Cargo handling in a shambles
Even though recent government efforts improved services, scarcity of trained workforce, shortage of equipment and space, and security concerns still plague the cargo village of the country’s premier airport. Exporters and importers alleged that they were troubled by incidents of theft at the cargo village area and by the corruption of a section of customs officials and ground handling staff, who create artificial crisis of equipment like pellets, containers, and trolleys. Despite a recent temporary dip in vegetables exports, export-import activities through the airport have gone up manifolds in recent years due to increased overseas trades.
Goods are still left haphazardly out in the open due to space constraint, even though construction of a new shed by the BGMEA for garment items improved the situation a little bit. Exporters, however, attributed the improvement to around 60 percent drop in the export of vegetables and fruits, which account for 20 to 25 percent of the total export cargo through the airport. Around 800 tonnes of goods are shipped by air every day through Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport.
Around 70 percent of it is garment items, exporters said. “The services at the cargo village improved because of the drop in the export of vegetables and fruits,” Mohammed Mansur, general secretary of Bangladesh Fruits, Vegetables and Allied Products Exporters’ Association told The Daily Star. Exports of vegetables and fruits dropped since September due to floods in some major vegetable-producing districts, he added.
Mansur feared that it could be messy again if new scanning machines were not installed before the export of vegetable picked up in winter. Exporters said the airport also needs pallets and containers. Mahbubul Anam, president of Bangladesh Freight Forwarders Association, said the cargo handling situation remained almost unchanged due to shortage of ground handling staff in the cargo village and lack of required equipment and machineries.
Biman Bangladesh Airlines, solely responsible for ground handling, was supposed to recruit 300 staff, including cargo loaders, but so far it appointed only 40, Anam said. “Although construction of the separate shed for garment items by the BGMEA mitigate the problem to some extent …,” said Nasir Hossain, vice-president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Nasir said the 8,000sqft shed reduced delivery time for imported samples of garment items significantly but just one shed was not enough for storing all goods as tonnes of garment products are exported and imported through the airport.
“Previously, it required 10 days and in some cases even more for delivery of such goods,” he said, adding that this was due to a section of officials at the cargo village taking a long time in the name of inspecting them. “Now it takes only 3-4 days. The ideal time for delivery is within one or two days of landing,” Nasir said.
He also said the guarding of the sheds also reduced theft incidents significantly. Still, there are incidents of small thefts as sometimes goods go missing from the package of garment samples. Foyez Ahmed, proprietor of Tahura International, a C&F agent at the airport, said incidents of theft could not be removed altogether but it has halved.
“Last month, one of my clients sent 5,332 pieces of shirts worth £10,664 to Riyad, but 2,000 pieces were missing when the consignment reached the buyer’s store,” Foyez said, adding that he did not lodge any compliant as he would have had to do it before the shipment. The trouble in export and import through the airport began this time around when Australia imposed a ban on direct cargo from Dhaka to Australia on security ground in December last year. The UK and Germany came up with similar kinds of bans in March and June this year.
The UK slapped the ban on March 8 after experts from the UK and the US inspected the Dhaka airport twice in November and December last year and found “serious security lapses and risks”. They found there were lapses in screening with x-ray and Explosive Trace Detector (ETD) machines; London-bound air cargo was left unprotected and unguarded on the airside; visible lapses in supervision; non-implementation of Corrective Action Plan (CAP), and manpower and equipment crises. Sources said the security has improved significantly as British firm Redline Aviation Security Ltd has already trained more than half of the 552 screeners and security personnel of Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh.
In a bid to boost security and dispel the fears of foreign governments, the government has approved a Tk 89 crore project to buy new equipment for the Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet airports. The project is scheduled to be implemented by the end of 2016. Under the project, two sets of explosive detection system, six sets of liquid explosive detection system, eight sets of dual view x-ray scanning machines, 14 sets of dual view x-ray scanning machine for cabin bags, nine sets of under-vehicle scanning machines, 14 sets of explosive trace detectors, five barrier gates, and four sets of flap barriers would be bought.
Sources in Caab said some of the equipment and machines would be in place by January next year while procurement and installation of the rest would be complete by June next. The ban on direct cargo from Bangladesh to the UK, Germany and Australia are still in place. As a result, cargo heading for the UK, Australia and Germany are re-screened in a third country.
This has increased the cost of exports and is hurting export of perishable goods as the re-screening is time-consuming. The foreign teams who visited the airport last year were concerned with cargo screening and management at the airport handled by Biman. The British experts talked about improving the security at the airport, especially at the cargo village.
The German team too was not satisfied with the security system. But little improved on the ground, even though the government hired Redline eight months ago. The country’s overall exports were valued at £34.24 billion in the last fiscal year against imports of nearly £45 billion.
Germany is our second largest export destination after the US. Bangladesh exported goods worth £4.99 billion to Germany in 2015-16. The UK is the third largest export destination.
In the fiscal 2015-16, Bangladesh exported goods worth £3.80 billion there. Australia is one of the important emerging markets for Bangladesh. In the fiscal year 2015-16, Bangladesh exported goods worth £705.64 million to Australia.
Of the total export to Germany and the UK, 95 percent and 80 percent were garment items. The UK is also a major destination for perishable items such as vegetables, and shrimps, owing largely to the high number of Bangladeshis living there. If the situation doesn’t improve, other countries in the EU are likely to impose bans on direct air cargo from Bangladesh.
The EU accounts for nearly 60 percent of Bangladesh’s exports, which means any ban from the EU will leave a disastrous impact on the garment sector. Officials of Biman claimed that the situation has improved “remarkably” as they have cleared several scrap aircraft parked in the cargo village area, disposed of 89.6 tonnes of goods lying around in the village for last several years, semi-automated the cargo warehouse, rented things like cartons, pallets, narrow isle stacker, and outsourced a good number of trained workforce. “With such steps, remarkable improvement has been made in the cargo village,” said Biman’s General Manager (public relations) Shakil Meraz.
Biman in an email response to The Daily Star’s queries on Tuesday said due to concerns regarding proper scanning of goods and security at the warehouse and the apron, which are controlled by Caab, the direct cargo to UK was banned. Shakil in the email also said Caab appointed Redline, security company of the UK, and was closely working with it to overcome the shortcomings. On the shortage of manpower and equipment, he said Biman Board was working on a new organogram and procuring adequate number of equipment for cargo operations. “Hopefully it would be completed by this year.”
He said against the requirement of eight scanning machines, currently four were working in the cargo village. On the incidents of theft, he said the situation would improve once Biman installs CCTV cameras to cover the entire cargo village by November 30. About recruitment of around 300 ground handling staff, he said hopefully they would be recruited by this month as they were waiting for their viva test to be done.
Shakil said they had not received any allegations of artificial crisis of equipment and staff taking bribes. “If we receive any authentic report against anyone, stern action will be taken against the person concerned,” he added. Director of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport group captain MK Zakir Hassan said the security at the cargo village area was absolutely fine. He said when a bulk of goods is taken out of the secure area for loading, a security personnel follows it until loading into aircraft.
With complaints from different quarters from home and abroad, the government formed a seven-member committee headed by principal secretary to the prime minister Abul Kalam Azad to improve the services at the airport.
(Refayet Ullah Mirdha contributed to the report)