by F R Chowdhury

By the grace of Allah, the merciful, Bangladeshi mariners are now all over the world. They are not only sailing on ships but many of them are employed ashore in responsible position ashore in many countries. This is perhaps the biggest success story for any single professional community of Bangladesh. Bangladeshi mariners have every reason to celebrate their success. Recently our marine community in Singapore arranged for a celebration in which many community members from other places also joined them. I am so delighted to know that our mariners in North America (USA and Canada) also decided to make their first big get-together. It is on their request that I write this article.

The big population of Bangladesh is its greatest asset. Economic development and progress depend on education and training of the population so that it can turn out the man-power resource into employable work-force at home and abroad. So far we have exported lot of unskilled cheap man-power to middle-east Arab countries and Malaysia. However, by now we also got doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants and teachers employed in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, USA and Canada. Mariners are perhaps the only professional community in Bangladesh whose members abroad outnumber those back home. In a place like USA and Canada where there is no room for unskilled people, we have our members in such strength that we are proudly celebrating this get-together. What an amazing achievement!

After 44 years of independence, I think it is important that we write and talk about the development of shipping in Bangladesh. Otherwise with generation gap, it will perhaps be a totally lost history. We must take inspiration from our seniors and leave behind something for our future generations to work on. We will probably become lost if we do not respect and remember those who laid the foundations. The community would have never reached this position unless in the early days of Bangladesh we had a sizeable domestic fleet. Remember, foreign shipping want ready-made products that is certified officers. How can you have certified officers unless domestic fleet provide the mandatory training berth? So our discussion will centre on development of shipping in Bangladesh in its early days.

We cannot write about development of shipping unless we talk about the marine academy. Late Sabur Khan of Khulna (those days communication minister of Pakistan) and late Fazlul Qader Chowdhury of Chittagong (those days speaker of the national assembly of Pakistan and acting president during president’s trips abroad) had lot of contributions for establishing this unique institute in the then East Pakistan. However, for some unknown reason, the project was left incomplete towards the end of 1960. It was after the cyclone that Governor Azam Khan was passing through river Karnaphuli when he noticed some abandoned structures at Juldia. He came to know about it and took it as his personal responsibility to make sure that the first marine academy starts operating there. May Allah grant him jannat because of his initiative we finally got our marine academy. Commodore Mohammed Asif Alavi, SK, PN who was the Naval Officer in charge (NOIC), Chittagong became the first commandant of the marine academy. He was a Dufferin trained officer and knew well about the requirements of a merchant marine training institute. Marine academy had the right and perhaps the best guidance at the time of its birth.

In 1963 when I joined a merchant ship as a cadet, most of the shipping companies were Karachi based. Only two ships owned by Pakistan Steam Navigation of Mr. A. K. Khan were registered in Chittagong. They were “Fatehabad” and “Jahangirabad”. Mr. Hussein was their general manager in Chittagong. I joined the Pan-Islamic which was the largest shipping company in Pakistan at that time. The state owned National Shipping Corporation (NSC) was probably set up in 1964.

The independence of Bangladesh was declared on 26-March-1971 but the liberation struggle continued until 16-December-1971 when we finally got the country back from the occupying Pakistani forces. Dhaka was a provincial capital that overnight became national capital. Under dynamic leadership of Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed, prime minister, Bangladesh set-up its national administration. Whether we have ocean-going ships or not, it became an immediate necessity to open our seaports to receive the help and assistance sent by friendly countries. Mr. Kibria was made the chairman of Chittagong port and Mr. Quddus was appointed as port director, Mongla as it was still a secondary port directly under the ministry. On the request of Mr. Kibria, I joined the port of Chittagong that was damaged badly by bombing and had several wrecks and mines. We worked under the guidance of a great person named Capt. K. Mehboob (Pakistani) and made the channel navigable. May Allah grant him Jannat. I still remember Norwegian tanker “Sarita” bound for Singapore from Persian Gulf responded to UN appeal and diverted for Chittagong. That was the first ship with crude oil to arrive Bangladesh. It stayed even south of Kutubdia. I had to go there with a flotilla of small coastal tankers to bring oil. The Russian government offered salvage assistance that was accepted by Bangladesh. Capt. Shafat Ahmed was originally appointed as the coordinator with Russian Salvage team but later I took over as the Coordinator. In about 7 months time the salvage team cleared Chittagong of all wrecks and mines. I also had to train the first batch of marine pilots for Chittagong port before I could be released for fulfilment of my career. The grateful nation still remembers how Mr. Kibria and Mr. Quddus worked hard to get the ports back to their normal operation.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to Bangladesh on 10th January 1972. Capt. QABM Rahman knew him well. Capt. Rahman utilised his connection not for personal gains but for the cause of shipping in Bangladesh. Merely a month passed that Mujib returned to Bangladesh, the Presidential Order was issued creating state owned Bangladesh Shipping Corporation with left behind assets of NSC in Bangladesh. Capt. Rahman became the first chairman and managing director of BSC. It is time that I talk about this dynamic person. Admiral Ahsan, the then governor of East Pakistan recognised the talents of Capt. Rahman and made him the chairman of East Pakistan Shipping Corporation (now known as Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation). I believe at the age of 33 or 34 he headed a state owned enterprise that had the largest number of employees in Pakistan. The present BIWTC still bears the touches of Capt. Rahman’s genii.

