09 December 2010

Transport In Sunderbans - 2: No Safety On Rivers Or Roads

Transportation networks in the Sunderbans are underdeveloped and remain largely dependent on river transport. According to a report on the Sunderbans biosphere, “in 4500 sq.km. inhabited areas, there is only 42 km. of railway line and about 300 km. of pucca road network. The only means of communication between the islands is through the waterways which is poorly organized and people have to depend on the private mechanized boats which are sometimes a serious life-risk. There is acute shortage of well-maintained jetties.”

Details are given in the table below.

Blocks of S24Pgs
Ferry Services (Number)
Bus Routes (Number)
Distance from block HQ to Railway Station (km)
Basanti
8
1
16
Canning - I
4
2
1
Canning - II
2
2
13
Gosaba
6
1
36
Joynagar - I
0
2
1
Joynagar - II
2
2
2
Kakdwip
11
3
8
Kultali
2
2
25
Mathurapur - I
0
1
3
Mathurapur - II
0
3
16
Namkhana
3
2
28
Patharpratima
22
1
44
Sagar
8
1
36

River transport
With 37 inhabited islands, all the blocks are heavily dependent on rivers and water ways for traveling. Most of the waterways are catered to by mechanised country boats, all of which are unlicensed. Government run launches are almost non-existent. For example, the only evidence we got of Government run river transport were in Canning where there are 3 Government launches and in Sagar. The unlicensed mechanized country boats are used as passenger boats as well as boats to carry goods. They are most often overcrowded and overloaded and there is no control exercised by any authority (as far as we know) to ensure passenger safety.

In the absence of this, dongas or non-motorized country boats, which are even more dangerous, are used. These are overloaded and often overturn. Shockingly, none of the boats have proper life saving equipment.

Certain ghats or jetties which are the only points of contact with the outer world for vast areas and large islands are catered to by only a few boats during the whole day. Even the country boats are not sufficient in number.We give some examples below. 

In Gosaba, a single motorised country boat is available during the whole day to go to three ghats including Gouranga ghat and  Kochukhali ghat. The boat is therefore very  overcrowded.
For  Palat from Kakdwip, there is only one motorised country boat available during the day.
In Namkhana block from Chaimaguri to Narayanpur there is only one trawler in the whole day which leaves at 9 AM from Narayanpur and comes back at 3.

In Pathar Pratima, from  Ramganga to G Plot, there are only two motorised country boats at 6 am and 7 am, which return at  2 and 2.30 pm. There is no other means of communication. If the boat gets broken down or gets stuck during low tide on a char  there is no other way to travel back.
In Kultali , from Somwarer bazaar to Raidighi, only one boat goes up and down.
In Kakdwip- Pathar Pratima, only a few boats are available on the Gangadharpur to Mandir ghat route
In Namkahna , for the Sasmal ghat, only a small size mechanised country boat runs . It comes every one hour to use the boat to go to school but they complain that they do not get the boat properly in time.There are only two boats in the whole day from Raidighi to Kedarpur Ghat.
Gangadharpur to Gopalnagar- motorised country boats are available only while there is high tide. After that, there are only small wooden boats known as dongas, which are overcrowded and in danger of sinking.

Where jetties have been constructed, these are in a state of disrepair. For example, Narayanpur Ghat, which is the main connecting point between Namkhana block and police station to all areas in the block and beyond is broken. Besides the few constructed jetty ghats, most points from where passengers embark and disembark are often only mud embankments where the passengers have to descend knee deep into the river and then clamber up in mud which is knee or thigh high. This is not just highly uncomfortable and very difficult especially for people carrying headloads or for children , pregnant women and old people, the presence of crocodiles in rivers make this a dangerous enterprise. The boats have no barricades or other systems to prevent crocodile attacks. We give some examples below:-

The route from Kakdwip to Ramgopalpur has about 30 stoppages , all in this condition.
All jetties on the boat routes from Kakdwip to Moipith, Brajaballabhpur and  Ghutiari are broken.
In Kadwip block, there are no proper ghats on the route from Baikunthapur to Takthipur, so when tide falls people have to wade through slush.

The boat from Sasmal to Bagdanga ghat in Namkhana block stops at many places where no ghat is there. At the terminal point itself , Bagdanga ghat is in a state of disrepair. In Gosaba, for  Satjelia 1, 2, 3 and 4,  ghats and separate boats are there but the ghats in bad state. For the crossing at Patibonia ghat in Namkhana, the jetty is broken on both sides.From Namkhana to Chaimaguri,the ghats are broken on both points of embarkation and disembarkation.

The business of auctioning off jetties and ghats seems a very important one for leaders in the Panchayat Samity and Zilla Parishad. However, there is little transparency on this issue. There are rumours that large sums of money exchange hands at this time. The winning bidder does not seem to take any responsibility for the overcrowding and safety of the boats, the state of the ghat or any other problem. In fact, we were told that the auctioning of the ghats was responsible for overcrowding . For example we heard that in Kultali, from Somwarer bazaar to Raidighi, only one boat goes up and down. The bid is Rs.70000 to Rs.1 lakh, so there is overloading to recover this money.

Systems such as fixed rates, rate cards, an association to which wrong doings can be reported are missing. Thus passengers receive no facilities or protection.Transportation for patients (in terms of a river ambulance ) or even mobile medical facilities are practically unavailable . With river transport stopping very early, emergency patients, including delivery cases, have to depend on quack doctors or village dais and are unable to reach medical aid quickly. 

