Imagine a West Bengal where a privately owned trawler with a passenger capacity of 50 refuses the rest of the 150 travellers jostling to get on. Even better, imagine a West Bengal where the passengers wait for the next ferry after 50 have boarded the first one. That would drastically reduce the deathly potency of any backwash from a passing ship, and keep the craft more manageable after a bump on a sandbar or against a buoy. Yet why does this vision appear so foreign, and the experience and images of cruel, unnecessary tragedy, of women and babies drowning helpless and screaming, so hideously familiar?
One possible reason is that an overwhelming percentage of the population in the state is poor. To many among the hundreds who went to Khejuri in East Midnapore for a religious event, each day is precious; the event itself is as important as returning home on time. Once having hired the trawlers collectively, the trip back cannot be delayed. Skewed priorities and deep insecurity make people irrational; for lives always on the edge, the dangers of overloading a vessel are less important than missing a trip. The accountability of private owners of vessels is hardly an issue. Overcrowding pays too, and a driver’s occasional unwillingness, as was reported of the driver of the doomed vessel, not strong enough to stop the frenzied passengers. It is only when a tragedy has occurred that the government’s perpetual unreadiness becomes obvious. There is the inevitable delay in reporting, then the squabble about precisely where people are dying, in East Midnapore or South 24 Parganas, after which divers have to be brought from Vishakhapatnam (and this is far from Bengal’s first river tragedy), while local people frantically do the best they can. The picture could change, but the question is, when?