Diesel motors to propel country boats pose a huge risk, especially when vessels are overloaded. The boat, which capsized in the Ganga on Saturday, was no exception.
This reporter spoke to some boatmen in Raghopur to find out what could have possibly happened to the ill-fated boat, which claimed 24 lives.
“The diesel motor sets, installed to propel boats, tend to lose steam against head winds and catch fire easily, when overloaded. The heavy weight of the motor pump underneath breaks the boat in such a situation and compromises the lives of passengers,” said a former boatman who has now changed vocation.
He attributes the high casualty in Saturday’s mishap to the fact that most occupants were from urban areas who did not know swimming. “Unlike those from urban areas, most living on sand bars in riverine areas, popularly known as diara in Bihar, know swimming. The lack of preparation for rescue operation accounted for so many deaths,” he added.
If boatmen are to be believed, over 1,000 unlicenced boats ply between the northern and the southern banks of Patna, Vaishali and Saran districts. Being unlicenced, there is no safety check on maintenance.
To the people living in diara areas old boats, whether motorised or manual, are still an important mode of transportation across the Ganga and Gandak rivers between Saran, Vaishali and Patna.
Those using country boats are generally vegetables sellers, milk-vendors or farmers, residing across 20 square km stretch from Sabalpur in Saran district to Raghopur in Vaishali district. The reason why they prefer to commute by boat is because the fare is less as compared to bus or auto-rickshaws. Besides, they also cut travel time given the chaotic traffic on the Mahatma Gandhi Setu, which is under repairs.
Binda Rai, a villager from Saran, said that 80% milk, vegetables and other agricultural produce are ferried by boats to Patna from diara areas.
“We earn up to `1,000 daily, ferrying people between Patna, Vaishali and Saran diaras,” said a boatman.
Normally, a boat makes 5 to 8 trips a day, ferrying people, vehicles, vegetables and even personal effects. Transporting cattleheads on such boats are also common, but the district administration has preferred to look the other way.
There have been instances of cattle going berserk while being transported on boats, leading to capsize and loss of lives. Such instances are under reported.
Local residents, requesting anonymity, said the police were aware about the illegal plying of boats, but do not intervene.
“The district administration acts only after an incident or during VVIP movement in diara. Otherwise, it does not bother to ensure safety of boats or ensure that only the licensed ones ply,” said a villager.
A senior police officer, on condition of anonymity, said, “It is not possible for local police to check plying of boats on normal days. Those residing in the diara have no other option but to take boats for business travel to Patna and back. The link roads in diara are in bad shape. Whenever we take action against boatmen, we have to face the ire of people”.