By F R Chowdhury:

Ever since the present government came to power, it managed to destroy the maritime sector of Bangladesh in a systematic manner. I must congratulate them for their speed and success. It almost looks like miracle that they managed to achieve their success in such a short period. I still remember, not long ago, when almost every day in the port of Chittagong a BSC ship was either sailing for UK-Continent or US-Gulf ports or another was returning. The big tanker was bringing crude from Arabian-Persian Gulf and two other tankers were carrying them to inner harbour oil moorings. Not long ago it also had a passenger ship that carried pilgrims to Jeddah and back. We also carried ship load of passengers from Jeddah to Karachi. Then there were other ships engaged in Colombo-Karachi-East Africa-Persian Gulf service. We also had, not so frequently, another service to Singapore-Malaysia-Hong Kong-Japan and China. Smaller ships operated to Kolkata and back. In the BSC offices in Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, London and New York telex machines were running day and night with news of the ships and cargo. BSC staff was busy marketing – booking cargo from every corner in the world. Employees both on ships and ashore enjoyed three bonuses in a year. Today it all looks like dream. We are now left with two broken ships not going anywhere. Yet, I see advertisement for recruitment of more man-power. We still have to provide employment to “mamu-bhagna”.

There was a time when brilliant boys were going to marine academy because it gave them a bright and secure future. Graduation ceremony was a great day as they would enter their working life. Now the academy trained cadets are roaming around looking for jobs. Obviously the academy does not get any more applications from Cadet College or Notre-dam college boys. The government was still busy making more marine academies. It is for quite some time that we have not heard anything about the Barisal and Pabna marine academies. The maritime administration is plagued with several problems. Some of its employees are involved in issue of fraudulent certificates and other documents making life difficult for genuine seafarers. Corruption and bribery play a part in almost every service making some people super rich in no time.

Only a few days ago I wrote an article on maritime matters under heading “Let us identify our priorities”. It was published in a number of papers. Many people thanked and congratulated me for bringing out crystal-clear the problems and solutions. I do not think anyone in the government had any time to read any such thing. I never came across any rejoinder or clarification with respect to that article. I can challenge the government to prove me wrong on any of the points highlighted in that article. If it is a democratic government of the people and by the people then it has to listen to people. Perhaps it is not.

We have an obsolete merchant shipping act. It is so outdated that it cannot be amended. The only solution is to have a revised and updated MSA to replace it. The new MSA must be user friendly. It must create avenues and attract investment. It should not require a vessel to be brought to Bangladesh for registration. The ship-owner must have the liberty to sell or scrap his ship when considered prudent for his business and do not have to ask for government permit or permission. Instead of having a new MSA, the ministry officials talk of newer legislation to regulate shipping trade – an absolutely unnecessary exercise. We already have a Flag Protection Ordinance that did not protect our shipping from extinction. It made some people rich by issuing of waivers. We do not want more money-making traps.

There are two other things about which the ministry is hyper-active. The one on top of everything else is “direct shipping service”. Every now and then our ministry officials go abroad (for reasons not understood) but on their return they give statement that the matter of direct shipping service has been discussed. We heard about direct shipping service to India, Thailand, Indonesia and now South Korea. These are all rubbish and bogus. We have to understand shipping is a business and not charity. The ship-owner will run his ship where it gets business and money. No ship-owner, whether Bangladeshi or foreign, will bother about the statement of the minister. If there is a business potential, the ship-owner will not wait for minister’s statement. Ships will operate where it is profitable. Please note that people have heard enough about direct shipping service and they do not want to hear anymore about it.

The other thing about which the ministry is hyper-active is the number of ships BSC is buying. Perhaps just to divert public attention the ministry keeps on giving press release about procurement of ships every now and then. We have heard different statements at different times and do not know which of them are correct. Such statements are routine matter for last three to four years but nothing happened as yet. Due to over enthusiasm of the ministry we sometimes read in the newspapers that government is buying so many ships etc. This is wrong. Why should government buy ships? Is government a commercial concern? For the immediate revival of BSC, it must procure without delay at least three medium sized container ships of about 800 TEU each and operate them as feeder service between Chittagong and Singapore and also at least one between Mongla and Hambatota. BSC should have agreement with major main line global operator to get appropriate feed-back.

I must clarify here that Bangladesh Shipping Corporation is a commercial company. The difference with other companies is that BSC is not a privately owned company, it is state owned i.e. owned by the people of the country. Because the government runs the state, it obviously falls upon the government to run BSC. As stated earlier it is a commercial company and not a government department. So, it is the duty of the government/ minister to find a suitable person (not necessarily a civil servant or military officer) with knowledge and experience to run the organization with dynamic leadership. Such a person should be designated as chairman and managing director so that he/ she can operate as chief executive without any bureaucratic hindrance to achieve the goal and that goal is profit. The chief executive (as virtual owner) should be answerable to the government i.e. minister. The minister is ultimately answerable to the parliament to let the people (real owners) know of it. Any statement about new purchase or new service should come from the chief executive. The ministry officials got nothing to do with it unless the minister wants an officer to act on his behalf to inquire about a particular matter. For Heaven’s sake let states owned enterprises run on commercial footing free of bureaucratic hurdles and flourish.

I shall conclude by drawing the kind attention of the minister to the following important issues:

  1. Please ensure that all deficiencies found during IMO audit are rectified at the earliest;
  2. A comprehensive and modern merchant shipping act should be drafted immediately. At the same time maritime commercial act should also be drafted. Flag Protection Ordinance must be repealed;
  3. Administrative reorganization is essential. A department cannot exist under another department;
  4. Develop proper deep sea port after thorough feasibility study and extensive public consultation. Further investment in Pyera sea port should be reconsidered as it will require massive dredging;
  5. Mongla sea port should be made commercially viable;
  6. Complete the GMDSS and LRIT projects;
  7. Ask BSC to draw immediate plans for revitalization to come into profit. Ask them to explore feasibility of running feeder service to Singapore and Hambatota;
  8. Ask director general of shipping to assess and streamline cadets training program so that surplus cadets do not remain unemployed for long;
  9. Coordinate with ministry of finance for more incentive for ship-building industry and coordinate with department of environment for safe and environmentally acceptable way of dismantling of ships;
  10. Kindly talk to seafarers union and associations and then take with ministry of foreign affairs their problems relating to shore-leave, joining ships abroad and repatriation from ships.

London, 03-March-2018         <fazlu.chowdhury@btinternet.com>