Indifference of Indian Authorities Allows Boat Mishaps

Harm Done By Speed Boats To The Depth Of The River and Water Life: Environmentalists

When the rest of the world is busy in using ships, steam-ships and steamers, et cetera as one of the important means of transport-communication and trade-commerce, in 21st century, at that time, the people of Northeast Indian States Assam, West Bengal and Bihar are using the small Engine Fit Country Boat (EFCB), which is not only dangerous for passengers but also for aquatic species.

North-East India is well-known for its blue hills, red rivers and yellow crops. It is well watered by renowned rivers and their tributaries. Of the rivers, none is as long as the Brahmaputra. Rising from the Tasangpo, the vast Glacier Lake upon the Himalayas, it flows through the heart of the Northeast region, especially Assam, with its sweet murmuring sound.

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Boatmen busy repairing their boat near the Brahmaputra river in Northeast Indian State, Assam’s Dhubri District, one of the main ways of business for peoples of the region.

Photo:Shib Shankar Chatterjee

The river serves a number of purposes. Agriculture, Industry, Trade and Commerce, all depend upon on it and its tributaries. The river and its tributaries also serve as an important means of transport. Country-boats, small-ships and many others ply though them. The system is in vogue since the Ahom Rulers from Sukhapha to Chandrakanta Singh all took a special interest to make them navigable.

The rivers bear an intimacy with the people of this valley, in war and peace and in pinch and prosperity. However, at present these rivers and their tributaries are in great peril. It has occurred due to the appearance of the Engine Fit Country Boat (EFCB), locally called Bhutbhuti or Shallop (that is, a kind of boat without masts) run by Petrol, Kerosene, Diesel, oil a disturbing element both in water and in land.

“These speed-boats are harmful for all aqua-life, such as fish, river dolphin, snakes, turtles, et cetera,” environmentalists claim. The boats also destroy the navigability of the rivers by way of siltation and breaking of the banks. These speedboats have no (speed) limits and as such, they may bring a great disaster for the passengers, who travel in them. Experts are of the opinion that they may cause huge accidental death due to the lack of limits on these speedboats.

During Ahom and British Rule, a great number of country-boats, steam-ships and cargo-vessels plied these waterways. Later, different types of Steamer, Ships, Marboats, Steam-boats, Steam-ships, Steam-vessels, Pantoons, Relief-boats, Single-boats, Modern-steel-vessels, Ramp-powered-lighter-vessels and Boats are plying through the Brahmaputra tributaries. The tributaries include Subansiri, Jia-Bharulu, Barnadi, Puthimari, Pagladia, Manas, Buri-dihing, Dibang, Dikhow, Dhansiri, Beki, Jinjiram, et cetera in the Brahmaputra Valley. The rivers flow through Dhubri, Bongaigaon, Goalpara, Barpeta, Nalbari, Kamrup, Darrang, Morigaon, Sonitpur, Nagaon, Golaghat, Lakhimpur, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Dhemaji, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts, and in the Barak Valley, through Karimganj and Hailakandi districts.

Previously, siltation did not occur and the rivers were navigable. Apart from this, the aqua beings lived and moved along the waters freely or smoothly.

According to a report published recently, the number of speedboats is 70% to 80% of the total, whereas big-steam-boats, small ships, steamers, et cetera, are only 20 to 30 percent. Most of the speedboats have no license and they ply in an illegal way.

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Overcrowded Bhutbhutti speedboat in the Brahmaputra river in Northeast Indian State, Assam. Main transportation in the region.

About 60% to 70% of the boats are licensed by Village-Panchayets, but fail to get ‘Fitness Certificate’ from the Inland Water Transport (IWT), Government of Assam (India) -IWTGAI. It is said the boat owners do not feel any necessity to observe the minimum rules and regulations.

These speedboats carry hundreds of passengers, domestic animals and different types of commodities every day. The rivers have strong currents, and the speedboats are often driven recklessly, causing accidents and loss of life and property.

Although there is a Government Ferry Service, it is not sufficient to transport all of the people.

According to the Inland Vessels Act-1971, speedboats and other vessels can not carry all the above noted things without having safety measures like lifebuoys, life-jackets, a fire extinguisher, sand-bags, oars (in case the engine fails), first-aid. These things are all compulsory, according to the Inland Water Transport Act, 1971.

