Disaster floats at gateway

The next time you decide to take a boat from the Gateway of India, check the number of people travelling with you. Chances are, your ferry has exceeded its capacity, posing a danger to the lives of all the passengers on board

Last Saturday, a motley group of 320, comprising picnicking families, holidaying youngsters and residents, made their way to Alibaug on a ferry. And while the mood onboard was definitely buoyant, the partly air conditioned Maldar barely was. The reason? It was filled with at least 30 per cent more than its capacity of 250 passengers.

Most travellers prefer to travel on overcrowded ferries, even if it means
standing the whole time, because it's quicker and cheaper than a bus ride.
pic/bipin kokate

Welcome to the city's new disaster-waiting-to-happen.

Three private boat companies, PNP, which is air conditioned, Ajanta, a non-air-conditioned service, and Maldar, that ferry passengers from the Gateway of India at Apollo Bunder to Alibaug and Mandwa ports, carry far more passengers than they are allowed to.

On September 24, for instance, Ajanta, which has a capacity of 65, ferried 110 passengers, while PNP its their capacity of 110 by 40 passengers. They continued to ferry passengers over their capacity through the day, from 6.15 am to 6.30 pm.

While most ferries usually take more passengers than they are supposed to, on Saturdays, ferries are unusually packed. Travellers include residents of Alibaug who work in Mumbai, returning home for the weekend, besides weekend revellers visiting seaside resorts in Alibaug, Manori, and Awas. In the same vein, Sunday evening ferries from the Mandwa port are crowded, too.

Now, with holiday season well upon us, a similar story is likely to be repeated on every day of the week.
Prakash Rane (45), who lives in Alibaug but works in Mumbai and therefore travels frequently on these ferries said, "Private ferries take as many passengers as they can during rush hour on weekends. This makes the ride more profitable for them."

Extra passengers are accommodated on plastic chairs and most end up standing throughout the journey.

Sunil Thakur (54), who has an ancestral house in Alibaug said, "A lot of people know that their lives are at risk, but no one objects. Everyone is in holiday mood."

Jitendra Sawant (35), another frequent traveller, said, "People would rather travel by an overloaded ferry, instead of a bus. It's not only cheaper, but also quicker."

Sawant picked up a fight with a boatman last season. "The boatmen were taking in more people, and when I raised an objection, they simply ignored me. What's more, a group of teenagers asked me to alight since I was scared. It was really disheartening to see people take safety so lightly. They don't realise that a boat is at the risk of sinking mid-sea if it's filled with passengers exceeding its capacity."

In 2007, passengers were stranded mid-sea after the engine of an Ajanta ferry shut down, due to overload. While no mishap occurred then -- the passengers were shifted into another boat taken ashore -- boat owners and port authorities don't seem to have learnt any lessons.

Saurabh Karmalkar, co-owner of ferryboat Ajanta said, "Does anyone raise an objection when a train or a bus carries passengers more than its capacity," when queried over his his boatmen's policy of overlooking safety norms.

When Sunday MiDDAY asked him whether he was concerned that the practise endangers the lives of passengers, he replied, "Overloading is not the norm on all days. Only on weekends and bank holidays, when there is a lot of rush, we take in people exceeding the boat's capacity."

 The administrative officer of PNP Nasser Malvankar, in-charge of ticketing, denied that excess passengers were taken on the ferryboat. When he was informed that this newspaper had pictures to prove that his boat went overbooked, he said, "We only take in 10 per cent extra passengers."

This reporter then confronted him with photographs that revealed a headcount of 150 passengers on board. Malvankar refused to comment after that. However, he later added that the ticket ledgers do not reveal the true picture, and that a number of tickets are sold near the jetty that are not included in the ledger.

 Ejjaz Malvankar, administrative officer of Maldar said, "Though our capacity is 250, we have been allowed by a port officer to take in 300 passengers." When asked to name the officer, he declined.

Director General of Shipping Satish Agnihotri said, "Regulation of inland water transport does not come under the jurisdiction of the Director General of Shipping. The Maharashtra Maritime Board must look into this matter." However, he said that this act of taking in more passengers than prescribed amounted to a serious violation of the Merchant Shipping Act.

CEO Maharashtra Maritime Board S Shinde said, "We will verify whether the concerned authorities are overloading the ferryboats. If found guilty, we will take suitable action against the erring parties under the relevant sections of the Merchant Shipping Act."

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