A mechanised country boat is capsized in North Guwahati leading to the deaths of many. The boat was carrying around 40 passengers and the accident left almost 20 passengers missing or dead. Heart wrenching news of young lives lost flooded the news channels. This incident is one of the latest of many which exposes the failure of the government in ensuring minimum safety of people travelling by water.
This, however, is not the first incident which saw an overcrowded boat being capsized. A few years back in 2012 another incident in Dhubri’s Medirtary saw the death of more than 200 people in a boat caught in a cyclone. The Inland Water Transport department has not been held responsible for such incidents. The country boats are run by private lessees with permission from Inland Water Transport department. The boats often carry passengers more than its capacity. In fact a large number of passengers are allowed to travel without tickets.
Assam is naturally bestowed with an excellent potential of inland water transport. While the government has failed miserably in exploring the potential of inland water transport and connecting various parts of Assam by water, private ferries and country boats are run as the sole mode of transport connecting far flung areas across Brahmaputra. The people living in the river islands of Assam are also solely dependent on these country boats.
There are no regulations to check the condition of the boats. These country boats are in service in places like Majuli, Dhubri, Jaleshwwar, Dhakuakhana, Dibrugarh etc.
While the recent incident in Guwahati made people aware of the horrid condition of river transport, this is a day to day reality for those living in chars. Every day young children, women and men travel to nearby towns in such overcrowded boats.
Every day they put their lives at utmost risk to access basic amenities like education, market etc. The government is never seen too willing to ensure that safe mode of communication is made available to these people.
The government is seen active only when such tragic incidents take place. And this time in a knee-jerk reaction, Transport Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary banned these mechanised boats without providing any alternative to the people. This has in fact worsened the difficulties of the people.
In an era of technological development, the government should not leave inland water transport in such a pathetic outdated condition. In fact the government can develop inland water transport as a tourist attraction also, of course after putting in place proper safety requirements.
Interesting stories of living with the river and making most of it comes from across the border from Bangladesh. This country which is equally ravaged by annual floods have mechanised ways to ensure that people can cope with the changing rivers during monsoons.
There are floating schools, clinics on boats. They have also invested and upgraded river ways. Coming to Assam any such initiatives are yet to be seen. While the entire state celebrated Namami Brahmaputra and Namami Barak with much pomp and show, incidents like this remind us that we are yet to explore our water resources in true sense. And quasi religious celebrations don’t do much in this direction.
Inland Water Transport system at present faces a number of crisis. To start with most of the boats and vessels are old. There are no fast moving engines and advanced motor steamer. As a result journeys become very time consuming. The number of available boats, steamers continues to be much lower than the requirements. As a result the boats are always overcrowded and a constant risk persists.
There are some other problems with the transport system like inadequate manpower. The pace of restoration of damaged vessels is slow and there is a lack of proper maintenance. The government time and again emphasised on the need to work on the inland water transport. The World Bank has sanctioned a Rs 1000 crore aid to modernize the inland water transport of the state. The project aims to develop the state’s water terminals, river fronts and jetties.
Advantage Assam also talked about the need to capitalise on the vibrant water system of the state. Talks of establishment of ports as multi-modal hub, with storage and cargo handling facilities were made. While all these sound excellent policies with a lot of potential to boost the state’s economy, a strong political will to actually implement these policies is important.
The state government after the recent tragic incidents have decided to bring a legislation to oversee and ensure inland water transport safety. The Transport Minister further directed that all single engine ferries should be turned into double engine ones, safety measures like life jackets should be kept in the boats etc. He also directed Deputy Commissioners to conduct safety audits in their respective districts
The National Waterways Act of 2016 increased the number of waterways from 06 to 111 and out of these 15 deals with Assam. But till date the condition of these proposed waterways continue to be poor. If one examines the country boats, it is obvious that there is poor or no training of the boatmen, dangerous working practices, inadequate regulation and near nonexistent enforcement of any safety measures.
The sorry state of affairs reminds us that the department didn’t bother to learn from earlier accidents. Ever since the fateful day of 2012 in Dhubri’s Medirtary, nothing much has changed. Cargo vessels are still virtually nonexistent, most of the government owned ferries are grounded or rendered useless and most passengers rely heavily on motorised country boats.
Most government boats are slow steel ferry boats capable of achieving speed of only 2-4 knots, uneconomical due to high fuel and maintenance expenses. During monsoon, when the river is in spate, most of the vessels are docked and river transport comes to a standstill as these boats are not powerful enough to go against the current.
The lack of vessels causes large intervals in between service timings of the few plying ferries, and river traffic is largely dominated by bhutbhutis which have poor safety standards.
The need of the hour is to ensure safety measures of the people using inland water transport without hampering communication. Banning bhutbhutis is almost impossible as the government is not in a position to provide an alternative mode of transport as of now.
What the government should implement is minimum safety measures like not carrying passengers over capacity, the condition of ferries need to be evaluated and stakeholders like people living in river islands need to be taken on board while deciding future steps.
Parvin Sultana is an assistant professor in Pramathesh Barua College, Gauripur. She can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org