Most ferries are overcrowded and they do not carry lifejackets and lifebuoys
Even as Assam witnessed its worst-ever boat tragedy on Monday, the fact that most of the ferries and large boats operated by the Inland Water Transport (IWT) department or private lessee lack the minimum safety norms indicates that more such tragedies are waiting to happen.
Overcrowding of ferries and boats is a common scene across the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys. Every day thousands of people commute between the river island Majuli and Neematighat in upper Assam's Jorhat district. On each trip, 50 to 100 commuters can be seen travelling on rooftops, where motorbikes and bicycles are also loaded because these ferries provide sitting accommodation for barely 100 people. Even the little open space that allows commuters to board is used by the lessee to transport three or four more vehicles. Small boulders or wooden blocks are used to keep the vehicles from toppling, as the ferries do not have safety railings.
Most ferries do not carry lifejackets and lifebuoys. They charge Rs. 500 for small cars and Rs. 700 for large cars. Rs.30 is charged for a motorbike.
One person recently escaped death while taking his vehicle into one such ferry at Neematighat. He accidentally pressed the accelerator instead of applying the brakes and the vehicle plunged into the river. While he was rescued, the vehicle sank and could not be retrieved.
Commuters say the lessees turn a deaf ear to their complaints. Most of them, they allege, enter into unscrupulous deals with corrupt IWT officials to obtain fitness certificates without conforming to the minimum safety norms. The IWT department operates 74 ferry services in the State, out of which 54 ply in the Brahmaputra valley and 24 in the Barak valley.
Principal Secretary, Revenue and Disaster Management, V.K. Pipersenia told The Hindu that most ferries were not equipped with meteorological devices. And since they did not issue pre-boarding tickets, it was often difficult to ascertain the actual number of commuters.
Mr. Pipersenia said the Assam Disaster Management authorities would move the India Meteorological Department (IMD) to issue advance storm warning in coastal regions so that preventive measures could be initiated.
50 to 100 commuters can usually be seen travelling on rooftops
The ferries provide sitting accommodation for barely 100 people