On 8th September 2021, a smaller private boat heading to Majuli Island collided with a bigger government ferry steamer near Nimatighat at Jorhat district in Assam. According to the news report, two lives are lost and one person is missing. This accident on the mighty Brahmaputra river -which is also a declared National Waterway (NW-2) in India -highlights the need of devising and implementing safety measures on the movement of vessels and boats on the waterways.
I got to know about this accident on twitter where a video was shared showing how disastrous the nature of the accident was. Tracking the official announcements, news reports and tweets on this issue, I have tried here to put together the resources which can help reflecting on this issue.
Background on connectivity to Majuli on the river Brahmaputra
Majuli Island on the river Brahmaputra is one of the biggest riverine island in the world. People inhabiting the area need to cross the river using conventional ferry services on various locations. People inhabiting the villages around the Majuli island have been insistent that a bridge be constructed on the river to facilitate crossing the river for daily needs.
On the launch of the ‘Mahabahu-Brahmaputra’ in February 2021, the Prime Minister performed the Bhumi-pujan of the Majuli bridge. The progress, however, has been slow; although the foundation of the said bridge is laid twice in the past five years – first in 2016 by Shri Nitin Gadkari and earlier this year in February by the Prime Minister. After this boat tragedy, Shri Sarbanand Sonowal, the Union Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways has assured that the bridge would be constructed in the next four years. The Chief Minister of Assam, Shri Hemanta Biswa Sarma also tweeted that a group of ministers will review the progress of this bridge. But while the bridge is being constructed, the people would still need to avail the transportation services. Just like the Majuli bridge, Ro-Ro services have been inaugurated twice for providing connectivity to Majuli.
Inland Water transport – Where are the Ro-Ro/ Ro-PAX services ?
The Government since 2018, has been announcing the starting of riverine transport services through the RO-RO/RO-PAX vessels for Majuli Island. In October 2018, the collaboration of the Inland Waterways Authority of India and the Government of Assam was announced where the then Chief Minister of Assam Shri Sarbanand Sonowal flagged off the Ro-Ro vessel for providing connectivity to the Majuli Island. It was further announced in this event that the more Ro-Ro vessels will be procured for inland water transport on the river Brahmaputra. Earlier this year in February 2021, the Prime Minster Shri Narendra Modi also marked the launch of the Mahabahu- Brahmaputra event with the inauguration of the Ro-Pax vessel for providing connectivity between Neamati and Majuli. However, the President of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee was quoted in a recent news report saying that although the ferries were inaugurated with much fanfare, “nobody knows what happened after that”.
The Proposed Increase in Traffic on Brahmaputra Waterways
The announced and inaugurated ro-ro services and plans to increase the vessel traffic on the inland waterways has not picked up as yet. But the announcements to revitalize and operationalize these are still very much present. The PIB release dated 10th September 2021 regarding the visit of Shri Sarbanand Sonowal to Majuli to meet the victims of the accident mentions that, “that Central and State Govt. agencies will work in tandem to dredge the river Brahmaputra so that Ro Pax vessels could travel between Majuli and Jorhat in the winter season.”
In January 2020, the Government of India, Government of Assam signed a loan agreement of $88 million with the World Bank to ‘ help modernize Assam’s passenger ferry sector that runs on its rivers including the mighty Brahmaputra.’ The project is aimed to facilitate the Government of Assam’s efforts to ‘corporatise’ its own ferry activities. The Assam Shipping Company (ASC) will operate the government ferries and the Assam Ports Company (APC) will provide terminals and terminal services on a common-user basis to both public and private ferry operators
Among other things, this Project is also aimed towards ensuring safety and strengthening the regulatory regime on the inland waterways.
“.. a strengthened regulatory regime will ensure reduction in overloading, adherence to time schedule and better crew standards.”
Further in 2021, the Prime Minister also indicated how connectivity between India and Bangladesh through the Protocol routes would also help in connecting Assam and the North Eastern Region with the rest of the country and vice versa.
All this signifies that the riverine traffic is going to increase in this region. It makes one wonder whether these plans will be easy to implement ? Will these further endanger people’s safety or will concrete safety procedures/protocols be designed and followed? What about the regulatory regime – who will ensure that the protocols are followed and who will be held accountable if the protocols are not followed?
One of the steps taken after the boat tragedy, according to the Chief Minister, Shri Himanta Biswa Sarma is that “plying of private ferries will be stopped as they don’t have marine engine. If owners wish to convert single engine to marine engine, GoA will provide grant of Rs 10 lakh with 75% subsidy. SoP will be issued to schedule health check ups of those working on boats.” He further added that three officials of Inland Water Transport Department have been placed under suspension in this accident case.
These are all important steps but this accident has revealed that the current state of safety of the inland water transport in Assam needs serious revision. Banning of the private small ferries may reflect that interest of the small boat operators can be compromised for a significant time period. Building the Majuli bridge and getting the RO-RO services started clearly need time, patience and planning. The already active small private boat operators trained and facilitated with safety equipment could be a win-win in this situation, but will this be prioritised ?