NORTH GUWAHATI, Sept 6 - �Everything was over within three to four minutes. There were around 42 passengers along with the driver and the helper onboard the ill-fated boat. Those who managed to hold on to the nearby concrete pillars survived and the others were swept away,� Loknath Baruah, one of the survivors of the North Guwahati boat tragedy, today said.
Baruah claimed the presence of around 42 passengers on the mechanized boat, countering the official claim that there were only 24 passengers.
�The engine of the boat developed some snag and stopped working just ahead of the Rajaduar Ghat. We were told some garbage had blocked the engine. By then, the remaining fuel also got exhausted. As we shouted for help, a boat from the nearby Ghat approached to evacuate us. But, due to the high currents in the river, the attempt did not succeed. Our boat then hit a pillar of the JICA water supply project at a high speed and split into two. At first, it was sinking gradually, but soon afterwards, due to the strong currents, it popped out of the water with a heavy jerk. Due to the jerk, some people were thrown off the vessel,� Baruah, a contractor by profession, explained while recounting the horrific incident.
Despite widespread public grief and angst against the authorities for their perennial negligence towards river transport, which is believed to have led to the tragedy, Arup Dhar Baruah, father of Ankita Baruah, a student of Cotton University who died in the mishap, appealed to all sections of people not to politicize the matter.
�I tried to rescue some passengers but many were swept away as there was no provision of life-jackets or other rescue facilities,� he added.
�My only demand is to ensure all safety measures so that such tragic incidents do not recur. We need better service in the inland water transport system. There are many irregularities, and the lack of a safety mechanism comes to light everyday. But, from the government side, there has been no concrete action despite repeated public demands,� Baruah lamented.
Utpal Bora, father of Dimpi Bora, another victim of the mishap, said, �When the late Bhrigu Kumar Phukan was the MLA of Jalukbari constituency, then people used to avail government ferry service on an hourly basis. But now the ferry service has been restricted and people have been compelled to depend on mechanised country boats, which make the travelling a very dangerous affair, especially during monsoons.�
Saurabh Barua, a resident of North Guwahati, also rued, �My son�s life, too, is not secure in such a pathetic state of affairs. He is a student of Gauhati Commerce College and everyday he crosses the river by bhutbhutis. The ferry service is much safer than boats, but the timings are not conducive for my son to reach his classes in time. Now, after such an accident has happened, how can I send my only son in such a boat?�
Many locals of North Guwahati, who very often depend on these motor boats during trips to Guwahati, alleged lack of vigilance as well from the government side. �We see river police personnel only on the eve of Republic Day or Independence Day. At other times of the year, no river police team comes to those Ghats for inspection. So, the private operators control the water transport system as per their whims. There�s virtually no cap on the number of passengers and goods in a country boat. There is no provision either for taking any instant measure during an emergency in any of the three Ghats of North Guwahati,� Kaustav Deka, a student of North Guwahati College, who was present at the accident spot, said.
Jyoti Prasad Hazarika, another resident of North Guwahati and a frequent user of inland water transport, pointed out that these wornout boats make life of every passenger vulnerable during trips between Guwahati and North Guwahati. He also alleged a nexus between private boat operators and Dispur.
Meanwhile, the All Assam Students� Union (AASU) demanded a high-level probe into the incident.
�Officials of the Inland Water Transport Department are mainly responsible for the incident. The State government should bring all these officials within the probe ambit,� AASU leader Prakash Chandra Das said.