Capt. Rahman was not only chairman and managing director of the newly formed BSC, he was also an adviser to the prime minister on all maritime matters. On his advice the department of shipping was created as the nerve centre of our maritime administration with Capt. M. Shafi as its first director general. During the period of occupation, our farmers suffered a lot as they could not engage in cultivation of rice crop. We suffered a huge shortage of food. Food grain started arriving in large ships most of which could not enter Chittagong port. A task group (BTTG) was created with Capt. Shafi as its head. At Chittagong Mr. Shamsuddin Khan acted as the coordinator. Together they ensured that UN-chartered mini-bulkers and UN donated trucks were properly utilized to distribute the food and save the hungry people of Bangladesh. This is another piece of history now almost forgotten.

I have to now talk about another Dufferin trained person named Mr. Q.M.S. Zaman who perhaps after obtaining Second Mate’s Certificate joined as Hoogly River Pilot in Calcutta (now Kolkata). After partition he came to East Pakistan and was later working with NSC in the commercial department. After the departure of Capt. Sayeed for Singapore Mr. Zaman became the commercial director of NSC. Readers may know that Capt. Sayeed was the founder and first chairman and managing director of Neptune Orient Line (NOL) of Singapore. When Mr. Zaman returned to Bangladesh, he was made the chairman and managing director of BSC.

Bangladesh Shipping Corporation was fortunate enough to have three outstanding personalities to lead the corporation in its early days. They were Capt. Rahman, Capt. Shafi and Mr. Q.M.S. Zaman. These professional giants received full support of two great ministers. The ministers were General M.A.G. Osmani and Admiral M.H. Khan (another Dufferin trained person). There was no bureaucratic interference. During their period shipping in Bangladesh flourished in a manner that can be truly called “dream come true”. We even got three bonuses in a year – not the Eid bonus but genuine bonus out of profits.

Shipping cannot sustain the growth without other supporting structures and activities. The newly formed department of shipping played an important role to provide the cover of regulatory activities. Capt. M.L. Rahman played an important part as principal officer of the marine department in Chittagong. In addition to his duties, he was also made the first Bangladeshi commandant of the marine academy. His leadership and guidance saved our marine academy.

It was not only master mariners but also marine engineers who played their role in shipping sector. Mr. Zakaria Khan Majlis was probably working with the renowned classification society Lloyds Register. Mr. Sakhawat Hussain was also working ashore. But the man I have to talk about is Mr. Zahedur Rahman. I saw this great man working day and night to keep our ships operational. He worked initially as an engineer superintendent of BSC. Then he also joined Lloyds Register. LR was kind enough to give his services on loan to the government to appoint him as technical director of BSC. Later he returned to LR and retired from there. I am so proud to talk about younger Sakhawat (ex-academy) and sarwar (prantik) who came into ship-building and repair industry. They have added a new dimension to our maritime sector. Many of our marine engineers are abroad in very responsible positions. Our marine community abroad are our pride as they bring name and fame to our maritime sector. At this stage, I remember a colleague of mine Mr. Salahuddin, a patriotic Bangladeshi and a good marine engineer. He could have many jobs abroad but he preferred to stay back in Bangladesh. Unfortunately his talents were never utilized fully. May Allah grant him Jannat.

