On September 5, a mechanised boat capsized in the Brahmaputra river near North Guwahati in Assam. At least three people were confirmed killed while one is still missing. Government officials said the boat collided with a pillar of an under-construction drinking water project minutes after its engine failed.

As the tragedy sparked public outrage, Chief Minister Sarbabanda Sonowal directed the state’s additional secretary to investigate the tragedy.

Assam is no stranger to boat accidents. The worst in recent memory took place in 2012 when a steamer carrying over 300 people sank in Dhuburi, killing at least 100 people. At that time too, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had directed the additional secretary Jitesh Khosla to investigate the accident. Khosla submitted his report within 30 days. But six years later, none of his recommendations have been put into effect even as mishap after mishap has followed.

Khosla’s investigation found the state machinery was completely unaware of the existence and operation of the sunk boat. The Inland Water Transport, the department responsible for all riverine communication in Assam, claimed the boat was not registered with it. The Dhuburi district administration, meanwhile, said the operation of boats was not its business.

Shortage of boats

Assam has 104 ferry routes and unregistered boats sail all of them. This is primarily due to the acute shortage of government ferries. Inland Water Transport has only 69 functional vessels, said the department’s director Bharat Bhushan Dev Choudhury, most of them old and “rickety”. The Brahmaputra’s peculiar flow patterns, he said, demand customised boats for different routes. However, in the last 15 years, not a single boat has been built or bought. In 2004-’05, three vessels were constructed. Before that, vessels were last procured or constructed back in 1974.

So, the government lets private operators meet the demand. Over 2,000 such boats are registered with Inland Water Transport, according to officials. Inland Water Transport rules mandate that registered boats be subjected to periodic checks but officials said clearances are often given casually. “More often than not in Assam these checks are done sitting in office,” said Arun Roy, a former director of the Inland Waterways Authority of India.

Choudhury too conceded that there was a problem. He pointed out that the leasing of operations to private players is conducted according to “archaic” rules framed in 1968 that have not been updated. There was an urgent need, he said, to overhaul the system.

No proper checks

Other than physical checks, the rules require registered boats to be checked for overloading and safety equipment ahead of every journey. That rarely happens. The September 5 accident is proof of that. According to its registration papers, the boat should have had on board five life buoys and three life jackets. But it appears that it had none, the official said.

That is not all. Neither the driver nor his assistant had a licence to operate the boat, Choudhury said. “Had there been a skilled crew, they could possibly have anchored the boat until help arrived,” he said. “Then again we do not know if the boat even had an anchor. Ideally, all that should have been checked, we have designated officials for it. But it clearly didn’t happen.”

The boat was also overloaded. Built to carry no more than 15 people, it had 29 passengers and crew aboard, as well as seven motorbikes and two cycles.

Roy said overloading of boats was a “rampant problem” in Assam. “Ideally, heavy load like motorcycles should be kept towards the hull of the boat, but the opposite happens in Assam,” he said, “Motorbikes are kept on the deck because of ease of loading.”

‘Cycle of corruption’

A senior official who deals with river transportation in Assam claimed the safety rules were being flouted because of a “vicious cycle of corruption” plaguing Inland Water Transport. “The government leases out ports and ferries as it does not have the wherewithal to operate them,” he explained. “The private lessees then let unregistered boats operate in exchange for a cut that is calculated per passenger.”

Another senior official said Inland Water Transport had become a “dumping ground for political patronage”. “We have at least 3,000 employees whom we really don’t need,” he added.

A former director concurred. “All the money that could have gone into modernising our fleet goes into paying a really inflated salary bill,” he said.

But Choudhury said a makeover was in the offing. A bill to reorganise the department as recommended by the Khosla report is likely to be tabled during the Assembly session starting later this month. Moreover, he said, the department was preparing a project proposal for the World Bank to help procure “new and modern” vessels, “night navigation” technology, and to build state of the art river ports.

“In 2015, the proposal was posed before the World Bank,” Choudhury said. “By February 2019, we will submit the final project details for their examination.”