A SURPRISE announcement to vacate the venue of a kite-flying festival attended by hundreds; an unauthorised private boat engaged in a hurry by visitors to reach a government ferry that could not dock as the landing platform had caved in; disaster response boats on patrolling duty diverted to carry other passengers to Gandhi ghat in Patna, 500m across the Ganga. It was mainly a combination of these factors that led to the overloaded private boat capsizing just 25m from the Sabalpur Diara river bank in Saran on Saturday evening, killing 24 people, witnesses and officials at the disaster site told The Indian Express.
WATCH VIDEO | What Were The Factors Behind Bihar Boat Tragedy That Killed 24 People?
The tragedy has triggered a political firestorm in Bihar with the Opposition and even the ruling ally RJD criticising the JD(U)-led government’s “inadequate arrangements” for the festival organised by the tourism department, which claimed to have made preparations to accommodate 75,000 people at the venue.
Apart from the local factors that led to the tragedy, officials said that no security review was conducted either by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar or his deputy Tejaswi Prasad Yadav, who is also the minister in charge of Saran district. “Tourism Minister Anita Devi did not even bother to visit the kite-flying site to review the security arrangements,” said an official.
On Sunday, the Chief Minister held a meeting with the Tourism Minister, and secretaries of the disaster management and tourism departments. Officials said that Kumar asked the Principal Secretary (disaster management), Pratyaya Amrit, to submit a detailed report to him on the accident and the possible lapses that led to it.
“The CM instructed the Tourism Department and Patna administration to ensure that boats plying on the Ganga conform to all safety norms,” said the government in a statement. Officials said that the accident has exposed glaring holes in the system in place for water transport in the area: of the 50 private boats that ply on this section of the Ganga every day, over 30 are not registered and none carries life-jackets or safety tubes. The capsized boat was pulled out from 15-ft-deep water by the NDRF on Sunday — its front portion was completely damaged.
“The boat was primarily used to carry vegetables from Diara to Patna. It was occasionally used to ferry passengers. Yesterday, the boatman was not ready but impatient passengers hopped on to the boat overloading it. The boat had a capacity of 25 passengers but about 50 had boarded it when it capsized,” said a local boatman, who did not wish to be identified.
Asked whether there were any regulations in place for carrying people, another boatman said, “We are rarely asked about life-jackets and other safety measures. It’s up to us to check our engines and the condition of boats. On most festive occasions, our boats are overloaded because the government does not have many boats.”
Local officials said that the Tourism Department operates three steamers — M V Kasturba with a capacity of 350, MV Ganga Vihar with 75 and MV Kautilya with 35. The passengers who had clambered on to the private boat on Saturday were heading towards M V Kasturba.
“There is a rule in place that boats shouldn’t ply after sunset. But this is often flouted with hardly any government officials present here during normal days. Private boats ply from around a dozen ghats here but the Tourism Department’s boats are available only at the Gandhi and NIT ghats,” said an official.
An official with the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) said that the passengers could “have been saved easily if we had not been diverted from patrolling duty to ferry others in the afternoon”.
“We could reach the spot only after 45 minutes because we were instructed by the Patna administration to bring passengers back from Diara. Nine SDRF boats had been deployed for patrolling about 2 km to check if boats were overloaded. If we had been on patrol, all passengers could have been saved,” he claimed.
Besides, officials said, NDRF teams were not called in as standby for the festival, which is being held annually for the last three years, and has been attracting thousands. “We were called by the state disaster management department only after the tragedy. We came with 16 boats and have been carrying out rescue operations,” said an NDRF official.
The district administration, however, claimed that adequate arrangements were in place. “We had received just one letter from the Tourism Department about the kite-flying festival. But we still made security arrangements, deploying two magistrates, four police officers and 64 policemen,” said Deepak Anand, District Magistrate, Saran. Patna District Magistrate Sanjay Kumar Agrawal said an inquiry had been ordered to find out what lapses had occurred.
Conflicting accounts have, meanwhile, emerged over whether one or two boats had capsized. A purported video shot by the relative of a survivor appeared to show two boats capsizing. But rescue officials and local boatmen said that only one overloaded boat had turned over. Vijay Sinha, Bihar Commandant, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), told The Indian Express: “Our men had so far made 50 attempts and could find only one boat. As water rushed in, it gave an optical illusion of two boats.”
Rajendra Sahni, a local boatman, said that one boat, owned by Ashok Rai of Sabalpur Chaharam, had capsized. Local police said that Rai, who owns three boats, has been absconding since the accident. Meanwhile, the political fallout of the tragedy has left the Bihar government red-faced, days after it won praise for successfully organising the Prakash Parv to mark the 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh.
“If the government had to organise a kite festival, it should have made adequate and foolproof arrangements. But what I am hearing is that it did not do so,” said RJD chief Lalu Prasad.
“Chief Minister Nitish Kumar should own up responsibility for the tragedy. He did not conduct any security review for the festival. He does not seem to be interested in programmes that do not give him national publicity,” said BJP leader Sushil Modi. Tourism Minister Anita Devi was not available for comment, despite repeated attempts by The Indian Express.