Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Thursday ordered filing of a criminal case over capsizing of a boat plying to Majuli, that claimed one life, while two persons are still missing.
Sarma banned all single-engine private boats from plying to Majuli with immediate effect and announced that the construction of a proposed bridge between Jorhat and Majuli will start from November 2021 and will be completed in four years.
After visiting the accident site with senior officials, the Chief Minister told reporters that initial probe indicated "mismanagement" to be the prime reason for the accident, which occurred on Wednesday evening.
"I have asked the Jorhat Police to file a criminal case. By today evening, we will announce a high-level probe to find out the reasons behind the accident," he said.
The chief minister also said that there are 10 private machine boats with single engines that operate between Nimati Ghat in Jorhat on the southern bank of Brahmaputra to Majuli, the world's largest river island.
"From today, no single engine boats will be allowed to Majuli. Those engines are not marine engines. However, if an owner wants to transform them into marine engines, we will support them," he added.
Sarma said a marine engine costs around Rs 10 lakh, which will be provided to willing private owners by the government immediately after their application.
"Out of the total amount, 75 per cent will be government subsidy and 25 per cent will be given as loan. They can start applying from today at the Office of the Deputy Commissioner of Majuli," he said.
Talking about the much-delayed bridge between Jorhat and Majuli, Sarma said it was a EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) contract and the drawing of the structure has been submitted to the central government.
"Today morning I spoke to the Centre, which will construct the bridge. Once the drawing is approved, construction will start from November. After that, it will take four years to complete. A ministerial group will be formed to monitor its progress," he added.
To connect Majuli with the mainland, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari had in February 2016 laid the foundation of a bridge over the Brahmaputra connecting Jorhat on the south bank and Lakhimpur on the north bank via the river island.
For the same bridge, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February this year again laid the foundation stone for the eight-km long Jorhat-Majuli bridge, to be constructed at a cost of Rs 925 crore, before the Assembly polls.
Sarma also said a total of 90 persons were travelling on the ill-fated private boat. Out of them, one person died and two are still missing. Overnight search and rescue operations found 87 persons alive.
"We have one person confirmed dead and two persons still missing. We can only hope that these missing persons are alive. A massive joint rescue operation is going on in the area and downstream," he added.
Sarma said the deceased was identified as Parimita Das, who hails from Guwahati and was working as a faculty in Rangachahi College in Majuli.
"The missing persons have been identified as Indreswar Bora from Lakhimpur and Dr Bikramjit Barua from Jorhat. No tickets were issued or names were noted while boarding the boat. If this figure changes, we will inform," he added.
The chief minister also said that there are two ropax ferries of the Inland Water Transport (IWT) Department stationed at Nimati Ghat and the state government will find out why these were not in operation.
"These vessels need deep water and it is not an issue during this monsoon season. There must be corruption issues involved (in not running the ropax). We will find out and take steps," he added.
The chief minister said four government ferries are available at Nimati Ghat and two more will be sent from Guwahati, taking the total ferries to six along with the two ropax vessels.
He also admitted there are allegations that the government ferries are deliberately run at odd hours, forcing people to commute in the unsafe private boats during the peak hours.
"We will correct everything. Now one magistrate each in Jorhat and Majuli will monitor the timings. You will see the situation improving considerably in the next 10-15 days," Sarma said.
He also said that 2-3 new ramps will be provided at Nimati Ghat for parking the ferries. Only one ramp is functioning at present as water level in Brahmaputra is high due to monsoon rains.
"As only one ramp is operational, any outgoing ferry has to give way to the incoming one. Why the private boat was allowed to leave when the incoming ferry had not reached. There is a serious management issue. A system has to be there," Sarma said.
On Wednesday night, three officials of the IWT Department were placed under suspension for negligence of duty, while senior ministers admitted that there were lapses and the "guilty" will be punished.
Sarma said he has asked Transport Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary to create a channel for ropax by dredging the Brahmaputra so that these large vessels can ply during winters also.
"The fitness and health of the people engaged in these ferries and boats are of prime concern. We will soon issue an SOP regarding this," he said without elaborating.
The chief minister also said there were allegations that the expert old driver of the private boat was removed a few days ago and an inexperienced young hand was hired at a lower salary.
"These issues should have been looked after by field level officers. When field officers fail, the government fails. We missed these small things while looking for the big works, which is the bridge," he added.
From Nimati Ghat, Sarma visited Jorhat Medical College and Hospital and enquired about the condition of passengers being treated there.
"The patients are more shocked than injured. Some said all their documents were washed away, we will reissue them. Some people said their motorcycles were washed away, we will compensate them," he said at the hospital premises.
Sarma later visited Majuli and assessed the situation there.
Officials at IWT Department said the private boat 'Ma Kamala' was heading to Majuli from Nimati Ghat on the southern bank with passengers and vehicles, while a government ferry 'MB Tipkai' was coming from the world's largest river island when the two collided.
Majuli is the centre of neo-Vaishnavite culture initiated by medieval-age 15th-16th century Srimanta Sankardeva, Assam's famed saint-scholar and socio-religious reformer.