In Assam, there are regularly about 4,000 to 5,000 different types of vessels in the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. Of these, the eastern Indian States, Assam, West Bengal and Bihar average more than 10,000 speedboats. However, most of them have no fitness-certificate or ‘Registration’ for which Rs. 40 to Rs. 50 is payable.

“Rs. 90 to Rs. 100 is required to have this fitness-certificate. The certificates and registration are issued to those speed-boats, which are fit to ply through the rivers in order to carry both passengers and commodities and so on. However, the speedboats have nothing of the sort,” revealed one of the officers of the IWTGAI.

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Overcrowded Bhutbhutti speedboat in the Brahmaputra river in Northeast Indian State, Assam. Main transportation in the region.

“Therefore, if such restriction as regard to the fitness-certificate and registration are required to be imposed upon them (speed-boats), they will stop plying and in that case people of these areas will have to suffer a lot. Movement, business, education, medical, et cetera will come to a halt,” claimed experts in the Northeast Indian region.

In fact, these speedboats are the major means of transport for the people, who live in the Char (that is, river-island or sandy-shore) areas. Further, like vehicle department, IWTGAI has no ‘enforcement cell’ to look after these illegal activities.

According to the IWTGAI, “It is for the Indian Police Department to look after the illegal plying activities of boats and vessels in the river. IWTGAI has informed the matter to the Government, but there is no response as regards of this enforcement-cell. IWTGAI has appointed two surveyors in Assam. One at Guwahati, capital of the Assam State in Kamrup district and another at Dhubri in Dhubri district of the same state.

According to the IWTGAI officials, “Speed-boats which will follow the rules and regulations will not be harassed in any way, but those, who do not will be taken into account. The department, which looks after this matter, has no such fixed ‘rules’ or ‘laws’ to resist the movement of these boats.”

Indian River Police Force (IRPF) officials said, “There are nine IRPF outposts in entire Brahmaputra Valley in Assam State. However, they cannot carry out their functions properly due to the shortage of adequate manpower and necessary vehicles and also vessels like speed-boats, et cetera.

At present, there are six speedboats, but four speedboats have become useless. These defective speedboats require repair immediately, but it cannot be done due to the shortage of funds.”

Unlicensed and unauthorised speedboats have a golden opportunity to ply in the rivers as because the ‘Ferry Service’, which could do these jobs, is suspended. Some have alleged that behind this suspension there is a great ‘secret agreement’ between ferry-service management and the speedboat owners.

Besides passengers, the speedboats are often used by smugglers and infiltrators. The department has made it compulsory for every unauthorized speedboat that they should have to obtain a license before plying in the Brahmaputra river and its tributaries. This has been done to prevent the illegal plying of these boats as well as illegal works of smuggling, anti-Indian activities and illegal infiltration, et cetera. The owners of the boats are also warned that their boats will be seized if they try to violate the orders, which were imposed on October, 1994 in the India-Bangladesh international border areas.

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Overcrowded Bhutbhutti speedboat in the Brahmaputra river in Northeast Indian State, Assam. Main transportation in the region.

In North-East India, Assam State’s Dhubri district administration and the Border Security Force of India (BSFI) banned the movement of boats across the river Brahmaputra with or without passengers and goods after ‘sunset’ throughout the Indo-Bangla international boundary areas for the purpose of security measure like passengers movement, smuggling, infiltration, and also the anti-Indian activities like militancy, religious fundamental activities, et cetera.

Peoples of the states are afraid that major accidents may occur in the rivers and its tributaries, if these speedboats or steamboats are not compelled to ply according to the rules and regulations of the Inland Water Transport department.

“The Government of India should start a proper river transport system, immediately, by the department of Indian Inland Water Transport Service in the above three states to avoid accidents and illegal activities,” stated the local think tanks.

But, in vain, Mukul Roy, the Indian Minister of State for Shipping on 30th November, 2009, ruled out the possibility of developing the river-port and the transport system as an international standard or international port. Not only that, even, he did not give any positive reply to revamp this Indian National Waterway Number-2. However, he stated that the river-port would keep just as a ‘floating terminal’ at district headquarters, Dhubri, which is located on the bank of the Brahmaputra. He revealed all these things in the Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) that day.

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Overcrowded Bhutbhutti speedboat in the Brahmaputra river in Northeast Indian State, Assam. Main transportation in the region.

References :

Shib Shankar Chatterjee is a former BBC, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Statesman & The Telegraph Contributor-cum-Correspondent from Northeast India, who specializes in investigations of important issues affecting the people of South Asia, specially, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan & Myanmar.