The Financial Express

Remembering pioneer of private sector shipping

Remembering pioneer of private sector shipping

I remember late Sanaullah Chowdhury of Atlas Shipping with a lot of love, respect and admiration. He was a good friend of mine. He was laid to eternal rest in Dhaka on April 25 last. With his sad demise Bangladesh lost a worthy son of the nation who was no doubt the pioneer of the private sector shipping in Bangladesh.

When I joined sea in 1963, there was only one ship-owning company with its operational headquarters in Chattogram. That was Pakistan Steam Navigation Company owned by late A K Khan.  The company had two ocean-going ships (perhaps named "Fatehabad" and "Jahangirabad").  To the best of my knowledge, the ships operated until about 1969. Thereafter there was no ocean-going merchant ship owned privately by any East Pakistani company.

After liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, we had no ocean-going merchant ships. Even the ships owned and operated by Pakistan National Shipping Corporation were tactfully taken out of Bangladesh except for two smaller ships which eventually became the only asset of the newly-formed Bangladesh Shipping Corporation. In the initial few years, our economy was strictly centralised and state-owned. We were probably more socialist than Russia and China. Almost everything was nationalised. It included all mills and factories, banks and insurance companies, shipping and aviation. If I remember correctly only some trucks and buses were operating in the private sector apart from some riverine craft. I add the word "some" because there were state-owned BRTC (Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation) and BIWTC (Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation). I am sorry to say that most of those state-owned enterprises were running in loss. The only state-owned corporation that made profit was the newly-formed Bangladesh Shipping Corporation.

Things changed after 1975 with the change in government. Private sector investments started pouring in. New banks and insurance companies were launched. Mr. Nurul Qader Khan of Desh Garments was the pioneer and the ready-made garment industry developed very fast. Ananda Shipyard and Western Marine showed how to develop ship-building. Bangladesh economy started getting diversified and gain momentum. Lately the government also allowed the tele-communication service in the private sector. The fast developing IT sector got linked up with other arms to boost the economy.

Shipping and aviation were also opened up for private sectors. Apart from the fact that they were complex international business, they were also capital intensive. It took time for private investment to come for international shipping and aviation. Here we will talk about the man who made the first private sector shipping in Bangladesh.

As a teenager Mr Sanaullah Chowdhury joined Shaw Wallace (Pakistan) Ltd. as a trainee shipping clerk in 1955. Shaw Wallace was the agents for famous German shipping Hansa Lines in Chattogram. Sanaullah was very bright and sharp. He soon drew attention of German bosses visiting Chattogram. They offered him training in their headquarters in Bremen. No degree or diploma but very practical on-the-job training. He learnt a lot about shipping in Germany, Holland and Belgium. He surprised his German bosses when he expressed his desire to get back home (East Pakistan) instead of pursuing a shipping career in Europe. In 1966 he resigned from Shaw Wallace and opened his own family business - Atlas Shipping Services. Immediately after liberation of Bangladesh, he obtained an agency for Scindia Steam Navigation of India and that of India Steamship Co. of Calcutta. He then obtained a cargo booking agency for SCI. He eventually obtained an agency for Shipping Corporation of India. He diversified into agency, chartering, brokerage and all other services. His business flourished.

It was in 1978 that he (Atlas Shipping) purchased a second-hand cargo ship of about 10,000 GRT and got it registered at  the port of Chattogram and named the vessel Al-Salma. That was the first Bangladeshi ocean-going merchant ship under private ownership. He kept on buying second-hand ships one after another, though some of the older ones were sold off as scraps. He purchased Al-Sharmeen in 1980, Al-Sayestha in 1981, Al-Sana in 1985, Al-Salma-2 in 1985, Al-Swamruz in 1986, Safar in 1989 and Al-Salmas in 1997. At one time Atlas Shipping had as many as four ocean-going ships. Safar was the last ship sold off in 1999 as scrap which brought an end to their ship-owning business. His ships operated from Japan and South Korea to the East and to Pakistan and Persian Gulf in the West. Atlas Shipping provided employment to Bangladeshis both on ships and ashore. It saved and earned precious foreign exchange for the country. There are a lot of Bangladeshi mariners around the world who shaped their career at Atlas Shipping.

Mr.Sanaullah Chowdhury in his personal life was very gentle and polite. He helped many people in many different ways. People working for his ships or office were a happy bunch of people. He never cheated or deprived anybody. One Capt. Khaled Saifullah says that he started as a cadet (1978) in Atlas Shipping and stayed on with them even as a master (1991). He still remembers how Mr. Chowdhury came to Chattogram only to attend the ceremony of handing over command to Capt. Saifullah. Mr. Chowdhury's public dealing reflected the good training he had with the famous Hansa Line. The spirit of Sanaullah Chowdhury will remain alive in the minds of those connected with shipping in Bangladesh. We salute the departed soul.

London, May 10, 2019



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