AROUND 120 ferry passengers commuting between Panaji and Betim experienced a nightmarish situation on Thursday evening after the ferryboat in which they were crossing the River Mandovi developed a technical snag and drifted toward the Arabian Sea. While 90 of the passengers were rescued after more than an hour, 35 others who had their vehicles on board had to stay on for more than seven hours, as no authorities assured them of transport home and safekeeping of their vehicles. It is sheer providence that ferry hit a sandbar and got grounded. Had the ferry not got stuck it could have continued drifting toward Miramar leading to a major human tragedy. The emergency situation that occurred owing to the technical failure has exposed the failure of state administration to deal with such occurrences. It took almost one hour for the River Navigation Department (RND), which operates the ferry services, to send another ferryboat to rescue the broken one. This ferryboat too developed a problem and failed to carry out the operation!
There have been several instances of ferries suffering a technical failure and drifting in the past but somehow the government has not woken up to the set up a robust system for protecting the lives of the people caught up in it. The RND runs its ferry services perfunctorily. It is only when an incident takes that the issue of worthiness of the vessel comes to the fore and the action is normally taken against the boat crew. Will the officials concerned tell the people whether the two vessels that developed problems simultaneously were in running condition and when they were last serviced? And why the ferryboats were not having adequate number of life vests and lifebuoys? While the government has laid down rules for private boats giving tourists rides to have lifejackets, similar rules for the RND ferries are violated daily under the nose of the government. Despite several such incidents happening in the past, the RND has not thought it fit to form a quick response team to help the ferry crew and to rescue the passengers. It has come to light that the traffic section of the department is ill-equipped to help stranded commuters in times of crisis mainly due to lack of quick response team as well as skill deficiency among crew members of the ferryboats.
It is intriguing that not one but two ferryboats broke down, which indicates that they are not serviced or maintained properly. The government should ensure that every ferryboat is taken to the maintenance yard periodically and all its machinery and parts are checked so as to avoid occurrence of failure and drifting. All ferryboats must be equipped with life saving vests as also firefighting equipment to deal with emergencies and their crew should be trained how to deal with emergencies. One of the explanations given for the Thursday ferry drifting was thunderstorm. Why did not the RND alert the crewmembers on the thunderstorm and ask them not to move? Or is it that the RND cares very little about weather forecasts and warnings and goes on with its job of ferrying, leaving things to the mercy of God? The RND has been violating also the capacity limits. Ferries are usually overcrowded. People travelling with their vehicles on the footboards of ferryboats are a common sight. It is high time that the government notifies carrying capacity of the ferryboats and enforces the rule.
The latest incident should serve as a wakeup call to the officials, who should not always rely on providence to save people in distress. It is shameful that the state government has failed to set up safety and rescue systems on the ferries that carry thousands of passengers every day. With nobody knowing who to call in an emergency on a ferry, officials and commuters called fire and emergency services, which responded immediately but were of no use to deal with the situation as it was beyond their scope. It is high time that a standard operating procedure (SOP) is laid down to deal with such emergencies, appropriate officials are named to co-ordinate it and a protocol is set. The SOP, which has to be displayed on every ferryboat, should include evacuation of all persons from ferryboats as safety of human being is paramount and prevent ugly scenes encountered by officials during Thursday’s rescue operations. It is disturbing to note that a disaster management team is activated only during the monsoon season and thereafter ‘disbanded’. It is foolish for the government to think that disasters occur only during monsoon.