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Gauhati High Court passes order to improve safety of passengers on the vessels plying on Brahmaputra

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The Gauhati High Court has passed certain directions to improve safety of the passengers on boat, riverine vessels plying on river Brahmaputra in Assam.

The Division Bench of Chief Justice R.M. Chhaya and Justice Soumitra Saikia disposed of a Suo Mouo Public Interest Litigation (PIL) relating to a boat mishap which took place on 5th September, 2018 at Guwahati.

As per the news article reported in daily English newspapers dated 6th September, 2018, a mechanized boat ferrying passengers capsized in the middle of the river Brahmaputra near Ashwaklanta Devalaya at about 12:30 PM. As per the said report, on the basis of the number of tickets sold, the boat was carrying 24 passengers and 7 motorcycles and 2 bicycles including their riders and 3 crew members. The report further states that as per unofficial sources, the boat was carrying 42/45 passengers. It was reported that when the boat was nearing the north bank after sailing upstream, the machine of the boat developed a technical snag because of which it stopped working. It is stated that without its propelling machine, the boat was carried downstream by the current of the water and the boat hit a pillar of JICA water supply project. As reported, 2 persons lost their lives. It is also reported that 12 passengers could swim to safety, or were rescued. However, the number of the missing persons could not be confirmed. As reported, after the said mishap rescue operations were launched by the NDRF and SDRF in addition to the private boats and the boats owned by the Inland Water Transport, Assam. It is further reported that the boat was operated by a private party under a lease given by the Inland Water Transport Department and the ill-fated boat had no life jacket or buoys. On such an incident, the State Government ordered an enquiry to be conducted by a One-man Committee constituted of the Additional Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam to conduct an enquiry into the cause and circumstances leading to the incident and to submit a report. On the basis of the news article regarding the incident of boat mishap, the present PIL has been registered.

The Directorate of Inland Transport (Assam) filed an affidavit dated 10.01.2019, which indicates that after the incident operation of private mechanized boat between Guwahati and North Guwahati came to be suspended on 5th September, 2018 and on 7th September, 2018 the operation of all private mechanized boat were suspended in the State of Assam and the Government issued directions to all Executive Engineers in the concerned Department for safety audit of all boats/vessels. Immediately thereafter a high-level committee meeting, chaired by the then Minister of Transport, was held on 10.09.2018. In the said meeting certain important decisions were taken and it was also considered that the State Legislature passed an Act, being “Assam Inland Water Transport Regulatory Authority Act 2018” , more particularly, to regulate the activities of the inland water transport operations in Assam. On the basis of such decisions taken, the State Government took the following steps:

(i) Vessels will be resurveyed for safety audit after the installation of double engines on safety aspects.

(ii) New registration certificates district-wise will be issued subject to compliance of all requirements.

(iii) Indian Register of Shipping will be requested to depute their teams to certify the vessels as per norms.

(iv) Special Training Camps of crew members will be organized and certificates will be issued after competency assessment.

(v) A Ro-Ro service is newly introduced in between Nimati and Majuli on 11.10.2018 which can transport 8 (eight) loaded trucks or 25 (twenty five) Light Motor Vehicle with 100 (One Hundred) passengers at a time.

The respondents filed further affidavit on 12.09.2019 and brought on record a notification dated 20th September, 2018. The aforesaid Notification inter alia provides for constitution a “District Monitoring Committee cum Task Force” comprising of a magistrate nominated by the concerned District Magistrate as head and officers from local police station, IWT department etc. as its members and the committee so formed was to look after the following important aspects:

(i) Ensure proper vigil and monitoring of all kinds of vessels/boats in the ferry services.

(ii) Observing activities of the concerned officials/operations staff of the ferry services particularly for imposing strict restriction on overloading and overcrowding in vessels.

(iii) Monitoring the safety aspects of vessels and strictly enforce safety norms.

(iv) Assess the fitness/suitability of the vessels operating in each district.

By a further affidavit filed on 28.02.2020, the respondents have contended that the State Government has taken various steps to prevent unauthorized plying of private mechanized boats in ferry services in inland waterways of Assam for which the authorities have issued appropriate Memos. have to the concerned officers asking them for strict compliance of the notification dated 18.09.2013. The State Government has also formulated a scheme in the name of “Jibondinga” which, inter alia, provides for the following objectives:

(i) To provide incentives to registered country boat owners/operators in order to enable them to provide safe, secure and sustainable ferry service.