For example,Boats going to and from Raidighi ghat to Kuimuri, Nandeer Ghat, K Plot, Kedarpur  and Bhubaneswari 19 Number Ghat stop at 5 pm.For  Satjelia 1, 2, 3 and 4 ghats, boats run only till 8 pm. For Patibonia ghat from Namkhana, boats stop after 8 pm. From Somwarer bazaar to Raidighi, the single boat that goes up and down stops at 5 pm. All boats in Pathar Pratima block stop at 8 pm.

We quote from a report below :-
“Difficult terrain and broken chain of transportation – especially in the least accessible islands - seem to force the mothers deliver births at home…. Out of sample 569 mothers, who delivered at least one child in the last five years, only 29 percent delivered their last child at public or private institutions.…. The results show that a woman, who delivered birth at home, would have to travel 8 KM on average had she decided to deliver birth at the nearest public hospital. However, the physical distance in the Sundarbans often fails to reflect the degree of inaccessibility as travelling a short distance in some pockets may mean quite a hardship due to broken transportation linkages or unavailable water transportation when it is most required. For example, a woman living at Lahiripur in Gosaba block would be required to visit Gosaba BPHC (hospital at the block headquarter) if she wants to deliver birth at a hospital. The shortest route to reach the BPHC would require her to walk or travel by van rickshaw a distance of 9 KM, cross a river, and then again ride a van rickshaw to cross a distance of 5.5 KM. In addition to hardships of cross-transportation, the whole journey would take about 3 to 3.5 hours. If she decides to avoid break-journeys and to travel by a single mode, she would take the river route (from Lahiripur to Bali, Bali to Gosaba BPHC) and reach the destination after a journey of 6-7 hours. A more viable alternative, in this case, would be to take a risk of delivering birth at home, or to helplessly wait for the morning if the problem starts at night.”

While the lack of regular transportation throughout the day and its total absence at night affects patients, it also means that administration becomes totally inaccessible for people. Thus, there are delays in reporting cases of rape and other crimes. Access to police stations is practically nil in remote areas, making it impossible for people to get protection from local goons when they protest about any corruption. Grievance redressal becomes a joke in such situations, as it takes a day and Rs.50-70 at least to reach the block office.
 Road Transport
As per statistics available from the Sunderbans Development Board, while the 13 blocks in South 24 Parganas have 8248.52 kms of roads , 80.6% of these roads are unsurfaced, kachha roads. All the important “towns”/market places in the area are badly catered to as far as road transport is concerned. Buses, autos , jeeps or trekkers are the main means of transport. Motorized van rickshaws have been started some years back. There is as far as we know, no licencing system for motorized van rickshaws. Fares are also not fixed and tend to be excessive after dark.

Buses and autos do not run at night. After 7 pm, there is no transport available to and from Raidighi. After 6 pm, buses stop from Kkadwip to Daimond Hrabour. Trekkers run till 8 pm only. 
There is no bus fromKakdwip to Gangadharpur  after 6 pm. After 9-10 pm no autos run from Lakshmiknatapur to Kulpi. Namkhana to 8 No ghat – no bus after 8 pm.

Overcrowding , carrying of passengers on the roof, overloading with goods are all common events which make travelling dangerous for passengers. People have to hang outside trekkers. Travelling on rooftops of buses and even trekkers is common. For example, from Lakshmikantapur to Kulpi autos take 8-10 people per auto. The same kind of overcrowding of autos and bsues has also been reported from the Mathurapur - Ghoradal line. Namkhana to Haripur – trekkers are overloaded,  accidents take place leading to stoppgae of the route for some time , after which the same kind of crowded services are resumed.

Drivers of buses complain that they are fined for being late, so they tend to drive recklessly fast at times. For example, buses on the Diamond Harbour to Mandirbazar/ Raidighi  route compete with each other for passengers driving recklessly and making it dangerous for passengers.

Conclusions
We urge the Government to take corrective action on the following:-
Of those who were victims of the Kakdwip boat tragedy, the families of the persons who are missing, numbering 68 to 70 in all, have received no aid at all so far. Similarly , about 16 of the injured persons had got themselves treated from local quack doctors and have also not received no aid so far. Relief for these families should be arranged immediately.
An immediate system for licensing of motorised country boats and motorised van rickshaws in the Sunderbans must be started.
The Government should take measures to encourage more boats to ply in the Sunderbans, so as to stop the present overcrowding. It must also encourage more buses to ply in these routes.
After ensuring that there is a reasonable increase in the number of boats and buses plying, it must set up norms for and systems of monitoring of:
Number of passengers to be carried
Amount of goods to be carried
Safety equipment in all boats
Make carrying of passengers on roofs or hanging outside buses and jeeps a punishable offence.

Permanent well maintained permanent jetties must be constructed and maintained in all stoppages along all boat routes, with safety measures against crocodile attacks.
Transparency on the system by which ghats  are auctioned and on the responsibilities of winning bidders must be there.
Reasonable rates for buses , autos, motorised vans and boats must be fixed and well publicised, and also monitored.
Mobile medical ambulance boats must be provided for all block and sub block level hospitals and must be available free of cost at all hours for all island dwellers.

Related Post: Transport In Sunderbans -1: Dicing With Death 

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