BM Container Depot catastrophe: A wakeup call
Industrial disasters have been shocking us every now and then, including factories catching fire with workers trapped inside. Poor institutional preparedness and lack of a safety culture and holistic enforcement to prioritize safety standards as a daily routine in the industries could be attributed as the prime reason for such shocking disasters taking place at regular intervals.
Ever since the emergence of Inland Container Depots (ICDs), they have been playing a pivotal role in contributing to decongestion at Chattogram Port by easing the logistics flow of containers to and from Chattogram Port's hinterland area and helping the Port Authority to mark new records in container handling.
ICDs are integral part of country's logistics infrastructure to facilitate international trade. Especially, timely execution of garment export is dependent on the flawless functioning of the ICDs.
However, the recent tragedy at BM Container Depot Limited took lives and seriously injured so many of our countrymen is a symptom of bigger problem that could lead to an even bigger disaster of unimaginable scale.
Nothing can be more painful than observing countrymen losing their lives and sufferings for no apparent fault of their own.
After two weeks of the horrific accident, reliable statements of actual loss suffered by cargo owners are not disclosed and export-import facilitation of unaffected cargos is on hold with no indication on timing of resumption.
Another worrying part of the accident is that reportedly, the firefighters were unaware of the chemical storage at the ICD, for e.g information and location of the dangerous goods (DG) stored was not available in any form for ready access!
More so, containers with dangerous goods were kept alongside the garment export containers. It implies that, a key logistics facility like ICDs of the second largest garment exporter of the globe lacking essential measures & processes to ensure safety of the cargo.
More so, insuring the cargo while at the disposal of the ICDs are a burning matter which have been long overlooked by the ICD owners, cargo owners and regulators.
This accident raises a grave concern over whether the ICDs which handle 90% of export and about 25% of import containers are at all maintaining any safety standards! If not, who is to take responsibility for collective failure of enforcement of minimum safety standards for container handling operations within the ICD premises!
Along with loss of lives and resources, our international imagery would also be affected on a longer term due to this unfortunate yet preventable mishap.
Despite all odds, garment exports have been on rise showcasing growing confidence of the buyers. While global buyers would understand that accidents are not deliberate phenomenon, but accidents for the lack of effective preventive measures at the ICDs might signal wrong message to them.
In recent reports published on major newspapers with statistics that six out of nineteen ICDs are handling 60 per cent of the export import container volume, BM depot is among the top six.
While it showcases good performance of few ICDs, it also is a symptom that the safe cargo handling has become secondary for ICDs while running the operations at the top of their capacity! So, the pertinent question is who would take responsibility for the holistic implementation of safety culture and standards in the operations at the ICDs at a daily level!
After more than two decades, National Board of Revenue (NBR) has finally adopted the first-ever off-dock policy. An encouraging initiative as the policy has been formulated with clear guidelines for easing out business and economic aspects of the operations of off-dock facilities.
However, comprehensive outlook on operational safety and their collective enforcement mechanism are grossly missed out. Licenses & clearances have been doing mandate from different departments and institutions, same way those were mandated in the office order issued in 1998 and further order in 2016 for operations of Off-Dock facilities.
Therefore, responsibility of enforcement was left to various departments without assigning pivotal role for coordination and enforcement on any department, institution, or authority! As we observe the ongoing chaos, the situation is not likely to change as long as the lack of concerted coordination prevails!
NBR as licensing institution for ICDs and port authorities as key beneficiary do have joint responsibility for formation of a national taskforce including members from relevant stakeholders and institutions. The taskforce is to set the standards operating procedures (SOPs) and formulate operational safety standards for ICDs, Off-Dock Facilities,
Inland Container Terminals (ICTs) and Container Freight Stations (CFSs) taking reference of the global best practices tailoring those to the country context without much compromise.
Lack of structured knowledge and institutional capacity cannot be put as excuse anymore to justify years of oversight of safety standards in the ICDs. Really, there is no time that we can spare any further.
An immediate assessment of operational procedures and safety standards in all existing ICDs are to be carried out by a team of experts assigned by the taskforce.
The idea of such assessment must not direct towards immediate punitive actions, rather acting as a facilitator to developing a holistic roadmap for the ICDs to put safety standards at the forefront of daily container handling operations and implement the standard operating procedures in a uniform manner.
Furthermore, training and certification of ICD staff handling DG goods must be ensured as per global safety standards. Regular monitoring of progress of implementation of standards by the taskforce would act as a key success factor.
Moreover, guidelines for handling DG goods which are exported out of the country must be formulated and implemented immediately. An economy's logistics infrastructure and management systems are key contributors for GDP growth and for growing international trade.
It is time for the logistics sector to be prioritized as an industry for receiving due attention and incentives for building operational excellence to further strengthen and develop our economy.
Time is of the essence here. Taking right steps now, will save the future - prevention is better than cure.
Syed Ershad Ahmed is an expert in
logistics sector and fellow CILT, Tanjil Ahmed Rurullah, CMILT, director, Bangladesh Shipping Agents Association and Dewan Shahinur Rahman, CMILT is a supply chain specialist.