.

Talking over these river vessels, Tofayel Ahmed said: "These vessels are of massive investment. That’s why we run them in the sea during winter’s calm weather, instead of keeping them sit idle."

When asked, why don’t they launch ships in the sea instead? he replied: "Who would invest Tk20 to 25crore for ships to run only for three months, from December to February? What would I do for the remaining nine months?"

Determining vessel's capacity for carrying passengers and cargo is an important step in planning a safe voyage. Hideously enough, on weekends these vessels carry passengers beyond safety limits.

Overloading a vessel can make it difficult to handle, especially in an emergency or bad weather. Overloaded vessels also tend to use excessive fuel and are more likely to swamp or capsize.

Reckoning marine safety standards, Tofayel said that, in spite of not being ocean-going vessels, these inland water vessels, in question, have double bottoms required for sea-going vessels -- a ship with two complete watertight hull surface: one outer layer forming the normal hull of the ship, and a second inner hull to prevent entry of water due to damage or leaks – this however could not be verified.

Commenting over this particular matter concerning the vessel's structural-design and safety standards, an MMD official said: "Vessels may have double or triple bottom, however, it will not have any bearing because standard construction procedure was not followed."

When asked why BIWTA did not appeal against the High Court order, Chairman of BIWTA Commodore Mahbub-Ul Islam said: “They are not risky. As they have bay crossing certificate, they can go to the sea. To go to Hatia, Monpura islands (on the Bay of Bengal), bay crossing certificate is needed. That’s how they were going to the sea (to St. Martin’s Island).

"(So) there is no need to offend (appeal against the HC order)."

Significant difference between sea-going & river vessels

There are huge constructional differences between sea-going ships and inland water vessels, in terms of hull integrity, strength to engine size and capacity, maintaining classification.

Sea survey scrutinizes the capacity of a ship to assess if it is suitable to run in both the sea and inland rivers.

Officials of the MMD told Dhaka Tribune that, previously inland vessels were permitted for bay crossing only from October to February, now it is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Shipping.

In the case of authorizing commercial permits to inland water vessels, Department of Shipping does not uphold a proper procedure. There are also a lot of complaints of safety issues over ship building of inland vessels.

Among the registered ships, now operating in the bay, are: Keari-Sinbad, 2004; Keari Cruise & Dine, 2006; Bay Cruiser-1, 1995; The Atlantic Cruise; Green Line-1, 2014. 

MV Farhan, MV Parijat and MV Doyel Pakhi are competing with these sea-going vessels with cheaper fares.