(ii) To ensure registration of mechanized boats under the Regulatory Authority which has already been set up under the Assam Inland Water Regulatory Authority Act, 2018.

It is further averred that for facilitating the boat owners/operators in the retrofitting exercise, a subsidy to the tune of 70% of the cost of the engine and associated equipment is being given by the Government of Assam (Additional 5% and 10% subsidy for women entrepreneurs and women self help groups respectively are also being given). Bank finance is being organized for the 30% payment to be made by the beneficiaries, if they need. Moreover, the below mentioned additional incentives are also being provided:

(i) Insurance premium for passengers and boats for initial three years.

(ii) Safety gears like life buoys, life jackets and GPS.

(iii) Extended warranty of the engines up to three years.

(iv) Setting up of service centres with a pool of spares near the ferry hubs.

(v) Training of boat operators.

It is further stated that the first phase of the “Jibondinga” scheme has been sanctioned by the Government of Assam to the tune of Rs. 101.67 Crore. This will cover 1090 boats initially and it is expected that once the scheme is underway, a sizable number of unregistered mechanized boats will come forward for registering themselves within the one year window provided to them for obtaining benefit under the “Jibondinga” scheme. According to the Government, the aforesaid scheme has the following benefits:

(i) With the implementation, the suspension on plying of single engine boats would no longer be valid as all registered boats would be retrofitted with the type approved engines, gearboxes and propeller shafts certified by IRS, thereby legalizing plying of these boats.

(ii) The safety standard of these boats will be elevated to a large extent and the possibility of boat mishaps will be greatly reduced.

(iii) With the regulation of strict adherence to the prescribed passenger carrying capacity by the boats, passengers will feel safe and more comfortable during their journey.

By a further affidavit dated 07.03.022, it has been brought on record that the Transport Department in the State of Assam vide communication dated 14.09.2021 has issued two Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as per the review meeting held on 11.09.2021 and has instructed the Deputy Commissioners of all the Districts in Assam as also the Director, IWT, to take immediate action streamline the ferry services enhancing the safety mechanism in the Inland Water Transport system . By a further affidavit dated 28.07.2022, the State Government has contended that appropriate steps have been taken by the department concerned with regard to the safety of ferry services in the State of Assam.

Having considered the facts on record and considering the steps already taken by the State Government , the Bench held that that the State Government has taken all possible measure to ensure that the provisions of the 2018 Act and the directions issued by the Regulatory Authority are adhered to in toto and in letter and spirit. Thus, over and above the steps, which are already taken by the State Government, the court is of the opinion that the State Government should also take the following further steps to improve safety of the passengers on boat, riverine vessels plying on river Brahmaputra in Assam:

(i) Wherever e-ticketing system is introduced, the State authorities should make it mandatory for the boat owner to inform the passengers boarding the boat/vessel, before the start of the ferry that all have been provided with life jackets/buoys. Strict compliance of the same should be ensured before the vessel is permitted to ply and any breach thereof should be strictly dealt with in accordance with law.

(ii) The authority constituted under the 2018 Act should develop a mechanism for checking compatibility of the safety jackets and audit of every vessel at least once a year. General signal of the weather conditions should be installed at every ferry centre exhibiting the current weather condition.

(iii) Necessary fire safety measures and Distress Signal Devices should be installed in every boat undertaking ferry service. The Assam Inland Water Transport Regulatory Authority should ensure strict compliance of the provisions of the 2018 Act and so also should take into consideration the National Disaster Management guidelines for boat safety issued by the Government of India from time to time to ensure safety of passengers and crews on boat and other riverine vessels. The State Government shall make the concerned officers responsible so that the steps which are undertaken by the State Government for safety of the passengers and crews are adhered to completely. The other projects, which have been undertaken by the State Government, as stated in the affidavits-in-opposition discussed above, be completed within the time schedule as stated by the State Government before this court. Such authority should be made responsible also for carrying out the further directions issued by the High court.

(iv) The Assam Inland Water Transport Regulatory Authority shall depute an officer at each major ferry centre of Assam who, in turn shall be responsible to prepare a weekly report and submit the same, once a month, to the Director of the Assam Inland Water Transport Regulatory Authority as regards compliance of the provisions of the 2018 Act and the guidelines issued from time to time.

(v) While implementing the provisions of the 2018 Act, the State Government shall also take into consideration the recommendations made by the One-man Enquiry Committee.

(vi) The State Government shall also expedite the court proceedings pending before the competent court, which were initiated in relation to the boat mishap that occurred on 05.09.2018, for disposal of the same as early as possible.

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