Syed Ali Bepari of Monirgaon village under South Salmara police station in Dhubri district obtained permission in 1996 to ply the SB Pancha-bhai in the Brahmaputra between Medartari Ghat and Dhubri. There is no record in the 16 years since to suggest that the boat was inspected by officials even once.
Boats are supposed to be examined every year. D Hazarika,director of Assams inland water transport department,said,It is for boatowners to return for renewal and fitness examination. It is,however,a fact that we do not have the infrastructure and manpower to conduct annual fitness tests.
Five bodies were fished out of the river today,taking the number of bodies recovered to 23. Three days after the tragedy,there was no firm estimate of the number of people on board and,therefore,of the toll. The final toll in one of Assams worst tragedies ever could be around 250,police said.
Rescue teams today fished out five bodies suspected to be of passengers of the boat, Dhubri SP P K Saloi said over the phone.
Initial reports had said there were over 350 people on board when the boat capsized in a storm 12 km upstream from the point where the river enters Bangladesh. But an official probing the mishap said today that only 205 tickets had been sold,and the total number on board the Pancha-bhai,including seven crew and some children travelling free,is likely to have been around 225.
Border Security Force officers at Dhubri today contacted the Border Guards of Bangladesh in Rangpur to request them to look out for bodies floating on the river in Bangladesh territory.
Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi,who visited the site with AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi,promised to improve the states river transport system and asked the police to take strong action against boatowners who overload their vessels. Bepari,the Pancha-bhais owner,remains absconding,and SP Saloi said the police were yet to ascertain when the boat last underwent a fitness test.
Besides the inland water transport departments 209 vessels that ply on 87 notified routes,an estimated 8,000 big and small mechanised boats and bhutbhutis (country boats fitted with water pumps) travel up and down the states rivers. No more than a 1,000 have permits,it is believed.
There are only three ship surveyors in the severely short-staffed water transport department. A department official said only 29 boats had been registered or had had their permits renewed in Dhubri between 2005 and 2012. Saloi said at least 30 unauthorised boats were plying in Dhubri district alone.
A proposal to establish an enforcement cell has been lying with the government for over a year now, said D Choudhury,deputy director in the department.
Only a week before the Dhubri tragedy,department director Hazarika had written to his three executive engineers saying most of the ferry services are operating in a very haphazard manner. Hazarika had specifically mentioned overcrowding and overloading,and directed that no passenger or vehicle should be allowed on the roof.
The Pancha-bhai was overloaded,with passengers on its roof.