Usage of old, rickety vessels, violation of safety norms, lesser frequency -- several issues continue to plague ferry services on Brahmaputra, considered a lifeline for thousands of daily commuters
North Guwahati: Consider this: As against 104 ferry routes in Assam, the inland water transport (IWT) department has only 69 functional vessels. Due to this massive demand-supply mismatch, thousands of commuters who ride on the Brahmaputra river and its tributaries daily for work or education have to depend on country boats.
But there’s a catch here: Most of these mechanised country boats, locally called ‘bhut-bhutis’, run on single engines and are considered unsafe. Old and rickety, they tend to violate basic safety norms. Almost all of them run beyond their maximum capacity putting the passengers’ life in jeopardy.
This was, however, until September 5, when the government got a wake-up following a boat mishap in north Guwahati that resulted in at least three deaths. A blanket ban on these boats was then imposed across the state on September 11. Almost a month later, the government is yet to come up with an alternative river transport system in the state.
There are around 2,221 private boats registered with the inland water transport (IWT) department in Assam. While Dhubri tops the list with the highest number of boats at 1,230, Kamrup comes second with 246. There are about 184 private boats registered with the department in Barpeta. These are beside the hordes of unregistered boats that illegally run on the river.
Now, compare these with the ferry routes. There are 104 ferry routes in the state. Of these, 26 fall under the Dibrugarh division of the IWT department, 55 under Guwahati and 23 under Silchar division.
As per sources, in the past 15 years, not a single boat has been built or bought. In 2004-05, three vessels were constructed. Prior to that, vessels were last procured or constructed only in 1974, said sources.
Also, the Brahmaputra river has a unique pattern of flow. It is said that the tributaries maintain their respective characters and line of flow even after they flow into the Brahmaputra. Hence, there is a need for customised boats for different routes.
The boat ban and its implications
On September 10, five days after the north Guwahati mishap, Assam transport minister Chandra Mohan Patowary had announced that all single-engine vessels will have to be converted to double-engine ones with reversible gears. He was at a review meeting of the IWT department and the Assam Inland Water Transport Development Society (AIWTDS) in Guwahati.
"Steps shall be initiated within one month. The same may be undertaken as a part of fleet modernisation under the World Bank-funded projects,” Patowary had said.
Now, what will be the implications of this directive?
“It’s almost impossible for the boat owners to fulfill this guideline. Converting the single-engine boats to double-engine ones with reversible gears will mean that everything related to the boat will have to be changed -- right from the materials used for making the boat to the people operating them. This will be a very costly affair,” senior engineers at the IWT department said.
Expressing serious concern, Jayanta Das (45), who owns a double-engine boat, has been sitting idle since the imposition of the ban. He urged the government to lift the ban as soon as possible. Das used to run his boat on the Guwahati-North Guwahati route.
“We have about 130 ghats across Assam. It’s good to know that the department has added four new vessels. With the current state of infrastructure, will it possible for the IWT department to fulfill the increasing demands of the passengers in the absence of bhut-bhutis?” Das asked.
With the IWT department putting more focus on the three routes around Guwahati (the city being a power centre of the state), namely, Guwahati-North Guwahati, Guwahati- Madhyam Khanda and Guwahati-Rajaduar, the condition of others is not really up to the mark.
"Without bhut-bhutis, the existence of these ghats is next to meaningless. Can the IWT department run the show without them on these ghats?” Das added.
Das also alleged that there should be routine checking of bhut-bhutis. “All it takes is Rs 2,000 to get an NoC from the IWT department,” he said, adding: “The boat that capsized on Brahmaputra on September 5 had failed to maintain the minimum standard of safety norms.”
When contacted, Chandra Dutta, a senior official of the IWT department for the Guwahati-North Guwahati route, said: “These are baseless allegations. Not just us, during the clearance process, the DC, ADC, circle officer, representatives from NDRF, SDRF and even forest department officials are normally present,” he said.
Lessons to be learnt from boat tragedies
The north Guwahati boat accident was not a one-off case. In 2012, over 100 people were reportedly killed when a steamer carrying over 300 people sank in Dhubri. The then Assam CM Tarun Gogoi ordered the then additional secretary Jitesh Khosla to investigate into the accident. Within just 30 days, Khosla submitted its report.
In his report, Khosla had said that the state machinery was completely unaware of the existence and operation of the ill-fated boat. The IWT department, which is responsible for all riverine transportation in Assam, claimed that the boat was not registered with it. The district administration in Dhubri too had said that the operation of boats was not its business.
“Hopefully, the state government will take the report of additional chief secretary Jishnu Baruah, who is investigating into the September 5 accident, more seriously,” said Rupak Deka, a social worker.
The Guwahati-North Guwahati route is considered one of the busiest along Brahmaputra river. Those travelling on this route pay a meagre ticket price of Rs 2.50 per passenger. This costs the state exchequer Rs 1,500 (approx) per day at the ghat. The same can be said about the other ghats, sources.
Advocating a hike in passenger fares, social activist Rupak Deka said: “Charging Rs 2.50 per ticket is meaningless. With proper consultation with the passengers here, the authorities concerned should raise the fare.”
IWT official Dutta added, “We are facing deficit of Rs 1,500 (approx) per day per ghat. In 2005, the fare was increased to Rs 4 per passenger. However, owing to massive public protest, the state government had to cancel the move.”