Lucknow, Jul 2 (IANS): Could the lives of over 70 people who died when their boats capsized in Uttar Pradesh last month been saved? Yes, say officials, if civic agencies had seriously conducted the exercises meant for the safe operation of the boats.
On June 14, a boat capsized in the Ganga in Ballia district, killing 61 people who were going midstream to perform rituals for their children. Eight days later, a boat overturned in the Saryu river in Bahraich district, killing 10 people.
The two tragedies have exposed several anomalies in the functioning of government agencies entrusted with the task of operating the boats.
According to officials, the boats in both cases were being illegally used for ferrying people and the accidents occurred due to overloading.
"Officials of the district administration and the zila parishad (a local government body that looks after the administration of rural areas) have been instructed to carry out regular inspections to check the operation of illegal boats. But the inspections are hardly carried out," an official of the Ballia district administration told IANS.
"During the inspections, the officials have to monitor the condition of the boats. If they are not proper, they are prohibited from ferrying people. The boat that capsized in the Ganga river was found to be in a very bad state," he added.
The process for the operation of boats in rivers involves several steps.
It starts with the auctioning of ghats (banks) by the zila parishad. The ghat is then given to a contractor, who is permitted to operate a limited number of boats for one year. The same exercise is repeated every year. Auctioning of the ghats can range from a few thousand rupees to several lakhs.
The zila parishad along with the district administration is also involved in issuing licences to boatmen.
The boatmen involved in the two accidents did not have the required licence, mandatory for ferrying people. The two are facing a case of criminal negligence and are yet to be arrested.
Officials are also supposed to check overloading in boats.
"We are definitely accountable... we should take a lesson from the recent accidents. I have strictly instructed the officials to ensure there's no overloading in boats. Teams have been appointed for the same," Bahraich District Magistrate Rigzian Sampheal said.
The lack of coordination between the district administration and zila parishad has also come to the fore after the accidents.
Official records indicate that before the boat capsized in Ballia, the district authorities had asked the zila parishad about the total number of ghats and boats being used for ferrying people. The information was sought in order to keep a check on illegal boats.
"At least three times in 2004, 2005 and 2007, we had asked for the information, but no one from the zila parishad bothered about it," Ballia District Magistrate Senthil Pandiyan said.
With authorities continuing to be lax, a large number of people are getting involved in the illegal operation of boats.
"Yes, it's true...there are several people operating the boats illegally. While some illegally ferry people from one village to another, others offer services of carrying out rituals in the midstream," said Ballia Zila Parishad chairman Ram Mangal Yadav.
"Hundreds of boats are being used illegally; a concerted drive is required to check its illegal operation."
Around 20,000 boats operate in different rivers flowing through 10 districts of Uttar Pradesh. These include Allahabad and Varanasi, according to the Navik Sangh, a union of boatmen in the state.
"Of the 20,000-odd boats, the maximum operate in the Sangam in Allahabad, the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati," said Navik Sangh general secretary S.L. Nishad.