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How Adani vessel, 2 others stranded for days on a Bangladesh river

What was supposed to be the new gateway to the north east has encountered an unexpected glitch.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Dec 08, 2019, 10.06 AM IST
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The vessels were part of India’s first attempt to send containerised cargo via a river from Kolkata to Guwahati.

On the evening of November 24, the cargo vessel MV Beki sent an SOS after running aground on the Jamuna, in Bangladesh. The ship, which was carrying coal from Haldia to Guwahati, also asked the accompanying vessels MV Maheshwari and MV Aai to anchor right away to prevent it from getting stuck in the shallow river bed.

The vessels were part of India’s first attempt to send containerised cargo via a river from Kolkata to Guwahati. The government wants to use inland waterways to ship cargo to the Northeast and Bangladesh, reducing cost and time to reach the landlocked region which can otherwise be reached only through the narrow Chicken’s Neck corridor in north Bengal. By using the river route, goods can reach Guwahati and be then transported across the Northeast. This also helps India increase trade with Bangladesh — a part of the river route is through that country — and counter any external threat to Chicken’s Neck. India and Bangladesh have signed agreements to develop waterways to operate cargo and passenger ships.

The three vessels — the biggest being Maheshwari, which Adani Group has leased to ferry edible oil and other material — were flagged off by Shipping Secretary Gopal Krishna on November 4. According to the itinerary, the 1,425 km journey traversing Hemnagar (border), Khulna, Sirajganj, Chilmari (border), Dhubri and Pandu was to be covered in 12-15 days. But almost a month later, the vessels are some 200 km from its destination, the Pandu river port in Guwahati.

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The India-Bangladesh Protocol allows mutually beneficial arrangements for the use of their waterways for movement of goods.


So what went wrong? ET Magazine has stitched together a picture of the events after talking to Indian officials, reviewing reports being published in Bangladesh media and looking at Twitter posts from government handles.

After starting their journey, the three ships had to brave the Bulbul, the tropical cyclone that hit Odisha, West Bengal and Bangladesh around November 10. The cyclone halted the vessels in Sunderbans for a couple of days. It was smoother sailing after that.

But when the vessels entered Bangladesh and were near Sirajganj around the last week of November, one ran aground. Indian officials suspect the local maritime pilot — the sailor who guides a ship through a particular route or a port — directing the vessel perhaps led it into a channel that did not have the required depth. Though a captain is the head of a ship, he might allow a pilot who knows the local geography to navigate certain crucial or dangerous stretches.

Cargo vessels that usually carry weight equivalent to that of 80 to 100 loaded trucks require least available depth of 2.5-3 metres for unhindered sailing. The stretch where Beki got stuck was known to have inadequate depth during this time of the year.

After receiving the lead vessel’s SOS, officials of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority and Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) swung into action and launched a joint rescue operation. On November 29, the IWAI confirmed in a Twitter post the “vessels got stuck up in wrong channels”. During the next couple of days, a dredger was brought in to clear the mud around the ships and to make a path for them. A tugboat, which is used to tow ships, was sailed in from Dhubri, a river port in western Assam. The vessels began voyaging again soon after. But more trouble was on the way. Around the first week of December, at least one of the ships ran aground near Chilmari, a border town in Bangladesh. There remained there for three days before a dredger came to rescue them again.

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By Thursday night, ET Magazine has learnt, all the three vessels had reached Hatsingimari, a town in western Assam that shares a border with Meghalaya and Bangladesh. Here, the vessels had to get the mandatory security clearance from the Border Security Force before reentering India’s waters and proceeding towards Guwahati, where they should have docked by November end, according to schedule. Such a delay would defeat the aim of using inland waterways to cut transportation cost and time.

To make this river route more viable, Adani Ports & SEZ is contemplating to build vessels with higher capacity that can sail in such low depths. In an emailed response to ET Magazine’s query, CEO Karan Adani says, “We have also requested Inland Waterways Authority of India and its Bangladesh counterpart to allow us loading up to 7 feet instead of 6 feet to enable us to carry sufficient cargo.”

To ensure ships do not run aground on this route, both countries have started a Rs 187 crore dredging project between Sirajganj and Daikhawa in Bangladesh, a distance of 175 km. The project — 80% of which is funded by India — is expected to be completed by 2021. Earlier this week, Dhaka has agreed to conduct fortnightly surveys on select river routes and share data on depths, channel alignments and such with New Delhi so that these issues can be avoided. Looks like it will be bon voyage on this route only next year.
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