It takes only 30 minutes to cross the river after boarding a ferry. But the short trip is terribly difficult here as no one could say exactly how long it will take to get on a ferry.
If there is huge pressure of traffic at the ghat (terminal), waiting for a ferry can be prolonged from six to nine hours. It takes from three to four hours when the pressure is comparatively less.
When it comes to the trucks loaded with nonperishable goods, the situation is literally horrible as they have to wait from two to three days at the ghat to cross the river on a ferry.
Such misery was reported from the Daulatdia-Paturia ferry ghat. Millions of people from 21 south-western districts are going through this misery regularly while commuting to and from the capital.
The vehicle pressure mounted at the ferry ghat as the transportation of heavy vehicles -- buses and trucks – has been suspended on the Shimulia-Banglabazar route, the other ferry route in the Padma River.
However, the authorities are struggling to deal with the increased number of vehicles at the ghat as the capability of vehicle transportation was not improved here.
It is feared that there would be a disastrous situation during the upcoming festival of Eid-ul-Fitr if no step is taken in the meantime to improve the situation.
The country is expected to see a massive rush of homebound people during this Eid thanks to the improved Covid-19 situation.
Due to the pandemic restrictions, a large number of Dhaka dwellers did not go to their village homes for Eid celebration in the previous two years.
Now, the scenario is in stark contrast to that of previous two years as Bangladesh has successfully kept the transmission of coronavirus in check.
A three-kilometer tailback of buses and perishable goods-laden trucks was seen at the Daultdia ferry ghat on Saturday. There was a separate queue for the trucks carrying non-perishable goods.
Drivers and ferry staff said the traffic pressure was comparatively less on the previous day. Even then there was hardly a chance for crossing the river without waiting for at least three hours on the ghat.
Monir Hossain, a staffer of Dhaka-bound Showhardo Paribahan, told Prothom Alo that the Daulatdia ghat has been going through such a situation for more than two months. Still there is now way to get out of this.
He also said that they had asked the owner to operate bus service through launch crossing system, instead of ferry.
It is to be noted that in the launch crossing system, the buses go to the ghat area and drop off the passengers, who later walk a long way with their bags to get on a launch. After crossing the river, they have to walk again before hoping on another bus. However, it was an old practice.
The transport companies later introduced direct bus service through ferry crossing, in a bid to alleviate sufferings of the passengers.
It seems that people are turning back to the old system due to poor capacity of the ferry and ghats.
Inadequate ferry, ghat
People concerned with the ferry ghat said the huge pressure of traffic is a common phenomenon here.
But the suspension of ferry operation on the Shimulia-Banglabazar route worsened the situation in August last year as the vehicles started to use the Daulatdia-Paturia route, the only alternative way for them.
The ferry suspension came after ferries hit the pillars of the Padma Bridge repeatedly.
According to the Aricha office of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC), the number of vehicles at Daulatdia Ghat increased to a good extent, comparing to the pre-pandemic period.
Some 2,5000 vehicles used to cross the river on average in 2019, but the number rose to 3,600 in March this year.
The BIWTC attached most of the ferries of Shimulia-Banglabazar route to its fleet operating on the Daulatdia-Paturia route, raising the total number of ferries at Daulatdia to 23.
However, some 17 are now transporting vehicles while the remaining six are being repaired, according to the corporation.
There were seven ghats at Daulatdia for anchoring ferries, but four of them are now in operation. Out of the remaining three, two eroded into the river in 2019 and are yet to get ready despite repeated repair works. The other one has been shut for around eight months.
Shah Md Khaled Newaj, the deputy general manager of BIWTC, told Prothom Alo that they have a plan to increase the number of ferries to 22 and the number of ghats to 5 to deal with the heavy traffic during Eid.
“It is possible to handle the traffic pressure if 22 ferries and 5 ghats operate at a time,” he said.
Some other BIWTC officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the traffic pressure is feared to be massive during Eid but their preparation is very little.
With 22 ferries and 5 ghats, around 4,500 vehicles can be transported regularly. But the number of vehicles could be much higher during the Eid, they added.
The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) is responsible for the construction and maintenance of the ferry ghats.
Shah Alam, a deputy assistant engineer of the BIWTA stationed at Daulatdia, said there are five ghats in operation as per documents.
They have nothing to do if no ferry anchors at the Ghat-2, the official said, adding that the BIWTA is ready to set up an alternative ghat if the authorities want.
However, the commuters vented frustration over the lack of co-ordination among the government agencies.
The responsibility of government agencies is to render quality services to the people through coordination among themselves, rather than shifting blame to others, they said.
Bus-truck transportation suspended at Shimulia
The government built a 55-kilometer expressway from Dhaka to Faridpur’s Bhanga at a cost of Tk 11,000 crore. There is no stoppage on the way before reaching the ferry ghat.
It will take around 40 minutes to travel from Dhaka to Bhanga once the Padma Bridge is opened to traffic.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the expressway in March, 2020, but its benefits could not be reaped fully due to lack of improved ferry service.
According to BIWTC sources, six ferries, including two dumb ones, are currently operating on the Shimulia-Banglabazar route. They have been transporting light vehicles from 5am to 5pm for the last six months.
In the evening, the ferries start operation from Shimulia to Shariatpur’s Jajira ghat. But they never carry buses and other heavy vehicles.
SM Ashiquzzaman, a director (trade) of BIWTC, told Prothom Alo that four new ferries would be deployed on the route, which will raise the total number of ferries to 10.
He made it clear that the ferries won’t be allowed to carry buses and trucks even during Eid.
The country witnessed a mad rush of homebound people last year and the ferries were forced to carry only passengers, instead of vehicles.
At least five passengers were killed and 20 were injured in a stampede while crossing the Padma River on an overcrowded ferry on 12 May last year.
The fire service officials then said they died due to the scorching sun, lack of oxygen amid excessive crowd and heat.
An all-time suffering
The size of revenue bagged by the BIWTC from ferry service is getting larger.
According to its website, the corporation earned Tk 285 crore through ferry operation in the financial year 2015-16. The amount rose to Tk 354 crore in the fiscal year 2018-19. Accounts for the following financial years are not available on the website.
Despite the increase in income, the ferry services remain in a miserable state throughout the year.
The authorities often shut ferry service due to intense fog during the winter season. Apart from that, the ferries struggle to ply amid heavy current during the rainy season.
There are allegations that some vehicles are allowed to break queue and cross the river on priority basis in exchange of bribe. Besides, there are special arrangements for the government officials.
It is the general public that suffers.
Professor Shamsul Haque, a public transport specialist and a professor of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), said a pressure of traffic normally mounts when a large number of vehicles of a route use an alternative route.
But a plenty of time was there to take preparations. There is a tendency to somehow get a job done for the time being. It increases people’s sufferings, he said.
Professor Shamsul further said the transports will definitely face a pressure during a celebration, but the joy of festival fades if the management becomes obsolete.