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River transporters stare into an unknown future as Bangladesh’s longest bridge appears

  • Kamal Hossain Talukdar, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2022-06-23 01:08:18 BdST

The Padma Bridge has created a frenzy of excitement among travellers, but there is uncertainty about how southern river routes will cope with the unknown future.

Of the 107 water routes across the country, 43 connect Dhaka's Sadarghat river port with the southern districts. About 200 launches currently operate on these routes.

Bangladesh is set to open the long-awaited Padma Bridge on Jun 25, connecting the disadvantaged south to the capital by road. It will save people travel time and curb perilous journeys during Eid.

But there are questions about whether the ferries and launches running the Mawa-Majhirkandi and Banglabazar routes will continue to operate after the bridge opens.

Will launch owners have to fold their businesses in the throes of losses? What will be the fate of the launches operating from Sadarghat to the south? How far can the current transportation system be pushed after the bridge opens? All these questions have led to uncertainty in the minds of the people, as well as the launch owners.

After the opening of the “bridge of dreams”, launch owners, the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority and the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation will have to help manage the public response, according to State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury.

The Padma Bridge is the pride of the nation, and everyone is eagerly waiting to cross the bridge, he said. “People from other districts will come to see the bridge.”

Though the road trips will give them a bit of trouble compared to the water route, people will likely cross the bridge to travel from Dhaka to their home villages just to cross the bridge for the first time, the state minister said.

But the ferry from Shimulia to Majhirkandi and the Banglabazar route will remain operational even after the bridge opens, he added. “The government will observe the situation for two months. What happens to the 87 launches on this route will become clear over time.”

Launch owners, however, say that these launches can't sustain themselves if the buses start travelling over the bridge.

Tariqul Islam, the owner of the Tanni Tamim launch, does not believe it will be possible to keep launches running on the route.

However, it will resolve the “indescribable suffering” of the people, said Tariqul, who has been in the water transport business for over 20 years.

People from 23 districts used to travel along this route, but no one will travel by launch with their luggage just to save a little money, Tariqul said.

“People will choose bus rides as they have suffered a lot, risking their lives in storms and rain while crossing on the river route,” he said.

Rubel, the owner of the launch Ya Muktadir on the Shimulia route, said it costs him a total of Tk 100,000 per month, including staff pay and oil prices, to operate the launch.

After the bridge opens, only about five to six launches will be able to run on this route, Rubel said.

Asked what will happen to the remaining launches, a BIWTA official said: "There are and will be many more new water routes. Those launches will be transferred to the new routes.”

"Balashi and Bahadurabad have reopened and there will be more new routes. Patuakhali also has new river ports,” he said.

SADARGHAT TO REMAIN UNSCATHED

Although the Padma Bridge has opened a new horizon of road connectivity, it will not have much impact on the launch passengers travelling from Sadarghat to Barishal, Patuakhali, Jhalakathi, Pirojpur, Bhola, Shariatpur and Madaripur, according to industry insiders.

The number of river routes in these districts, including Chandpur, is 43. According to the BIWTA Transport wing, 24 launches run daily on the Dhaka-Barishal route.

Six launches of the Sundarban Group are operating on the Dhaka-Barishal route and two more new launches are being added, said Abul Kalam Jhantu, general manager of the company.

Asked if the launches plying the southern routes would get enough passengers, he said: "If there was a problem, I would not have decided to launch Sundarban-15 and Sundarban-16.”

Launch and bus passengers are different and those who are comfortable travelling by launch will not travel by bus, Abul Kalam said.

“Launch owners are not concerned about the number of passengers increasing or decreasing from the Sadarghat.”

Asked about the reason behind the confidence, he said that no other vehicles offer a comfortable and affordable ride like a launch.

The fare for a BRTA passenger on the Dhaka-Barishal route is Tk 412, while the government-fixed fare for the launch deck is Tk 352.

“A man and his wife can take their two children, aged seven and eight, to a launch without a ticket, but is it possible on a bus? And the launch owners compete and even take passengers for as little as Tk 200.”

Launches can carry a total of 100,000 passengers a day but how many buses will be required to transport that many people? Another launch owner named Yuvraj replied in response to the question.

He said that the launch owners are moving forward with the assumption that there will be fewer passengers for four to six months after the bridge opens.

“I too will take the bridge to go to Bhanga with my family just to see the Padma Bridge. And those who live in Barishal, Madaripur or Jhalakathi will want to go by bus for the first time instead of a launch.”

However, during Eid, so many people will not be able to go by bus, even if they want to. They have to travel on the launches, Yuvraj added.

“Moreover, the road after Bhanga is a straight line, so if people go from the highway to Bhanga via Padma Bridge and enter that road, they will face heavy traffic. That is why the passengers will travel on the launch again when the excitement about seeing the Padma Bridge calms.”

WHAT DO LAUNCH PASSENGERS THINK?

Asked if he would travel by launch after the inauguration of the Padma Bridge, a middle-aged passenger sitting on the deck of the Sundarban launch headed to Barishal from Dhaka said it was hard to say at the moment. However, the bus will take less time and the fare isn’t too much higher.

Another passenger, Abdul Karim, lying on the deck with his legs bandaged, said with a smile: “I will go over the Padma Bridge at least once. But it won't be as comfortable as the launch.”

More than 50 passengers on several launches on the same route said they will travel across the dream bridge with their family once, but afterwards, they will travel by launch again.

BUSES TO BE ADDED TO THE NEW ROUTE

Bus owners say that business on the Dhaka-Chattogram-Cox's Bazar-Sylhet-Rangpur route is not going well. However, they have dreams about the future of the Padma Bridge route.

But no one has committed seriously to the route. They are still waiting to observe the situation after the bridge's inauguration.

However, two buses from Chattogram to Kuakata were introduced on Jun 16, said Abdul Haque, general manager of Unique Company, adding that two more buses will be pressed into service on this route.

Shyamoli Paribahan Manager Ashraf Ali said they have buses on all routes, except to the south. He said the company plans to operate buses to the region, while Dreamline Transport owner Saiful Islam said he would observe the situation before adding more vehicles.

[Written in English by Arshi Fatiha Quazi. Edited by Shoumik Hassin]