A ferry mishap on the Brahmaputra has put the focus on an elusive bridge, whose foundation stone was laid twice in five years – by Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari in February 2016 and by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February 2021.
According to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), a woman died after two ferries collided off Neamatighat in Jorhat district on September 8, while two persons went missing. The remaining 87 people aboard the smaller ferry that sank either swam to safety or were rescued.
Amid criticisms for the “empty promise” to construct the bridge that “could have saved lives”, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on September 9 asserted that work on the two-lane span would start from November 2021. A four-year target had been set for the project.
Ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls, Mr. Gadkari laid the foundation stones fora slew of projects. These included a bridge connecting Jorhat district on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra with Lakhimpur district on the northern bank via Majuli, an ‘island’ that remains terrestrially connected to the northern bank for the most part of the year. Among the other projects was a ₹ 50.76-crore ship repair facility in Guwahati.
Mr Modi too laid the foundation stone for the bridge before the 2021 State polls. The foundation stone for another bridge – to be India’s longest measuring 19.282 km – linking Dhubri (western Assam) and Phulbari (Meghalaya) was also laid the same day.
The 6.8 km bridge project linking Neamatighat and Kamalabari Ghat (Majuli) and estimated to cost ₹ 925.47-crore was awarded to the U.P. State Bridge Corporation Limited on February 8.
The project details released on February 18, 2021, said it would provide connectivity to Majuli, the “cultural capital and cradle of Assamese civilisation for the past 500 years”. The ‘island’ is dotted with several satras (Vaishnav monasteries).
Another point highlighted was that the bridge would “provide safe evacuation access to the people of Majuli during floods in the Brahmaputra River”.
Enough shows, time to act: Congress
Assam Congress president Bhupen Kumar Borah said the BJP-led government at the Centre and in the State should concentrate on real issues instead of making a show of “bhoomi pujan”.
“Former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had pointed out the foundation stone-laying ceremony in 2016 without preparing the vital detailed project report was to hoodwink people with an eye on the elections. It has taken yet another ferry mishap and the life of a young woman to underline the reality,” he stated.
Jagadish Bhuyan, a former BJP leader and Assam Jatiya Parishad general secretary said, “The elusive bridge only goes on to expose the BJP’s fake concern for the development of the Northeast. They are not at all serious or dedicated to the people of Assam or elsewhere in the region”.
The Opposition parties also reminded the government of a policy drawn up after a boat mishap off Guwahati in September 2018 to regulate the ferries and modernise the inland water transport system with a ₹ 630-crore fund from the World Bank. The mishap killed at least three people.
That was not the first time that the government sought to tame the private operators of the ferries that do not issue tickets – records of number of passengers ferried daily are thus not maintained – and are invariably overloaded besides not providing safety jackets or floating tubes to passengers.
Probe report gathering dust?
Following a ferry disaster on April 30, 2012 that killed 49 people (eight were tagged as missing), the government formed a one-man committee to probe the causes of the incident. The panel attributed the accident more to systemic failure than individual negligence and recommended the setting up of a river transport regulator apart from ensuring river-worth and safe vessel and improvement of the inland water transport for 1,980 km of navigable waterway.
“The accident could have been avoided had the government been serious about implementing the policy for the sake of thousands of passengers who depend on ferry services for work, trade, studies and medical and personal emergencies,” Mr. Borah said.
The Chief Minister vowed to change the system.
“The plying of private ferries has been stopped as they don’t have marine engines. If the owners wish to convert their single-engine boats to marine engines, the State government will provide a grant of ₹ 10 lakh each with 75% subsidy,” he said after visiting Neamatighat on September 9.
The government would ensure uninterrupted service of Ro-Pax ferries throughout the year with dredging between Kamalabari and Neamatighat to be carried out for creating a navigational channel, he stated.
He also directed the Jorhat district administration to register a criminal case on the accident. A high-level inquiry has also been instituted, he added.
Three officials of the Inland Water Transport Department had been placed under suspension after the accident on September 8. “One of these officers had been suspended twice in three years for negligence of duty. Why is he reinstated repeatedly in responsible positions where people’s lives are at stake,” the State Congress president asked.