A business across watery track

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Country’s launch business growing bigger

Ferrying people and goods from one place to another in this land of rivers is as old as the country itself but what is worth noting is that the business centring this activity still keeps growing even in this age of revolutionary development in road and air communications.   

Propelled by an ever increasing demand because of its comparative safety, comfort and lower fares, the country’s launch business is on its upward trajectory. Every year, new launches are being put into service in the sector. 

When Shahidul Islam Bhuiya joined his family launch business in 1973, they had two vessels but now they have seven on different routes. Of them, MV Parabat-9, MV Parabat-10 and MV Parabat-12 operate on the Dhaka-Barisal route while he is planning to bring a new one named MV Parabat-18.

“Once only a few companies were in the business but now there are many active players in the industry,” Shahidul, owner of Messrs Rabeya Shipping Co, told Dhaka Tribune.

Key players in the sector 

With many new entrepreneurs and companies coming to the water transport (passenger carrier’s) business regularly and some old ones quitting it, the number of companies listed with the Bangladesh Inland Water Ways (Passenger carrier’s) Association, stands at around three hundred.

Sundarbans Navigation, M/S Farhan Navigation, Dollar Navigation, Aulad Shipping Lines, M/S Haji Kamal Shipping Lines, M/S Mahbub Uddin Ahmed, M/S Habiba Navigation and Corporation, Rakib Waterways, M/S Arniv Shipping Lines, M/S Nizam Shipping Lines, M/S Brothers Navigation, Parabat Navigation and M/S Rana Water Transport Corporation are the leading companies in the industry.

In addition, several companies are preparing to come to the business. More launches — Ovijan-10, Eiad-1, Hasan-Hussen, Parabat-18, Tipu-13 are awaiting their inauguration, industry people have said.

Around 515 water transports are operations in the country. Of them, 180 to 200 operate in Dhaka; 40 in Barisal, 60 in Narayanganj, 20 in Aricha Ghat, 75 in Mawa Ferry Ghat, 40 in Sylhet and Bhairab, 65 in Rangamati, 15 in Patuakhali area, according to Bangladesh Inland Water Ways (Passenger carrier’s) Association.

A good number of luxury launches catering to the demand of upend users and travellers are in operation on different routes.

Driving factors 

Affordable transportation cost and comfortable and safe journey are the main reasons that account for the expansion of water transport business. Besides, the lucrative returns are another attraction of the business — the investment returns within seven or eight years.

Lack of adequate road communication in the southern region is what has driven many from that region to take to the water transports.

Modernizing the sector 

In the 1990s, only small launches would run on the Dhaka-Barisal route. Now big launches have replaced them amid increased investment. 

Having come to the business only three years ago, Mohammad Nizam Uddin, owner of M/S Nizam Shipping Lines, has four launches M/V Avenger-1, Avenger-2, Avenger-3 and Avenger-4.

“Everything has to change over time. The launches have become bigger than before. We are now looking to modernize our service,” he told Dhaka Tribune.

According to the industry insiders, a decade ago, launching a vessel would cost around six to seven crore taka. Now it has gone up to around 20 to 25 crore taka depending on the size and decoration.  

A water transport needs to be refurbished every two years and its decoration needs to be changed every five years, they say.

A water transport can be up to 90 metres or 295 feet long and 52 feet wide for the internal route, not beyond that, according to Directorate General of Shipping.

Business season

The launch business is mainly festival centric. They have a good business during Eid, Puja and other long vacations. 

Generally, launch owners earn Tk25,000-30,000 per trip on the Dhaka-Barisal route. But, during the Eid vacations, their earnings go up by three to four times. 

Major challenges 

Poor navigability is a big challenge for the industry. The number of launches has increased over the years but the rivers have been losing their navigability. As a result, during the dry season, the business shrinks.

Mearchor point on the Dhaka-Patuakhali route is a matter of concern for the industry people as navigability is the lowest there despite dredging by Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) from time to time.

Lack of sufficient trained manpower is another challenge for industry, says Saidur Rahman, owner of Sundarbans Navigation.  

High interest rates on bank loans are another challenge for the sector, he adds. 

Fare for Dhaka-Barisal route

General passenger fare for the route is now at Tk255 per person. It goes up to Tk270 to Tk300 during Eid season. The fare for a single-bed cabin is Tk1,020 while that of a double-bed cabin is at Tk2,040. The fare of business class cabin at Tk6,000 to Tk7,000 depending on services, according to Bangladesh Inland Water Ways (Passenger carrier’s) Association.