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The recent tragedy of a boat carrying around 36 passengers having capsized near the Aswaklanta temple ghat of Brahmaputra River in Guwahati has raised several questions on the safety procedures governing the inland water transport system in Assam. In the incident which occurred on 5 September, a country made boat fitted with an engine, popularly known as bhutbhuti was carrying passengers from the Fancy Bazaar ghat in Guwahati to North Guwahati’s Madhyam Khanda, when the engine developed a technical snag and hit an under construction water supply project and overturned.

According to Kamrup Deputy Commissioner Kamal Kumar Baishya, only 22 passengers had valid tickets and the boat was overcrowded with 18 motorcycles mounted on it. The tragic occurrence led to the death of two teenage girls while 20 others were missing. 11 people were later rescued by operations carried out by the NDRF and SDRF along with the Indian Army personnel.

The hue and cry after the mishap could have been avoided, had safety rules and regulations been followed diligently. A question that naturally arises is, why was a single engine boat carrying passengers way beyond its capacity. It is a common knowledge that hundreds of people cross the river on a day-to-day basis to reach both the banks for various purposes. Do the authorities have updated data on the footfall of passengers who avail the inland water transport system on a daily or monthly basis? If adequate data is in place, sufficient number of vessels should be made available to ferry commuters within their prescribed capacity. The fact that only 22 out of 36 passengers had valid tickets and the rest were still allowed to board the boat reflects serious oversight on the part of the authorities. Had there been enough ferries available, people would not have risked their lives to climb onto the rickety one plying at the time and met with disastrous consequences.

Another important concern is the condition of vessels carrying people to both ends of the river. The Government of Assam has not introduced any new vessel in Guwahati over the last 15 years. 3 vessels were procured by the government in 2003 and since then no other vessel has been introduced till date. According to the sources in the Inland Water Transport (IWT) Department, all the vessels plying in Guwahati including the bhutbhutis are in deplorable condition. The bhutbhutis are allowed to ply because the 6 IWT vessels cannot meet the demand of the passengers. It has also been revealed that the IWT officials fail to inspect the vessels regularly. After the September 5 incident, it has come to light that the officials placed at the IWT ghats had the responsibility to check the boat’s motor and engine on an everyday basis, which did not happen thereby leading to a technical glitch. It is also shocking to know that the insurance of the capsized boat - SB Brahmaputra (RC No 1149) – had expired when the boat met with an accident. According to the initial investigation conducted by the Inland Water Transport (IWT) department, it was found that the capsized boat had insurance valid till 22nd December 2017 and it was not renewed after that. 

Sampurna Dutta

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