Guwahati: Fifteen days after the Assam government banned all private mechanised single-engine boats, leaving a population of millions high and dry, it is yet to come up with an alternative river transport system in the state.
The blanket ban was imposed across the state on September 11, following a boat mishap in North Guwahati over the Brahmaputra on September 5 that had resulted in at least three deaths.
Of 32 districts of Assam, 14 districts share the char areas on the banks of Brahmaputra. According to 2011 census, char areas cover a population of 31 million in the state. The prime mode of movement of these people is private boats, popularly known as bhutbhutis.
The ban has left thousands captive in different char areas. Needless to say, during the rainy season, many of the char areas cut themselves completely from the land and become island villages.
On Wednesday, Assam transport minister Chandra Mohan Patowary announced that the inland water department is going to come up with a regulatory act regarding the inland water transport system. He also said that the government is making it mandatory to operate only double-engine boats on the rivers of Assam along with safely measures like life-jackets. But he could not give a time frame within which these double engine boats would be ready for sailing on the rivers.
“The World Bank will provide Rs 100 crore for the development of the inland water transport system of Assam. Very soon, we will provide ferries which will have a capacity of carrying 200 passengers along with ten heavy-duty trucks,” said the minister on the third day of the ongoing autumn session of the Assam Assembly.
Not just the movement of people, the ban on country boats has severely affected vegetable vendors, milkmen and other businesses, too, which are mostly dependent on supplies from the char areas. In districts like Dhubri, which has the highest number of chars in the state, people are facing scarcity of food in many places and are forced to buy things at higher rates.
Azad Ali, a jute and vegetable farmer from Saitanmari char of Dhubri, said, “I need to take the vegetables to towns. If the government does not start the operation of boats, we will incur heavy losses because the crops and vegetables will rot in the firms.”
Shops in many char areas of Goalpara district are empty because of the absence of any supply of food products from the chars.
“Boats have stopped plying totally between Goalpara and Baghbor char of Barpeta. This is the time for vegetables and jute. But neither the farmers are able to supply the products to us, nor are we being able to run the shops,” said Hanif Mohammad, who runs a vegetable-cum-dairy shop in Kacharighat of Mukalmuwa in Nalbari district.
Besides food supply, coming to schools and colleges have also become a big challenge in most of the char areas of Western Assam.
Epul Hussain, a teacher in a private college in Goalpara district, said, “Most of the students in Goalpara college and other private institutions here are from char areas. For the students belong to char areas, the prime and cheap mode of transport is the bhutbhutis. Due to flood in many places, the road lines are also closed. So student attendance in most of the educational institutes are poor.”
According to government reports, there are around 2,221 private boats registered with the inland water transport department of Assam and most of them are single-engine boats.
(With inputs from Udit Narayan Kalita, Goalpara)