Lakhs of boatmen have been spending sleepless nights without hope of any respite in the near future

North Guwahati: With a few hours left for Durga Puja, an air of festivity has set in across the country, including Assam. However, unlike many others, this puja will be different for almost over three lakh family members of one lakh boatmen in north Guwahati.

Life took a U-turn when the Assam government imposed a blanket ban on running of mechanised boats (popularly known as bhut-bhutis) on September 10, exactly five days after a boat mishap in north Guwahati that took the lives of at least three people.

Govinda Das (30) has been working as a boatman for past 10 years along the Guwahati-North Guwahati route. Blessed with three children, Das, along with his wife Jitumoni Das, maintained a decent life with a daily income of almost Rs 500 per day. The September 10 announcement, however, turned out to be a bolt from the blue.

He is not alone. Over 3 lakh families of boatmen in Assam were left without livelihood overnight. From that day onwards, these boatmen have been spending sleepless nights without hope of any immediate respite so far.

“For more than a month, we have been sitting idle. We have not earned a single penny during this period. At this point, nobody even wants us to hire us for other jobs,” Das regretted.

Elaborating on the financial crisis he is facing these days, Das, who also helped the rescue operators to search for the victims on that fateful day on September 5, said that he needs money to run his family. “How long will the boat owners keep on giving us money? They are also facing the same problems. We have our children. They are requesting us for new clothes for Durga Puja, but where do I get the money from?” he said, adding: “We also have to repay our EMIs. But only God knows how I will manage.”

Assam has altogether 104 ferry routes. Of this, 26 routes fall under Dibrugarh division of the Inland Water Transport (IWT) directorate, 55 routes in Guwahati division and 23 under Silchar division. Due to the massive shortage of government ferries, boats (registered and unregistered) are also used to meet the increasing demand of the passengers. The IWT department has only 69 functional vessels. However, most of these vehicles are old and rickety, official sources informed EastMojo.

In the past 15 years, not a single boat has been built or bought. In 2004-05, three vessels were constructed. Before that, vessels were last procured or constructed back in 1974, sources added.

Boatman Das’ wife Jitumoni Das said, “If the state government decides to continue with the ban, it should make arrangements for alternative employment generatio.” In the run-up to Durga Puja, she said that her three children are demanding new clothes. “Kids never understand the reality. With a heavy heart, we have had to say a big ‘no’. The situation has reached such an extent that we have not been able to repay our EMIs. Tuition fees are pending,” she said with tears in eyes, adding: “We are left with no other option but to kill ourselves.”

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