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Sanjoy Hazarika is a columnist, author, filmmaker, Saifuddin Kitchlew Chair at the Academy of Third World Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.

Dhubri disaster: Those who flout law must feel its sting

Overloaded, unsafe ferries are a part of ‘normal’ life in Assam.

Rescue workers drag the damaged boat to shore, after it sank on the Brahmaputra river, at Buraburi village in Dhubri district of Assam on Tuesday. REUTERS

n the past month, a burst of storms and torrential rain in northern Assam, in its furthermost district of Tinsukia, and in southern Assam, in Dhubri district, have led to wide-scale devastation, loss of property and, in the second case, perhaps hundreds of dead caused after an unsafe, overloaded ferry capsized in an abrupt squall on the Brahmaputra.

While mourning the dead and seeking justice and legal compensation — financial as well as in terms of enforcing the law and fixing responsibility where it is due — governments and rights groups must seek out and nail those who authorized such unsafe vessels to ply day after day, month after month, year after year along the country's mightiest river. This will not happen through visits by the Gandhi crown prince.

How do overloaded unsafe ferries become part of "normal" life in Assam and elsewhere? The rights to local ghats and commercial operations out of those ghats (sandbanks, which are called ports, so ghat or banks is better) are auctioned by the district panchayat (often, it is believed for a consideration); the selected lessee or lessors are given areas of operations, they in turn sub-contract the ferry services to vessel owners and operators who give them a percentage of the day's earnings; fishing operations are taxed by the lessee as are other operations.

The inland water transport department of the state government approves the operations of the vessels. The latter, in the case of Dhubri, are little better than 60-100 feet long skeletal wooden frames on water with tin sheets tacked on either side and on the roof; the bottom is a flat wooden bed. I've travelled often on these contraptions and on better, sturdier fully wooden ones in Upper Assam where they go up the river from Dibrugarh to near the Arunachal Pradesh border, a nine-hour journey. The latter have a few life jackets; but there are over 150 persons usually on that ferry. In lower Assam, the country boats have nothing.

A leading anchor on a news channel asked me what Delhi was doing about it. I was amused: What can Delhi do in these distant situations where it has neither control or knowledge, responsibility or interest? It is in the hands of people in the Northeast — in government and out of it — to drive the change through relentless pressure. Those who flout the law must feel its sting, those in positions of authority must enforce penalties: otherwise, they should be held responsible too for the loss of lives.

Will the facts emerge from these murky waters? Of the role of ministers, MLAs and politicians to licencing officials, district administrators and panchayats, contractors, lessees, boat owners and operators (boat "drivers" in Assam and elsewhere are supposed to have licences for driving/navigating boats; how many do?).

Those who believe in transparency and accountability must drive the campaign with the help of the judicial system and the media, which, for a change, can play a positive role.

Indians by and large show a basic ignorance of or contempt for the rule of law. This does not apply merely to agitations and bandhs, but to pivotal issues like safety in public transport. More people in Assam have died in road accidents these past years than in all the terrorist strikes and security-related killings. That's the brutal statistic: yet more media attention is given to the latter than the mayhem that resulted in thousands of innocents losing their lives and their families their incomes because of the incapacity, ignorance or drunkenness of other vehicle users.

There's another fundamental reality we can't lose sight of: a recent article published in Science and quoted in the New York Times a few days back says that global warming is causing an intensified cycle of evaporation and rainfall over the oceans, a pattern that appears to apply also over land: "areas with a lot of rainfall in today's climate are expected to become wetter, whereas dry areas are expected to become drier." So sudden storms could be the staple of the present and future, but we can be better prepared by using satellite technology, field reports, safer vessels and through fierce enforcement of safety rules.

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