Shitalakshya sees 50 accidents a year as river narrows

The third Shitalakshya bridge is under construction in Koilaghat area of Narayanganj
Prothom Alo

Faruk Hossain from Narayanganj is the quartermaster of a cargo vessel, locally known as a bulkhead. He was taking his vessel down the Shitalakshya towards the Meghna river on 19 March afternoon. Suddenly he had to swerve to avoid another large cargo vessel that cut into his path. His vessel, MV Panch Bhai-3, rammed to a steel pillar of the third Shitalakshya bridge under construction in Koilaghat area. The pillar bent under the impact.

Faruk Hossain told Prothom Alo that following the incident, people involved in the bridge construction, detained them along with the vessel and demanded Tk 500,000 compensation. Later, leaders of the Bulkhead Workers’ Union released them after paying Tk 150,000.

According to the crew of various river vessels, this particular stretch of the river Shitalakshya in Narayanganj has long been one of the busiest commercial river routes in the country. But it is turning into a narrow canal day by day because of encroachment and pollution. Navigating vessels, especially passenger launches, has become risky in Shitalakshya due to the increased movement of passenger and cargo vessels on this river route as well as the increased number of vessels anchoring there.

According to a survey of the hydrography department of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), Shitalakshya was 780 meters wide at the estuary in 1960 and decreased to 360 meters in 2020.

Director of the hydrography department, Shamsun Nahar, told Prothom Alo that the department conducted the first survey on Shitalakshya in 1960 and the last in 2020. The width of Shitalakshya has decreased by 106 metres in Demra, 153 metres at the Nabiganj ferry terminal, 137 metres at Bandar ferry terminal and 415 metres in the Shah Cement Point in the estuary of Shitalakshya over the last 60 years, she added.

According to the National River Conservation Commission (NRCC), more than 2,000 encroachers have constructed buildings on land grabbed on both sides of Shitalakshya in Dhaka, Narayanganj, Narsingdi and Gazipur. However, the BIWTA’s Narayanganj office that oversees the river, said the actual figure is several times higher than that of the NRCC’s account. Joint director (port and transportation) of BIWTA’s Narayanganj office, Masud Kamal, said more than 2,000 people have grabbed land on the both sides of the river in Narayanganj alone.

The construction of the third Shitalakshya bridge is underway. Parts on both side of the river have been occupied and demarcated with steel pillars, causing a number of accidents involving water vessels. The two recent capsizes of launches in Shitalakshya also occurred when the vessels hit these pillars. At least, 10 people went missing and 43 others died in the incidents.

In the incident that occurred on the evening of 4 April at Koilaghat where a bridge is under construction, a cargo ship owned by a lawmaker hit the launch “Sabit Al Hasan”, claiming 34 lives including 7 children. This loss of lives brought the narrowing of Shitalakshya river into the limelight.

General secretary of Bangladesh Ship Workers’ Federation, Sabuj Sikder, said most of the river has narrowed significantly because of the steel pillars installed along the way. At least 50 accidents took place in that part of the river near the bridge over the last one year. Not all incidents had created outcry since there were no causalities. However, water transport operators are facing financial damages. A memorandum has been submitted to deputy commissioner, river police and BIWTA demanding the expansion of that part of the river, he added.

Acting deputy director (marine security and traffic management) of BIWTA’a Narayanganj office, Babulal Vaidya said two cargo ships can’t move through this narrow channel maintaining safe distance because of the construction of bridge. It is urgently required for the steel structures of the bridge to be removed. Project director of the third Shitalakshya bridge construction project, Shoyeb Ahmed, told Prothom Alo temporary steel trestles had been installed for the construction of the main bridge. Two large cargo ships can move through the open channel of the river. He said there would be a bit of hassle, but there should not be any problem, if vessels move carefully following the rules. The contractor firm has installed signal light and appointed staff in the bridge area, he added.

Md Halim is one of the security guards deployed in the bridge area. He said they signal the vessels from the bridge to slow down, but vessel crew don’t pay any heed. And so several accidents have taken place as vessels pass the narrow channel at a high speed.

Visiting the bridge area on Sunday, it was found that the steel structures of the Shitalakshya bridge construction bore marks of being hit by vessels. Many thick steels pillars used for bridge construction have bent on the eastern side of the river. Vessels including cargo vessels carrying raw materials of cement factories remain anchored in various places along the river including Ekrampur and Madanganj. Since the river has narrowed, 8 to 10 cargo ship carrying sand were sailing in a line at a time. The sand acquired through dredging in various places of Munshiganj is taken to different housing project sites including Purbachal of Rupganj. These vessels proceed slowly in Koilaghat area where the third Shitalakshya bridge is under construction. Two cargo vessels can’t pass through this narrow channel at once. A vessel has to wait until another one from other side crosses the channel.

General secretary of Bangladesh Cargo Vessel Owners’ Association Nurul Haque told Prothom Alo vessels often hit the steels pillars and cause accidents because of the bridge under construction. Introducing signals and a river traffic system is necessary here, he added.

Senior vice-president of Bangladesh Inland Waterways (passenger carriers) Association, Badiuzzaman Badal advocates restrictions on anchoring vessels in the river. Not even 25 per cent of the river exists anymore where bridge is under construction. There needs to be traffic management there. Besides, cement factory vessels anchored along north and south sides of the river, have increased the risks, he added.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna