Death on the river Meghnaby Rahnuma Ahmed
IT IS a tragedy, born of corruption, carelessness and indifference.
Although the tragedy repeats itself, year in, year out, each launch disaster, each ferry capsized that leaves hundreds dead, some missing, that leaves families devastated, or truncated — for often, it is not only a lone member who has drowned but many — 2-3, 4-5, at times, 9-11, for blood ties here are not precisely, authoritatively defined as they are in the west, they extend outwards, bringing many into their fold — is a tragedy of epic proportions.
It is so for the majority, not for members of the ruling class who travel by air, or in air-conditioned private cars, marking off those who travel by motorised launches in the nation’s rivers, as being part of the common. As being the multitude, who rush to the banks of a river each time a launch capsizes, who maintain a vigil until the body of the loved one has been discovered, has been hauled up, carried over, and laid out on its wet banks. To be identified. To be greeted by numb horror, for what had been a warm body is now stiff in death, its arms outstretched. Or, is bloated beyond recognition, except for the clothes that cling, a familiar sari, the shirt bought last Eid, the lungi he always wore.
Long wails that rend the sky, that beseech, why? Why this misfortune? Why me? Why us? Why again?
The MV Shariatpur-I, a double-decker launch carrying about 250 passengers, collided with an oil barge 20-25 miles south of Dhaka, in the dark hours of Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012. The launch had been Dhaka-bound, the accident occurred in Gazaria upazila of Munshiganj. Shariatpur-I sank rapidly.
‘36 die, dozens more missing’ (New Age, March 14, 2012).
The ‘dozens more’ escalated dramatically as the next days headlines stared at me, ‘Launch capsize death toll rises to 112’ (New Age, March 15, 2012).
The ‘death toll’ rose further the same day, with online news sources updating the numbers who had died, ‘17 more bodies found, death toll reaches 129’ (bdnews24.com, March 15, 2012). ‘Toll from Bangladesh ferry accident rises to 138’ (AFP, March 15, 2012). ‘Meghna ferry death toll rises to 145’ (bdnews24.com, March 16, 2012).
Shariatpur-I had collided with an oil cargo; from the information that I have been able to piece together, the cargo vessel hasn’t been identified yet. Maybe it hasn’t. Or, maybe palms have been greased, or oiled, to keep the information from surfacing. Corruption, as I said, is rife. Indifference to suffering, other people’s, not one’s own, is mind-boggling.
‘I was awakened with a big jolt,’ said Dulal Dewan, a businessman, who’d been sleeping on the top deck. ‘I jumped into the river in the darkness as the ferry started going down.’ There were screams all around. People were shouting for help, he said.
While most of its passengers lay sleeping, the launch nosedived. Abdul Karim Liton Chaiyal, of Dinara village, tried to pull his son out of the sinking vessel but was soon forced to let go. Other victims, he said, were probably pulling him by the legs, in their own struggle to survive. For a father to let go, to live to tell the tale of letting go, must be searingly painful. A raw wound, an open wound, for the rest of one’s life. It lends a faraway look to those who have survived, I have seen it on many faces, an unbearable pain coupled with a sense of hollowness no words can describe. But it is not a vacuous looks, it indicts those responsible. Those whose actions could have prevented the misfortune from occurring. It is a deeply unsettling look, wont as it is to slice through the hyperbole. It is one that the shipping minister Shahjahan Khan, thick-skinned as he has proven to be, must surely have avoided when he went to Sureshwar Launch Ghat (Shariatpur) on Tuesday afternoon. But maybe a phalanx of sycophantic local-level officials and party bosses helped shield the wrath and fury that raged, even amidst rivers of grief which stretched out, over Shariatpur, Munshiganj, Louhajong, Narayanganj, until it covered the entire nation. The multitude of the nation. Marking out, as I have said, the commoners from those who wield power, from the members of the ruling class who are deeply ensconced in zones of comfort, in cocoons of amassed privileges which one day, will surely unravel. Who will shield them then? Activists since have stood in human chains, they have demanded the shipping minister’s resignation.
Liton lost his brother as well.
Cries of ‘help, save us’ had reached the ears of the captain of MV Mitali, close by. They dropped their lifebuoys, saving about 30 of Shariatpur-I’s passengers. Dulal Dewan was one of them, but not, seemingly, his eight other relatives. Press reports speak of them as being ‘missing’.
The launch was salvaged 38 hours later. One of the salvage vessels, MV Rustom, reached the scene of the accident on Tuesday morning; the other, MV Hamza, had to travel upstream from Barisal, reaching the spot much later, close to midnight. According to press reports, salvage operations were galvanised into action after distraught relatives of missing passengers boarded Rustom and manhandled some of its staff at 6:30am on Wednesday morning (Samakal, March 15, 2012).
