India ferry disaster leaves scores dead

At least 103 people feared drowned and about 100 others still missing after boat capsizes in Assam state.

India ferry accident
Boat accidents in India are often caused by lax safety standards and overloading [AFP]

An overcrowded ferry has capsized during a storm in northeast India, leaving at least 103 people dead and about 100 others still missing, police has said.

Rescue workers fought heavy wind and rain to search for survivors in the Brahmaputra River in Assam state early on Tuesday amid the floating debris.

Heavy winds and rain after the accident hampered rescue operations, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, Assam’s top elected official, said.

Women and children were among the passengers on the double-decker ferry, which was said to be packed with about 300 people.

The district magistrate of neighbouring Goalpara district, Pritam Saikia, who has been supervising the rescue operations, said at least 100 people were still missing.

About 150 passengers swam to safety or were rescued by villagers, Saikia said.

An inquiry has been ordered into the incident.

Strong winds and rain probably caused the accident, JN Choudhury, Assam state police chief, said.

Choudhury said the accident occurred near Fakiragram in west Dhubri district, about 300km west of the state capital, Gawahati, and close to where the river enters Bangladesh.

Witnesses told police the vessel was old and broke in two after capsizing in the swollen river, one of Asia’s largest.

Hasnat Ali, a passenger, told local television that the boat was tossed about and many of those on the roof were thrown off and managed to swim to shore before the ferry was dashed to pieces.

I managed to cling to a log and was later rescued by local villagers, he said.

Over capacity

Al Jazeera’s Prerna Suri, reporting from New Delhi, said that there were conflicting reports on the number of passengers on the ferry, with some saying that it was carrying more than 300 people.

She said it was one of the worst ferry accidents in India.

Ferry travel is one of the cheapest forms of transport in India, and many staying in smaller villages do not have any other options for travel.

“What happens usually, such as in this case, operators tend to fill passengers much more than capacity,” Al Jazeera’s Suri said.

“The sheer number of passengers, combined with the hostile weather conditions in that area, resulted literally in that boat splitting up into two.”

Another accident in the Dhubri district in the state last week claimed the lives of four women, she said.

Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, issued a statement expressing shock and grief at the loss of lives.

The Indian prime minister has announced a compensation of Rs 200,000 [about $4,000] each for next of kin of those killed in the tragedy.

Gogoi said Singh had telephoned him and promised to rush disaster-response units from New Delhi and other locations.

“Army, Border Security Force and other rescue teams with mechanised boats have moved to the site but nightfall and bad weather are hampering rescue efforts,” the Assam chief minister said.

Boats are a common form of transport in India’s remote rural regions, but accidents are often caused by lax safety standards and overloading.

In one of the last major ferry disasters in India, at least 79 Muslim pilgrims drowned when an overcrowded boat sank in the eastern state of West Bengal in October last year.

The vessel, which was carrying an estimated 150 people, capsized in a river in the Sundarbans mangrove forest, 120km south of Kolkata, the state capital of West Bengal.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies