A kite festival promoted by the Bihar government to celebrate Makar Sankranti got off to a disastrous start, and reportedly, it owes mostly to organisational ineptitude, poor planning and callously neglected infrastructure. So many lives were lost just 25 metres from the riverbank, but there would have been no mishap if even one of the links in a chain of events had held together. The government set the ball rolling by unexpectedly declaring a deadline for boats departing from the venue of the festival, while diverting disaster relief boats to ferrying duties. Then, a ferry could not reach the venue because of a damaged jetty, and in the rush to board it, passengers commandeered a cargo boat.
The safety of water transport should be a priority in a riverine area but, evidently, Nitish Kumar’s government has little time for it. Boat operators on that stretch of the river have acknowledged that their craft are not inspected for safety devices. Sixty per cent of boats carrying traffic on that stretch do not have life jackets or life-preservers. The organisers of the festival claimed to have made arrangements for 75,000 visitors, but the summary manner in which ferry services were curtailed, which caused the rush to vacate the venue, suggests that preparations were wholly rudimentary. And while the chief minister is morally responsible for public safety, his office does not appear to have been alert or in the loop.
Nitish Kumar’s administration may be preoccupied with the misguided prohibition project in Bihar, which is a political priority. But the neglect of routine business will cost the chief minister, who once enjoyed a formidable reputation for good governance. The imagination and energy which brought bicycle schemes and midday meals to the farthest corners of the state may be in question now. The kite-flying festival was a tourism ministry initiative, and bad press in that economically promising sector is precisely what the state does not need.
Bihar is a prominent destination for international tourists, with sites from numerous ancient civilisations, but only a fraction of its tourism potential has been realised. However, a government which is not equal to organising a kite festival may be frittering away the possibilities before they can be fulfilled.
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