Assam boat tragedy exposes safety lapses in India's inland water transport system

A woman has died and two people are missing after two passenger boats collided with each other in the Brahmaputra River in Assam's Jorh...

A woman has died and two people are missing after two passenger boats collided with each other in the Brahmaputra River in Assam's Jorhat on Wednesday.

As many as 120 passengers were travelling in the boat when the incident happened, an official of the Inland Water Transport (IWT) Department was quoted as saying by PTI.

Jorhat Deputy Commissioner Ashok Barman said that 41 people have been rescued so far and no body has been found yet.

Videos from the accident showed the boat capsizing after the collision, as some passengers tried to hold on to it while others jumped into the water to save themselves. The passengers' luggage along with motorbikes and cars on the boat were also washed away in the river.

This is not the first time that India has witnessed such a tragedy. In fact, boat accidents aren’t uncommon in India, especially in Assam. The worst in recent memory took place in 2012 when a steamer carrying over 300 people sank in Dhuburi, killing at least 100 people.

The mishap once again exposes shortcomings in the nation’s inland water transportation system, which leads to disaster after disaster.

India’s inland waterways

Inland waterway transportation (IWT) is one of the oldest economically and environmentally sustainable modes of transportation for passengers and cargo.

India has an estimated navigable length of 14,500 km of inland waterways, including river systems, canals, backwaters, creeks and tidal inlets, which can effectively support mechanised crafts. Besides this, country boats of various capacities also operate in various rivers and canals.

According to Statista, at the end of the financial year 2020, major ports in India had passenger traffic of about 710 thousand passengers, the highest the country has ever seen. Additionally, non-major ports across India handled about 21 million passengers.

A minuscule 3.5 percent of trade is done through waterways in India as against 47 percent in China, 40 percent in Europe and 35 percent in neighbouring Bangladesh.

These numbers clearly show the feasibility of the waterways as a viable mode of transport.

There are also major benefits of IWT, such as: cheaper mode of transport, more environmentally friendly and causes least CO2 emission. Furthermore, diversion of a part of cargo from road to IWT will also decongest roads, reduce accidents and substantially reduce the line cost, transportation and fuel cost.

Realising the potential of IWT, India enacted the National Waterways Act, 2016, creating 106 new waterways on many rivers, river stretches, estuaries, creeks, backwaters and canals in 2016. This was part of a renewed push for the development of large-scale commercial shipping and navigation on these inland waterways to transport bulk and hazardous goods. The move was called a “game changer” by Nitin Gadkari, then shipping minister.

Perils of water transport

Water transport is, however, not without its problems. This important mode of transport is ridden with tragic accidents every year, incurring a heavy toll on human lives and property.

There are several factors that contribute to the accidents:

1) Shortage and quality of boats

There is a huge shortage of government ferries, which has led to unregistered boats taking to the water. Additionally, the boats in the water are old and rickety.

IWT rules mandate that registered boats be subjected to periodic checks but officials said clearances are often given casually. “More often than not in Assam these checks are done sitting in office,” said Arun Roy, a former director of the Inland Waterways Authority of India.

According to Bharat Bhushan Dev Choudhury, director of Inland water Transport, the leasing of operations to private players is conducted according to “archaic” rules framed in 1968 that have not been updated and that there's an urgent need to do so.

2) Overloading

Overloading is a major cause of accidents to happen. It is observed that the majority of the accidents are due to overloading.

During festival seasons, there is a huge crowd. Passengers and boat operators disregard safety considerations and travel in overloaded vessels leading to mishaps.

For instance, on 5 September 2018, a mechanised boat capsized in the Brahmaputra river near north Guwahati in Assam. At least three people were confirmed killed. Officials later found that the vessel, which was built to carry no more than 15 people, had 29 passengers and crew aboard, as well as seven motorbikes and two cycles.

3) Lack of proper checks

The rules also require boats to be checked for safety equipment ahead of every journey. However, that rarely happens and most operators opt to take the easy way out and not carry the required equipment such as lifebuoys and life jackets.

Also, these rules are meant for registered boat users, which means that unregistered operators continue their services without following any rules or regulations, making it that much more dangerous.

4) Corruption

Several safety rules are flouted because of a “vicious cycle of corruption” plaguing Inland Water Transport, according to a senior official within the department.

"The government leases out ports and ferries as it does not have the wherewithal to operate them,” he explained. “The private lessees then let unregistered boats operate in exchange for a cut that is calculated per passenger.”

5) Human factor
Human error is the predominant factor for the cause of boat accidents be it crew or the passengers. Most of the boat operators are poor and illiterate. There is no formal training in vessel operations, as the profession was transferred from the predecessor. They are not aware of the safety procedures which need to be followed in case of emergency situations. In some cases, the passenger’s excitement, panic situations, lack of awareness.

Take the Thekkady boat disaster as an example of this: On 30 September 2009, a double-decker passenger boat sank in Lake Thekkady in Kerala, killing 45 tourists. Reports had stated that the accident occurred when a large number of passengers rushed to one side of the boat to see a herd of bison which emerged from the forest.

Till these issues are not corrected, experts state that water transport in India will continue to be an issue and accidents will keep taking place.

With inputs from agencies

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India World News: Assam boat tragedy exposes safety lapses in India's inland water transport system
Assam boat tragedy exposes safety lapses in India's inland water transport system
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