In India, life is cheap. This bitter truth was confirmed yet again on Monday in the form of a ferry accident in Assam. The death toll in this mishap has now touched 100-plus and is increasing by the hour as more bodies are fished out of the waters of the Brahmaputra river, one of the busiest waterways in the country. The accident is not the first one in the state — in 2012 itself there have been 10 such incidents, but thankfully the casualty numbers in those mishaps were not as much as the one that took place on Monday. It is well known that states in India, irrespective of their economic strength or stage of development, are not known to take warnings seriously until a tragedy takes place. So it is hardly surprising that Assam’s chief minister Tarun Gogoi also followed the same trajectory and has now, after more than 100 lives have been lost, announced steps to prevent such mishaps in future. While new systems, if they are ever put in place, are welcome, Mr Gogoi must first ensure that the existing inland waterway rules are implemented rigorously in the state. This alone can help prevent many accidents.
It is well known that more often than not, boat owners flout the basic load capacity rules. In fact, the double-decker ferry that met with the accident in Assam was transporting 250 people plus goods when it was only allowed to carry 100 people. It carried no life-jackets and lifeboats as it navigated one of Asia’s largest rivers. In many cases, the country-made boats use water pump engines and are steered by untrained people. In Assam, a state that depends heavily on water transport, only 1,000 boats have valid permits while the demand, especially in areas where road connectivity is poor, is enormous. But such norm-flouting also takes place in other states that depend heavily on water transport systems. In December, 22 people died when a boat capsized in southern India. In 2010, two boat accidents killed more than 80 Muslim pilgrims and 63 passengers respectively.
However, overloading in vehicles is a pan-Indian problem. Leave alone other states, in Delhi and the National Capital Region, overloaded autos and rickshaws, some carrying schoolchildren, are par for the course. The same holds true for lorries and trains. The Assam tragedy also shows that the information regarding storms never reached the people on time, especially in far-flung areas where not many have access to TVs and radios, when the thunderstorm warning was issued at around 1.40 pm. Will we ever find out why the warning never reached the people, or at least the ferry boat owners? Or who failed to do his duty properly, and pushed the people to their watery grave? It does not seem likely as the truth ebbs away in the swirling waters of the Brahmaputra.