103 bodies found but death toll 'could still soar' as Indian ferry capsizes


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The Independent Online

After the recovery of 103 bodies from a ferry disaster in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam, officials today said that at least a further 100 people were still missing and unaccounted for and that the eventual death toll could soar.

Army divers and rescue teams were working to retrieve the bodies after a ferry on the Brahmaputra river carrying around 350 people broke in two pieces on yesterday evening. Heavy winds and rain were hampering the operation.

“I will be ordering an inquiry into the cause of the accident, but right now our priority is to account for every person who was on the ferry,” the state’s chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, told reporters.

The entire stretch of the vast river is dotted with settlements and islands, and boats have long been the most common mode of transport. But on the Brahmaputra, as elsewhere in India, passenger ferries are routinely overcrowded and there is little attention paid to safety regulations.

Today, local people, along with relatives of those who died or are still missing, voiced their anger. “The accident was waiting to happen. Private ferry operators blatantly flout [regulations] by carrying people and goods much above permissible limit, but the authorities turn a blind eye to such happenings,” Enamul Haque, a 27-year-old resident of Jaleshwar, told the Press Trust of India.

He said the lure of easy money drove ferry operators to disregard safety regulations for the trip between the northern and southern banks of Brahmaputra, which can take up to 90 minutes.

Another local resident, Nazrul Islam, disputed the figures offered by the government about the number of people who had been on the ferry. “The government is not giving the correct figures. There were more than 500 passengers in the ferry who were crossing the river,” he said.

Officials said it is believed that around 150 of those on board had managed to swim to safety or else were rescued by locals, after the ferry broke apart near Fakiragram village, about 215 miles west of the state’s largest city, Guwahati

The Indian authorities have sought the help of their Bangladeshi counterparts to locate bodies that may have been swept away by the river's fast current.