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New Delhi: The glimpse of a video clip of two ferries colliding with each other on September 8 at Nimati Ghat by river Brahmaputra, located about 30 kilometre from Jorhat town of Assam — and the accompanying screams and cries for help from the men, women and children occupying one of the vessels as it sunk into the waters — sent a chill down my spine.
In a flash, the multiple times that I had squeezed myself into some corner or the other of such overcrowded ferries to visit Majuli ran past my mind. The immediate reflection from that rush of memory was, it could have been me too.
My urgent response was also to reach out to as many people I knew in the river island to confirm their safety. After all, those rundown wooden two-tiered ferries are the only means of travel for the over 1.60 lakh population of Majuli to Jorhat, till recently its district headquarters, and the link to avail better education and healthcare facilities.
Most phone numbers were reasonably pre-occupied. Not in the recent history of Majuli did the residents or visitors to the island — the repository of Assam’s Neo-Vaishnavite culture — had witnessed such a disaster caused by the ferries that they have solely relied on for better mobility.
Naturally then, shock and disbelief shrouded the island at once. Frantic phone calls were made to family, relatives, neighbours and others to inquire about who from the island were aboard the ferries, particularly on the one that had sailed from Majuli about an hour ago and had sunk close to Nimati Ghat after the collision – leading to death and disappearances of passengers into the monsoonal tide of the Brahmaputra waters.
Since a headcount of passengers is never done by the service providers prior to people boarding the ferries, and the overcrowding is overlooked by the officials of the Assam Inland Water Transport Department which issues licenses to those vessels, it was left to fellow passengers and eye witnesses to pin down for rescuers as to how many people might have been aboard the ferry that sank into the river, taking several down with it.
One such phone call to Majuli residents did lead to a survivor. “It is not whether one knew how to swim to be able to save himself from the Brahmaputra on a spate, but whether one was lucky enough to be alive to tell his story,” he told me on phone from Jorhat.
“I was also lucky that though I had boarded the ferry at Nimati to go to the Kamalabari Ghat of Majuli, my car was not yet loaded. It was to be done after giving space to the approaching ferry from Majuli to drop the passengers at the banks. Suddenly, the ferry I was on, hit the approaching ferry which was not only packed with people but typically with two- and four-wheelers. That caused the disaster. I survived only because our ferry didn’t sink,” said Majuli resident Beda Dutta. He was relieved that he could save his vehicle too from falling into the fast-moving waters, a luck none of the passengers aboard the other ferry had.
In December 2020, while on a visit to Majuli, just months before the state assembly polls where then Assam chief minister was seeking re-election from the island, I had engaged with a number of residents on their long drawn out demand for a concrete bridge over the Brahmaputra till Jorhat. The context for that informal discussion was an unfulfilled promise made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the voters of the island during his campaign at Majuli in the run-up to the 2016 assembly polls.
In March-end 2016, Modi, at a public rally in Lakhimi Pathar in Jengraimukh area of the island, had given his word to the voters to lay the bridge if Sonowal could form a government of his party in Assam. Modi’s visit was a first by a prime minister to the island. Thousands had thronged at that public meeting to have a glimpse of the man they had seen only on TV screens and hoardings. Hundreds had boarded those crowded ferries at Nimati Ghat too to travel from Jorhat to listen to Modi, the prime poll mascot of the BJP aiming at conquering Assam with a barrage of promises.
The BJP played a convincing game around that public demand for the bridge in Majuli prior to the 2016 polls. Days before Modi was to land in Majuli, then Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari laid the foundation stone of the bridge, thus firming up the public perception of Modi as a deliverer of promises.
On September 8, while watching on Assamese news channels the tensed and wailing family and friends of those missing after the ferry collision, I was reminded of what Modi had said in that election meeting in Majuli: “Even before we have a government in the state, Union surface transport minister Nitin Gadkari has laid the foundation stone for the bridge… I will do in five years what Congress couldn’t do in 60 years.”
Voters were swayed by his oratory; swelled with hope for better days; brought the BJP to power in the state, as asked by him. In the next five years though, nothing changed for the ferry goers of Majuli.
Sonowal, soon after winning the polls, fulfilled another promise his party had made to the Majuli residents – declared the island a full-fledged district. Till then, it was only a police district, leading residents to frequently board those overloaded ferries at Majuli to head to Jorhat for most administrative work.
After it became a district in September 2016, the tangible change in the island is, however, a row of new government buildings with shiny exteriors. Still, for better education, healthcare, shopping and a shorter route to Guwahati, residents have to regularly board those ferries to Jorhat from two of Majuli’s ferry points — Kamalabari and Afalamukh.
Prior to the 2021 assembly polls, sensing the seriousness of the public demand for the bridge, yet another foundation stone was laid by the BJP. This time by Modi himself in presence of Gadkari, on February 18.
As per a PIB press statement, “For people living in remote areas in Majuli Island (in between Brahmaputra River), the two-lane major bridge including approaches over Brahmaputra River between Majuli (Kamalabari) and Jorhat (Nimati Ghat) (6.8 km) on NH-715K costing Rs 925.47 crore is being constructed. This bridge will provide easy and all time access to the people living in Majuli town with rest of Assam to meet their health, education and day to day development activities.”
In December 2020, a team from the Geological Survey of India was dispatched to study the feasibility of the bridge over the vast river. Once again, led by Modi, the BJP created what it is best at – building public perception.
In early 2021, in that casual discussion with several Majuli residents on their demand for the bridge, what popped up was an article written by Karabi Deka Hazarika some time ago where the well-known Assamese writer-poet had opined that a concrete bridge might jeopardise the secluded charm and uniqueness of Majuli as a religious-cultural centre of the Assamese community. Much as you agree with her viewpoint about the need to protect such a significant hub from getting too touristy and thereby run the risk of losing its sacrosanctity, the locals were clearly not too pleased with her opinion. Primarily because there is the lack of basic facilities in Majuli, chiefly that of better healthcare during an emergency, particularly during the monsoons.
Post the boat tragedy, I see the demand for the bridge firming up even more. The ruling BJP would likely be hard-pressed to go beyond its perception politics of laying foundation stones.
Also, since Sonowal is the only cabinet minister from Assam at the Modi government, the expectation from him to deliver to the people of a constituency which had elected him two times in a row, would only grow.
It must, however, not be overlooked that the promise to the people of Majuli was made by Modi, not once but twice.