The salvage operation was conducted by the fire service of the Bangladesh Navy, police, Munshiganj district-level administration, and the BIWTA (Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority). Lieutenant commander Gulzar (Navy) says at least 40 divers including 16 belonging to the navy took part in searching and recovering the dead.
After the launch, sunk in the riverbed, had been turned aright, after its upper deck had been dragged up above the water, 15 bodies huddled together, of men, women, and children, were discovered. After the launch was hauled fully above the water, several more bodies were discovered in the launch’s cabins — more men, women and children. The bodies of the captain, and his assistant too, were recovered. Liton and several other survivors allege the captain is to blame. The assistant (sukani) had been in charge of the wheel when the accident had occurred.
Faulty vessels, lax safety standards, overcrowding, selling tickets after passengers have boarded — a litany of misdeeds committed by those who are at the highest echelons of power to the lowliest of the low on the ground, help cause deaths which could have been avoided. Vessels which have been built in blatant disregard for approved designs manage to secure the approval of the authorities (NM Golam Zakaria, New Age, March 18, 2012). An earlier press report mentions a ‘longstanding feud among three groups involved in the sector: marine engineers, naval architects and captains’, one heightened by the conflict between the BIWTA, and the BIWTC (Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation). Of the existence of a corrupt nexus of officials at the BIWTA who ‘approve flawed designs’, who help the owners tamper with the ‘original design’ in exchange for cold, hard cash (Daily Star, July 10, 2003).
Shahjahan Khan’s predecessor, Akbar Hossain, had been no less thick-skinned either. He’d rejected outright the Danish government’s public allegations of kickbacks for four ferries provided to Bangladesh by Denmark. The Danish government withdrew $45 million in aid, pledged for the shipping sector. Akbar, too, had not resigned, although 11 major launch disasters had occurred in his first three and a half years as minister. Nearly 3,000 people had died, equalling the number of launch fatalities that had occurred in 30 years of independence. Interestingly enough, Sheikh Hasina, then leader of the opposition, had joined in calls for his resignation.
While talking to reporters after an inter-ministerial meeting on Thursday, March 15, Shahjahan Khan informed the press that 117 dead bodies had been recovered, 60 had survived the disaster, information received indicated that ‘no one else was missing’. That very evening however, more bodies were recovered, upping the number of casualties to 141 (Kaler Kantho, March 16, 2012).
The salvage operation was officially called off on Wednesday morning after the wreckage had been raised. All officials, including those belonging to the district-level administration left the area, leaving behind a small police contingent. Members of the media contacted Munshiganj district’s DC to complain; a magistrate and upazila official soon turned up. BIWTA officials, the magistrate confided to the press, had left the scene before fully completing the operation. Dead bodies are floating in the river, complained a passenger’s family member. The authorities do not retrieve them, not even after we’ve informed them. We are doing it ourselves.
What he said was true, the police had recovered a few bodies more than 15 kilometres downstream. Family members of missing passengers continued to conduct search missions on hired boats and fishing trawlers (Daily Sun, March 15, 2012).
Friday newspapers reported, since the district officials had packed up and left, it meant family members of passengers whose bodies were later recovered, had to wait long hours for the officials to return. To gain clearance, to receive the Tk 3,000, granted by the administration to assist in burial expenditures. It also meant that the bodies of loved ones had further decomposed. As evening fell, a total of twenty-nine bodies were recovered (Kaler Kantho, March 16, 2012).
Local people assisted in recovery efforts. They went along with grieving family members on search missions in boats and trawlers, they fed and housed many (Kaler Kantho, March 15, 2012). Unable to stand aloof and disinterested, they did it of their own accord.
Imran Bepari, who has lost his brother Sumon, a migrant in Italy, his brother’s newly-wed wife, and many others who were coming to Dhaka to see them off, says, My brother died because of the government’s stubbornness, if they hadn’t shut down buses and launches in order to prevent people from joining the BNP’s grand rally, my brother would have left on the 10th. ‘He died because he took the launch on the 12th night. Where should we seek justice now?’ Parul Begum, who has lost 13 family members, echoed his accusations, ‘If the government had not shut down the launch service, I would not have lost everything. We would have left [for Dhaka earlier]’ (Kaler Kantho, March 14, 2012).
But the shipping minister insists that Shariatpur-I had not been overcrowded, ‘Our calculation says the launch was not overloaded with passengers.’
Shahjahan Khan, point out activists belonging to the National Committee to Safeguard River, Road and Rail Sectors, invariably rushes to defend those ‘responsible’ for accidents. Never its victims (New Age, March 17, 2012).
When epic tragedies fail to stir the hearts of the rulers, what does one wish them? That they should have to suffer similarly? Or, that they, being incapable of any act of heroism unlike those whom they consider to be small and insignificant people, should remain ever-mired in their miserable pettiness?
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