The boat capsize that took place recently in the Brahmaputra is not an incident out of the blue. Over the years such incidents have occurred several times along the entire length of the mighty river with the authorities conveniently looking the other way save doling out towering promises before the media of initiating corrective measures. Most ridiculously, although years and years have rolled by, those tall promises are yet to find manifestation so far a the ground reality is concerned.
Going by the irresponsible manner in which authorities like the Inland Water Transport (IWT) department and the district administrations function, one only feels that the State may be witness to many more such boat mishaps in the years to come. Again, the recent boat mishap in the Brahmaputra took place at a stone’s throw from the river bank in Guwahati. With Guwahati constituting the epicentre of the Northeast media and the scribes hounding for breaking news, it was natural that the tragedy found immense coverage, perhaps to the utter discomfort of the authorities. Had the incident occurred at some far off place like Dhubri, in every likelihood the coverage might have been on a low key.
While in the fitness of things, the IWT should regulate the plying of steamers, mechanized country boats (locally called bhutbhuti) and other vessels on the river, the bitter reality is that there is an acute shortage of large steamer ferries, while bhootbhootis hitherto had a field day seemingly without any authority to regulate their activities. The worst part is that nobody quite knows as to how may such bhootbhootis have been in operation on the Brahmaputra till the other day or if any of these boats possessed any valid document to ply on the river.
Fitness of the bhootbhootis is another issue. Going by bitter truth that has partially come to light now, a mechanism to determine such fitness has always been lacking in the government’s administrative system with the authorities dumping all the relevant rules and law in the backburner. Further, a boat has a limited capacity in terms of maximum number of passengers that it can carry. But it is common knowledge of every person, save of course the government cloaked in absurd pretenses, that these boats, almost as a rule, carry passengers far beyond its optimum capacity. In short, factors like safety of passengers always seemed to be rubbished by the authorities.
In the aftermath of the mishap, the government has announced that many more steamer ferries would be pressed into service in the months to come and that plying of bhutbhutis on the Brahmaputra has been banned till further orders. Factually speaking, the people of North Guwahati have been making the demand for more steamer ferries on the Guwahati-North Guwahati route for long years while the authorities continued to turn a deaf ear. Now that the government has announced that more steamer ferries would be introduced on the route, one is not quite sure as to how many months or years one may have to wait before even a semblance of the promise materializes at the ground level.
Even the ordinary layman can comprehend that a few more steamer ferries on the Guwahati-North Guwahati route will not only add to the safety and convenience of the public but will also be commercially viable to the IWT. And why the Guwahati-North Guwahati route alone ? Steamer ferries must be in place at appropriate locations along the entire length of the Brahmaputra. It is not quite known if the high ups in Dispur are able to comprehend the gloomy scenario in its proper perspective even after the boat tragedy at its backyard.
On the other hand, a very serious allegation against the IWT and the district administration has surfaced thick and fast. Locals of North Guwahati area, who have been bearing the brunt of unsafe passage over the Brahmaputra in bhutbhutis over the years with the IWT and the district administration turning a blind eye, have openly alleged before several TV channels that a vicious syndicate is at work with the blessings of the concerned Government authorities and that the private mechanized country boats are turning into a gold mine for some Government officials.
It has also been alleged that in order to keep the syndicate live and kicking, the authorities all along refrained for pressing in a few more steamer ferries into service. It is also alleged that in view of the boat owners having to pay a heavy slice of their flesh to some Government high ups, they take to overcrowding of their vessels to eke out a living.
With galloping corruption having become the order of the day in the Government sector, the allegations that have surfaced cannot be totally disbelieved. Again, with the bhutbhutis having allegedly become gold mine for some, it may not be too long off before these mechanized country boats are back in action.
Further, it was in the early part of this year that taxi giant Ola signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Assam Government to ply river taxis on the Brahmaputra. Around the time the great extravaganza Advantage Assam (which has hitherto proved to be a great flop show sans any dividend) was held in Guwahati amidst fanfare, Ola conducted a survey on the Brahmaputra while Assam Transport Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary made the announcement that river taxis would come to stay in Assam. But as is the case generally with towering announcements by the government, river taxis have also seemingly turned into a mirage.
However, as has been the grand style of Dispur over the decades, a high level enquiry by a senior bureaucrat has been ordered into the mishap. At this stage may one ask Dispur as to what were the reports of the umpteen number of enquiries ordered by Government into various issues over the decades and what actions, based on the same, were taken. Going by the past record, one only feels that this probe exercise will also fade into oblivion. One is only reminded of Shakespeare’s “ … the poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”
Talmizur Rahman is a Guwahati based senior journalist and commentator. He can be reached at [email protected]