Indifference of Indian Authorities Allows More Boat Mishaps

Overloaded Ferry Capsizes

….Around 225 passengers feared dead and many more are missing in the Northeast Indian State, Assam after a boat in which they were traveling capsized in the world’s largest red river – Brahmaputra at Madertari village, under the protection of Fakirganj Police Station in Dhubri District. The boat was carrying passengers from Dhubri to Madertari village, when it overturned in rough weather. According to the reports by the Indian Assam State Police Force administration, about 30 bodies were recovered from the capsize site.

The location is not far from the India-Bangladesh international Riverine Border. This is the reason the Indian international frontier border security Force – Border Security Force of India (BSFI) and disaster management group reached the area so quickly and started a massive rescue operation. According to the Deputy Commissioner or Deputy Collector (DC) of Dhubri District, Kumud Chandra Kalita, “Around 300 to 335 passengers were boarded into the boat, (which is locally called a Lanch, that is, Engine Fit Country Boat, or EFCB) which started from district headquarter town Dhubri river bank and was going towards its destination Fakirganj.” “It was a double-decker ferry. The incident took place around 17:15-hours.

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

The river current was very strong. The storm was responsible for capsizing the overcrowded ferry. Indeed, when the storm came, the ferry suddenly lost control and fell into the river current around mid-stream of the river, and broke into pieces. Like other days, the ferry today also carried daily-wage-earners, labourers, small village businessmen, women, children, peoples and others,” stated the Dhubri District Superintendent of Police (SP) of IASPF, Pradip Saloi.

“When this EFCB was sailing from Dhubri town to another town, Fakirganj, before the boat reached its destination, the boat was caught in a cyclonic storm and capsized. As a result of this, about 35 to 50 passengers swam to safety near the southern bank of the river but unfortunately (till now) 35 other passengers were drowned on the spot. The most awful thing is that out of the hundreds and hundreds passengers, many of them were women and children, who were feared drowned. Boats are the common mode of transport in this particular remote rural region of India, and accidents are common due to negligent safety standards and overloading. Each and every year, due to various reasons, averagely 40 to 50 people die in ferry mishaps on the Brahmaputra.

Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh expressed deep shock and grieved to the Chief Minister of Assam State to know about the loss of lives in the boat tragedy on the Brahmaputra river in Dhubri…..

(Source: Indian Assam State Police Force Department, Dated 30th April, 2012)

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

When the rest of the world was busy using ships, steam-ships and steamers, et cetera as one of the important means of transport-communication and trade-commerce, in the 21st century, at that time, the people of Northeast Indian States Assam, West Bengal and Bihar were 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.

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 has been 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 were seen in 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.

Licensing river boats

According to a report published recently, speedboats are 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 travel in an illegal way.

About 60% to 70% of the boats are licensed by Village-Panchayets, but fail to get a ‘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.

Boat 6
Boatman of Northeast Indian State, Assam fixes the Indian tricolour national flag in his boat, on the river Brahmaputra to show he is an Indian, near porous India Bangladesh international riverine border. There are hundreds of this kind of speedboat in this particular sector for different purposes.

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 cannot 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 IWTGAI officers.

“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,” experts in the Northeast Indian region claimed.

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, just as with the 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 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 to 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 the entire Brahmaputra Valley in Assam State. However, they cannot carry out their functions properly due to 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, 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 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.

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 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 operate according to the rules and regulations of the Inland Water Transport department.

Government of India ignores safety concerns

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

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 to an international standard or international port. Neither did he 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.


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.