Damaged Beyond Repair: Ministry of Shipping
F R Chowdhury,M.Sc. (WMU) and Master Mariner (UK)
Ever since coming into power, the present Government has systematically damaged every public institution. The judiciary does not anymore reflect its independence and impartiality. It simply carries forward the wishes of the Government. The Police and RAB have been turned into party political thugs for killing political opponents. Extra judicial killing is now an everyday matter. In the education sector, the students never fail, they all get GPA-5 even though they know nothing. I say this because in order to study abroad they mostly have to re-do what they have already done in Bangladesh. Our first degree is not recognized abroad to pursue higher post-graduate degrees.
Readers perhaps remember my article on ministry of foreign affairs under similar heading. To day’s focus is on ministry of shipping. We all know how this sector flourished immediately after liberation. This is because we had a number of dedicated professionals; and they were allowed to handle matters at national level. I can without any hesitation mention the name of M A G Osmani who was the minister in charge. He was not a professional expert. But he listened to experts. Above all he was a honest man and he never accepted or tolerated any corruption, nepotism or favouritism. Under his shadow and guidance people like QABM Rahman, QMS Zaman and Mohammed Shafi worked relentlessly to build the fundamental base for development and growth of shipping. I still remember how within matters of five years of our independence the state owned enterprise Bangladesh Shipping Corporation that started with nothing developed a fleet of 30 ships going all over the world. The writer took delivery of new ship from Japan and proudly commanded BSC ships to both USA and Europe and carried pilgrims to Jeddah. Those were the days when BSC paid two to three bonuses to all its employees ashore and afloat besides contributing substantially to national exchequer.
Too much profit and prosperity became the main reason for the down-all. Too many political persons became interested in the corporation as well as the ministry. The political will for development turned into greed for personal fortunes. The first mistake was for the minister to become the chairman of the corporation. When the minister becomes a party to its management and operation then who is he accountable to? The entire chain of command and accountability is lost. I say this because corporation is a state/ public property and the government is the custodian of the state. The minister as the government for the relevant ministry should appoint a suitable/ competent person as the chief executive of the corporation. The chief executive should be answerable to the government (relevant minister) and the minister should be finally answerable to the people through the parliament. If the minister becomes a party to the operation and management then he cannot blame anyone for its poor performance. The accountability is lost.
The next reason for the big damage is the concept that Navy knows everything. The Director General of Sipping (Head of National Maritime Administration), Chairman of Chittagong and Mongla Ports, Managing Director of the state owned Shipping Corporation are all naval officers. We did not have this situation even when the country was under martial law. As a reservist officer I sailed on our naval ships with our naval personnel. I found them very capable and competent. This does not mean to say they are also experts of merchant marine matters.
One of the biggest blunders the present government has done is by establishing a naval university and calling it a maritime university. The defense services have got a number of training establishments and they do not need a naval academy. The so-called maritime university is headed by a Vice-Chancellor from the Navy and then the Deans, Registrar and Treasurers are all from the Navy. How can it be called a maritime university? Creation of such a university with naval officers in the helm of the affairs does not make any sense. Those who drafted the relevant law are definitely outstanding idiots; and equally ignorant law-makers passed it in the house without uttering a word. Whether we needed a maritime university at all is also a debatable matter. As a matter of fact some of our existing universities could develop maritime faculty and provide higher degrees in maritime law, maritime insurance, claim and arrest of ships, ship brokerage and chartering of ships etc. Any one of these existing universities could regulate and oversee award of first degree by any institute or academy. The professional certification for sea-going qualifications have to be, in any case, supervised, approved, controlled and monitored by the Dept. of Shipping. Universities have no role in this respect.
I read with interest about the government having issued licences to certain people to build or buy shallow draft container vessels for carrying containers between Chittagong port and Pangaon. Some of these people are supposed to be selling off their licenses. I do not know of any legal provision either in our merchant shipping law or in the inland shipping law that gives the power to the government to issue any license for such purpose or to prevent other vessels registered in Bangladesh from being engaged in such trade. This illegal license business is the creation of the government to allow their party-men to make money out of nothing.
We all know that the existing two port authorities (Chittagong and Mongla) are supposed to provide facilities to shipping and thereby facilitate trade. Ports provide facilities and collect fees and charges as approved by the government. Ports were not established or developed to provide commercial transportation services. It is beyond the remit of the port. In addition to several private enterprises there are two public sector enterprises (state owned corporations) for carriage of goods – BSC in the ocean-going sector and BIWTC in inland sector. By allowing the CPA to carry containers from Chittagong to Pangaon, the government has overlapped and duplicated role and function of state owned enterprises. It has in a way challenged the fundamental framework of these institutions. Besides, when port authority itself carries the cargo, it automatically enjoys certain privilege and benefits over others. This is wrong. It must be stopped immediately.
The ministry of shipping has been involved in various unlawful activities. I think it was about a year back the minister, prompted by the inland vessel owners, decided that all vessels must be utilized for carriage of goods by inland waterways even though relevant factories/ industries may have their own vessels for carriage of raw materials or finished product. A policy circular was issued. This was subsequently challenged in the court. The court ruled that the government had no power or jurisdiction over the matter. The court clearly stated that the duty of the government was to ensure safety and not to dictate the trade. This was a slap on the face of the minister.
We do not have a large fleet of ocean-going ships. Most of our seafarers (officers and ratings) serve on foreign ships all over the world. In order to sustain this positive trend of employment, it is essential that Bangladesh maintains high standard of training and certification in compliance with international convention. It is very unfortunate that Bangladesh failed to comply with the provision I/7 and I/8 of the convention. IMO has already given Bangladesh a warning letter. If Bangladesh is removed from the white list of IMO, thousands of its seafarers will become redundant/ jobless. This matter needs urgent attention – far more important than setting up naval university.
Government should also fully implement ILO-MLC-2006 convention at the earliest possible. Though broadly it falls within the domain of the ministry of labour, it is far easier and practicable to implement through ministry/ department of shipping. The relevant department should immediately start the process of licensing the RPS (recruitment and placement services). Government must understand that MLC-2006 will have a direct bearing on employment of our seafarers where department of shipping is already involved in training and certification. Bring it all under one umbrella.
Finally, just a few words about necessity of a modern merchant shipping act. Law provides jurisdiction and a framework for future growth. “A vessel cannot have full registration unless it is brought to Bangladesh”- cannot be a good law. Why the vessel cannot be fully registered as and when the ownership is changed? The law has to be changed. A mortgage cannot be recorded on a temporary/ provisional register. We need a modern and practicable merchant shipping act.
Writer born in Bangladesh in 1945. Had pre-sea training in Chittagong Marine Academy (1962-63). Joined merchant navy in 1963. Obtained Master Mariner from DOT, UK in 1976. Commanded merchant ships including passenger ship. Then served as Manager and Technical Director of a Shipping Company; as Assistant Harbour Master of Chittagong Port; Commandant of the Chittagong Marine Academy; as Chief Nautical Surveyor and then as Director General of Shipping with the Government of Bangladesh. In 1991 joined DOT-UK (now UK-MCA) as a Marine Surveyor and in 1997 promoted as Deputy Chief Examiner. From 2000 to 2004 served as Maritime Administrator in Gibraltar and from 2004 to 2008 as a Deputy Director of the Bahamas Maritime Authority, the Kingdom of Bahrain as Maritime Adviser, now serving in Tonga as a World Bank consultant for transport sector. Professional Affiliations : Member, Association of Marine Surveyors; Member, BMNOA, & Ex-Member, UK Merchant Navy Reserve. Awards : Service Medal as an Officer of the Bangladesh Naval Reserve
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