PATNA: The boat tragedy on the Ganga, which claimed 24 lives near Patna’s NIT Ghat on Saturday, has exposed serious lapses in the manner in which a crowd-pulling event like a kite festival was organised on a riverine stretch of the river on Makar Sankranti day (Jan 14).
As much in question is a committee set up to inquire into the tragedy, comprising Patna DM Sanjay Agrawal (since dropped), Patna DIG Shalin and principal secretary, disaster management, Pratyaya Amrit.
"It is ironical that officials responsible for the slack arrangements, leading to the disaster, have been tasked to conduct the inquiry. The committee is just an eyewash," said senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi.
He said the inquiry should have been handed over to an agency or officials not associated with the event.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar, on the other hand, has directed that the inquiry should be conducted objectively and cover all angles. “Officers responsible for the lapses will not be spared,” said Kumar.
Nonetheless, preliminary reports indicated the Patna district administration and state disaster management department did not conform to guidelines followed during Chhath, a festival during which large crowds hit the river bank.
For instance, the riverine stretch hosting the event, Sabalpur diara, did not have any on-site control room, proper lighting or deployment of trained divers (the SDRF team patrolling the river had no divers as admitted by DM, Patna). Even plying of country boats was not banned.
All these are the standard operating procedures (SOPs) laid down for preparations for Chhath festival and should have been followed for the kite event as well. “These would be the focus of the inquiry,” said Amrit.
Passing the buck also appeared to be in play.
Patna district magistrate (DM) Sanjay Agrawal said, "People boarded the ill-fated boat about 1 km from the kite festival site in the diara, which falls in Saran district. Even the Saran DSP was present when they did so."
Others argued the kite fest was a state-sponsored event for which arrangements and deployment were made from Patna.
Agrawal admitted the administration had commissioned just two ferry boats to take people from Patna to the festival site. He also affirmed none of the 10 boats carrying 40 SDRF personnel had divers. "There are swimmers in the SDRF team," he said.
The DM said the administration had deployed 150 constables with over 20 magistrates for crowd control during the event. The claim begs the question as to how a very large number of people boarded the ill-fated boat despite the presence of magistrates and policemen.
There are also no answers as to why boats not on district requisition roster or licensed for the event and country boats were allowed to ply, or why there were no boats and ambulances on standby with divers for exactly such an emergency.
The lie of SDRF’s claim over the last one year to have trained divers for such eventualities has also been nailed by the mishap even as the complete lack of coordination between the tourism department and the district administration has now been laid bare.
It is now evident there were no disaster mitigation processes in place to rescue ill-fated boat passengers or any advance review of preparations at any level for the Makar Sankranti event as happened repeatedly ahead of Guru Gobind Singh’s recent Prakashotsav.
Visitors also claimed much of the wherewithal was used to ferry bureaucrats, police officers and their families. Even the SDRF teams were reportedly not ‘patrolling’ the Ganga near the event and the better equipped NDRF was taken into the loop much after the mishap.
Besides, it remains a mystery why the two ferry boats/steamers, 'MV Kasturba' and 'MV Kautilya', which transported many to the diara, did not turn up for their return trip.
It was found the decrepit boat, recovered from the river on Sunday, had no number, no life-jacket and did not look river worthy. “It was not fit even for ferrying vegetables, let alone carrying human beings," said Ganesh Sahni, a boatman.
Although 20,000 visitors were expected to attend the festivities, the BSTDC appeared prepared to ferry just about 500 Makar Sankranti revelers to the Ganga diara from Gandhi Ghat on the state capital side.
It is anybody’s guess, why only two vessels, CL Kasturba (capacity 350) and MV Kautilya (capacity 40), along with two motor boats, were pressed for the occasion. “A third vessel, MV Ganga Vihar (capacity 70) started with revelers from Gandhi Ghat but had to return as it could not anchor at Sabalpur diara,” said a source.
A BSTDC official said a letter was sent to the administration to check overloading on boats and to deploy security personnel, along with divers, ambulance and other medical facilities, for the kite flying event. But none of this happened," he added.
He said, "The Saran district administration was also requested to make security arrangements at Sabalpur diara, the site of kite festival, much in advance. But hardly any apparatus was put in place,” he claimed.
(With inputs from Anirban Guha Roy, Avinash Kumar and Reena Sopam)