During my short tenure as commandant of the marine academy, in 1977 God gave me an opportunity to attend annual review meeting of the ministry by Ziaur Rahman, the president in Bango-bhaban. I utilised the opportunity to the full context. I informed the president about the importance of the maritime sector and that of the marine academy to our national context. The president was convinced and kind enough to order immediate preparation of a development project. The UNDP-IMO-GOB master plan for development of the marine academy had its root established in that meeting.

Our mariners have successfully ventured into other business. I remember with great admiration the achievements of Abdul Awal Mintoo and Surhawardy. Hasan Quddus followed their footsteps. I have to also mention about S.M. Abdullah who made the first website directory of mariners. Later Engr. Baten in Singapore took the initiative to develop bdmariners and now we are in touch with the community and we do exchange many vital information. Surhawardy publishes famous Bangladesh Chronicle and Juldia Academy Alumni website. Our community has come a long way. Mr. Moin U Ahmed, one of our community members is now the director general of IMSO (International Mobile Satellite Organization). In the North we have Sarwar with V ships in Glasgow (Scotland), in the South we have Hannan with AMSA of Australia and back in Bangladesh we have Sajid as the commandant of the marine academy. The Bangladesh Merchant Marine Association, Nautical Institute and Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) are playing very important role in Bangladesh. I may have missed many incidents, occasions or names of individuals. It is nothing other than failure of my memory. I may please be excused.

During my brief period of service with Bangladesh Navy as a reservist, I was fortunate to work with Admiral M H Khan, Admiral Mustafa and Admiral Khurshid Alam. They were brilliant and outstanding officers. In the civil service, I came across Mr. Siddiqur Rahman, Mr. Shamsul Haq Chisty, Dr. Ekram Hossain and Mr. Mujibul Haq whose contributions in the early days of Bangladesh must never be forgotten. We have to also remember with gratitude Mr. Bernard Zagorin who was the resident representative of the UNDP at Dhaka. He was one of those who loved Bangladesh and did everything possible within his means for Bangladesh. That also included the maritime sector.

Not that everything done in the early days of Bangladesh was good. In 1983, we got a Merchant Shipping Ordinance that can best be described as rubbish. Now it has become our legacy and we cannot get rid of it. Until 1983, Bangladesh ships used to be registered under British Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 and have a Certificate of British Registry but would fly Bangladesh flag. A national law was essential but we should have got our expertise together to make something sensible. Most of the MSO of 1983 is re-written text of British-Indian Merchant Shipping Act of 1923. We must not forget that the colonial masters never wanted Indians to compete with UK-based British ship-owners. That is why it required government permission to buy and register a ship by Indians. The same provision still applies to Bangladeshis to buy and register a ship in Bangladesh. The British citizens do not require any government permission to buy or register a ship. Rules made under the MSA provide for criteria (mostly from age and quality point of view) and the ship-owners act accordingly. There are many British ships that never even come to UK in their life-time but in Bangladesh the process of registration have to be completed by bringing the ship in Bangladesh within a period of six months. It is very important that we have merchant shipping act in conformity with the needs and requirements of the time.

Life at sea is full of risks and hazards. It has its rewards as well. It gives a good salary compared to any other job in Bangladesh. Besides it gives the opportunity to see the world. Some people in Bangladesh felt very jealous of it. They got bent upon destroying this great avenue for Bangladeshi mariners. There was a time when all cadets trained in the academy got employment. They were well trained and quickly obtained professional certificates. After meeting national requirements they ventured into the wide open world which was previously dominated by Europeans and Indians. Government suddenly increased the number of cadets in the academy. Not only that, government even licensed several private academies. The outcome is sharp drop in quality of training. Cadets cannot find employment for minimum mandatory period of service for professional qualification. It is a disaster. Trained cadets are going door to door looking for jobs. On top of that I believe the government is building four more academies (Pabna, Barisal and other places). Those involved will make quick money from the project but will not face the music because by then they will be gone. Many in the administration are now accused of being corrupt and even involved in issue of forged/ fraudulent documents. Unless there is growth of national fleet, there is no sense in recruiting and training more cadets. The community should unite against enemies of the country. Let us move forward in a planned and balanced way where each sector can support the other to achieve sustainable growth.

London, 05-August-2015                                                  <fazlu.chowdhury@btinternet.com>


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