On Wednesday, a woman died and two others are still missing after a private motorized country boat capsized when it was travelling from Majuli to Neematighat.
Assam being a riverine state, boat accidents are nothing new. A recent ferry accident near Guwahati in September 2018, which led to three fatalities, indicated overloading, unreliable engine and lack of crew training to respond properly to the engine failure.
After the 2012 ferry disaster in Dhubri, then chief minister Tarun Gogoi had directed additional chief secretary Jitesh Khosla to investigate the accident which concluded that the enforcement envisaged in the statutory framework to ensure river worthiness and safety of vessels plying on the river was not done for the river in question. The report said the reason for this is more likely “systematic” rather than individual negligence. Khosla’s investigation found the state machinery was completely unaware of the existence and operation of the sunk boat.
Assam has 361 ferry routes — 89 operated by the state government and 272 others overseen by local (village) and district councils. The data recorded for the Directorate of Inland Water Transport Assam (DIWTA)-administered ferry routes for 2017-18 indicate annual carriage of just over 9 million passengers and 43,000 tons of accompanied goods. Total passenger flow, including all ferry routes in the state, could well be more than double this estimate.
“The semi-mechanised boats, about 2700 in Assam, are mainly operated by private individuals or associations, as criss-cross ferry services. These boats do not follow any safety standards and are, sometimes, manned by untrained personnel, posing a risk to passengers as well as to other boats. But the state government has contemplated a plan for improvement in safety standards and operating conditions of the country boat ferry services in Assam by launching a voluntary incentive scheme named ‘JIBONDINGA’2, aimed towards regularization and safe operations of country boats in Assam,” Robin Kalita, transport advisor of state-run Assam Inland Water Transport Development Society, said.
The World Bank, which is helping to modernize Assam’s passenger ferry sector, in a report said there are serious deficiencies in regulatory oversight, lack of communication systems and safety equipment, crew training deficiencies and inadequate disaster response planning.
An independent researcher, Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, said boats do not follow any safety standards across Assam. He said if a ferry carries 100 passengers, there will be hardly 10 life jackets in that ferry, flouting all kinds of safety norms. “The main agenda is how we actually maintain the safety of passengers using the riverine transport in Assam. The need of the hour is to ensure that basic safety equipment are there for people to be able to save their lives in any such incident in the future, not only between Jorhat and Majuli, but all across the Brahmaputra, where the government is aware of such riverine transportation being operational. If the government wants, it can provide safety equipment and engage human resource to enforce strict protocols of not overloading,” Rahman said.