A couple of days prior to this Eid-ul-Fitr, two of my colleagues, while having lunch, were discussing the horror of travelling back to their respective village homes during Eid. As one of them was sharing her experience of being on the road for long hours, the other mentioned he once had to travel for 36 hours to reach his destination only a few hundred kilometres away.
Hassles during Eid journeys are multi-faceted. It is also an eye-opener to existing problems in our transport system: arbitrary fare-hike defying rules, congestion on the highways, arbitrary route modification and deteriorating service quality, you name it.
Home-goers have been suffering for decades. But the resilience of the people of this land is quite remarkable; suffering is not the only thing they do. They cope, innovate, and with their limited ability, try to change the rules of the game.
This Eid, at least two remarkable events grabbed media attention.
Firstly, the increased reliance on motorbikes for inter-district travel. In three days leading to Eid, according to newspaper reports, a total of 1,19,190 motorbikes crossed Bangabandhu Bridge, which is about 18% of total vehicles crossing the bridge at the same time.
The bridge authority had to dedicate two different lanes for the toll payment; still, there was a long queue of motorbikes. This year, a record number of motorcycles crossed the bridge during Eid.
The same thing happened at other crossings. In Paturia ferry ghat, BIWTA had to allocate whole ferries for motorbikes for safe river crossing.
Yet, there was congestion almost everywhere, and the familiar transport mayhem persisted. Thus, the second event felt more intriguing and thought-provoking.
Fed up with the ticket price hike and anarchy in the road transport sector, many holidaymakers hired boats this year to travel to their destinations in northern districts.
According to reports, mostly RMG workers and their families residing in Narayanganj took boat trips through Buriganga, Padma and Jamuna rivers to Sirajganj, from where they would reach their homes in Lalmonirhat, Pabna and Dinajpur.
The passengers only had to pay TK400 each for the trip, an amount they considered fair. Plus, they did not have to travel to Dhaka to take a bus.
A neglected means of transportation
According to the Roads and Highways Department (RHD), the country has a network of around 4,000 km of National Highways.
On the other hand, Bangladesh has about 24,000 km of rivers, streams and canals. Most of the country is linked by a complex network of waterways which reaches its highest length in the monsoon.
Out of the 24,000 km of waterways, about 5,995 km are navigable by mechanised vessels during monsoon. This, of course, shrinks to about 3,865 km during the dry period, according to Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA).
From time immemorial, waterways had been the primary mode of transport. It prevailed as such even after the advent of railways in the British colonial period. In 1975, 15% of passengers used waterways.
Foreign vested interests such as international lenders and car manufacturing countries, as well as the country's newfound love for speed, saw the rapid development of road networks across the country. At the same time, the waterways suffered chronic negligence, which, in combination with reduced water flow from the upstream due to barrages and dams, subsequently rendered the waterways barely usable.
With the devising of Delta Plan 2100, in recent years, the country's rivers have been enjoying renewed attention.
In recent years, massive dredging and excavation has brought back navigability to many rivers, adding 2,300 kilometres of waterways to the country's river system, according to government data.
Even with the renewed enthusiasm, the Ministry of Shipping has been allocated a budget of about TK5,137 crore this fiscal year. For the same fiscal year, the Road Transport and Highways Division and Bridges Division combinedly received TK42,761 crore, an eight-times higher allocation than the shipping ministry.
Unfortunately, despite the said expansion of waterways, we have not got any new passenger routes except for the Mongla-Ghoshiakhali channel, which was renovated in order to stop navigation through the Sundarbans.
The Eid vacationers' journey by boat provides an important insight into the real potential lying in the waterways.
In fact, waterways are considered the cheapest route for cargo transportation as well. A 2007 World Bank study showed that carrying a tonne of goods a kilometre costs Tk0.99 through waterways while it is Tk2.74 if transported through railways and Tk4.50 by road.
Never enough roads
Despite the ongoing transportation mega-projects, it is feared that due to a host of reasons such as population growth, increased economic activities centring the capital city Dhaka, even the widened highways will not be able to accommodate the rising vehicular pressure. As a result, the policy makers are already taking initiatives to upgrade the existing highways to that end.
For example, the government will upgrade the newly built Dhaka-Mymensingh highway to an eight-lane expressway based on a public-private partnership with the support of a Korean company.
At the same time, the improvement of Dhaka (Katchpur)-Sylhet road to a 4-lane highway is also on the table.
The government is also formulating a mega plan to construct eight expressways by 2041 connecting the country's seaports and a few land ports to develop robust connectivity with neighbouring countries.
These projects entail a considerable cost.
The construction cost of the Dhaka-Mawa-Bhanga Expressway, the only expressway built so far in Bangladesh, costs Tk200 crore per kilometre. As per the estimation, the total cost of constructing the proposed 2,352 kilometres of expressways will be a whopping Tk4,70,400 crore at the current market price. The cost is likely to increase manifold in the future as prices of construction materials and land will most likely increase.
With the ongoing pressure on forex reserves and the government tightening the belt to keep the balance of payment on check, it is an excellent time to rethink these projects.
Interestingly, most of the planned expressways run almost parallel to the major rivers of the country, making the case for the waterways even stronger.
In fact, some of these riverways are already under the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade between Bangladesh and India, and vessels of both the countries have been plying these routes with varying success for many years now.
Properly done, maintenance dredging of these riverways will cost much less than what is on the plates regarding the proposed expressways.
It is interesting how the capital city is connected to every corner of the country through waterways. Although only southern districts are connected through commercial services, there are less popular launch services that connect the centre of the country with Sylhet, Sunamganj, haor upazilas of Kishoreganj and Netrokona etc.
Likewise, the south-western district of Khulna is also connected. This year, we have seen the people of northern districts use riverways to reach home before Eid.
Suitable vessel designs
The country has a fairly developed vessel-building industry to design and build appropriate boats for different "class" of rivers, as defined by the BIWTA.
The only thing necessary is to shift our focus from the land-based transport regime and pay a bit of attention to the real potential of the waterways.
If we follow the path our northern home-goers have shown, that might make all the difference.