On the morning of April 16th, the usual calm in Gandbal, Srinagar, was shattered by a tragic accident. Around 8 am, a boat carrying 15 people, including children and their parents, capsized in the Jehlum River near Batwara, just a few kilometers from the Smart City area. This boat, locally known as a “khoutch,” was a regular part of the daily routine, ferrying people between Gandbal and Batwara. But on this unfortunate day, it was overloaded with passengers, including women and men, leading to a disaster that claimed multiple lives.

The customary method of crossing the river relied on a rope tied between Gandbal and Batwara. Yet the routine turned into disaster when the rope suddenly snapped, leaving the boat adrift in the river’s unpredictable currents. Helplessly carried towards the middle of the Jhelum, the boat met its tragic fate as it collided with an unfinished bridge, violently splitting into two pieces upon impact.

In the midst of the chaos and panic, families were torn apart, and lives forever changed in an instant. The desperate struggle for survival in the turbulent waters of the capsizing boat was terrifying for everyone involved, as the strong currents of the Jehlum added to the peril.

In response, a large-scale rescue operation was quickly launched, involving joint efforts from locals, marine commandos, and teams from the SDRF, NDRF, and Indian army. Despite their tireless work, the tragedy had already taken its toll, with six fatalities confirmed. On the positive side, five survivors were rescued and admitted to the nearby SMHS hospital for treatment. However, the uncertainty remains, as the whereabouts of the remaining passengers are still unknown.

On that Tuesday morning, Masrat began her day like usual, getting her kids ready for school and packing their lunches before they joined 15 others on the boat from their community. They boarded the boat, a routine mode of transport that connected them to their daily lives. But on this particular day, she said, the weather turned treacherous, keeping many at home and lightening the load aboard the vessel. Little did she know that this deviation from their usual routine would bring unthinkable tragedy.

Without warning, something collided with the boat, cleaving it in two. In the chaos that ensued, Masrat found herself torn between the instinct to protect her son and the harsh reality of survival. With agonizing desperation, she watched as her grip slipped from her son’s hand, his cries swallowed by the tumultuous waters.

Haunted by the memory of that moment, Masrat’s anguish poured forth as she spoke to the media, her voice trembling with grief. “I should never have let go,” she lamented, her plea to God a desperate plea for redemption. In her heartache, she clung to hope, praying fervently for a miracle that would reunite her with her beloved son. For Masrat, the weight of her loss threatened to suffocate her very will to go on. Her son, Farhan Parray, who studied in the first standard and was just seven years old, still remains missing under water.

Fayaz Ahmad Malik lost his two twin sons and wife to the tragic incident. “I used to take them to school every day, but this time my wife Firdousa took them,” Malik recalled, his voice filled with sadness. “I told them not to go, it was pouring rain and the water level was really high. But then I got caught up in something, and in that brief moment, they left without saying goodbye, with their mother. I didn’t even get to hug them or tell them I loved them.” Malik’s regret is heavy and palpable. “I’ll never find peace,” he says, the pain of that missed goodbye weighing on him.

“Everything seemed fine at first,” the survivor began, his voice heavy with emotion. “The boat was moving smoothly across the river, but suddenly there was a loud noise, and the rope tying the boat to the riverbank snapped. The boat started sinking, and we all ended up in the water.” He paused, trying to keep his composure. “Four of us were rescued by some locals who work near the river. But it was too late for others. There were six or seven kids on the boat, including twins. The twins didn’t survive.”

“The kids were with their parents—some with their moms, some with their dads,” he continued. “One mother lost her son because she couldn’t hold on to him in the chaos.”

According to him, it wasn’t an overcrowded boat. Normally, there’d be about 30 people on board, but that day there were only 15. The accident was unexpected, leaving everyone in shock and sadness.

Experts from civil society are also involved in the rescue operation. Among them is Abdul Samad Dar, an experienced diver and Public Safety Underwater Body Recovery Specialist from Kakapora in Pulwama. He has been leading the mission to find the three missing people since the incident occurred.

“I’ve worked on around 40-45 rescue operations in the Jhelum River,” says Dar. “In most cases, we’ve been able to find the bodies within 24 hours. But this time, it’s different. We’ve used every method we know, and it’s taking longer than we expected. Honestly, I’m close to giving up. My team and I have tried everything, but we just can’t find them.”

Mushtaq Ahmad, one of the few who survived the capsize, shared his account of the harrowing incident. “We were in the middle of the river when suddenly everything went wrong,” he recalled. “I managed to grab onto a rope and held on for dear life. Thankfully, two other boys and a woman did the same, but many others weren’t as lucky—they drowned.”

Ahmad was on his way to work when the tragedy occurred, and says the boat was filled with a mix of laborers, schoolchildren, and their parents. “It’s devastating,” he said. “Nothing like this had ever happened before. If there had been a bridge, we wouldn’t be going through this nightmare.”

After the tragedy, all eyes turned to one issue: the footbridge that had been under construction for nearly seven years. Many people say that if the bridge had been completed, the boat accident might never have happened.

The lack of a bridge over the Jehlum from the Batwara to the Gandbal side has long been a source of frustration and disappointment for the community. Despite promises and sporadic efforts, its construction has long been marred by setbacks and delays. This has left locals neglected and aggrieved by what they perceive as administrative apathy.

Sajad Naqeeb, the Chief Engineer of Roads and Buildings (R&B) for Central Kashmir, revealed that work on at least 17 bridges, including the one meant to connect Batwara and Gandbal, had begun without proper financial approval. He said that after 2019, the government's General Financial Rules (GFR) (SRO 15) mandated that Administrative Approval and Technical Sanction (AOTS) must be obtained before projects could proceed. Before 2019, however, contractors were allowed to start work on these bridges without securing technical sanctions. After 2019, the administration enforced stricter financial rules, requiring contractors to have the AOTS before beginning work on any project. Despite this requirement, the administration issued technical sanction for the Gandbal-Batwara bridge only in 2023.

According to Naqeeb, “Since we received the technical sanction, we haven’t stopped work on the bridge, not even for a day. Construction has been moving ahead steadily.” He explained that the upper deck slabs had been installed on both sides of the bridge, and the girders for the central span were completed. “By the end of June, the bridge will be finished and ready for use,” he added.

The tragedy has prompted widespread reactions from people across various sections of society. From local residents to political leaders, bureaucrats, and other members of the administration, there has been an outpouring of shock and condolences.

In light of the tragedy, there have been calls for action, with many urging Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha to promptly launch an inquiry. The aim is to uncover the reasons behind the prolonged delay in completing the footbridge that could have prevented this disaster.

“These deaths are on somebody’s hands,” tweeted Naeem Akhter, a leader from the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and former Roads and Buildings Minister in Jammu. “Remember the day when I laid the foundation stone for this footbridge and everyone was so happy, celebrating that a long-pending demand was finally being met? The project was fully funded. But then the #vikas took over. It’s a heartbreaking loss.”

Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted her condolences following the incident. “Shocked to hear about the tragic accident in Batwara where a boat capsized,” she wrote. “Reports coming in of several children dead. My deepest condolences to their families, and I urge the administration to extend all help possible.”

Every political party is now busy airing their grievances and blaming one another for the tragedy. With a general election underway, political figures are engaged in a blame game, each accusing the other of incompetence and shirking responsibility for the fatal boat accident. Yet, despite all the public posturing, local residents say they feel unheard and ignored.

On April 23, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha visited the place where the Batwara boat tragedy took place. He met with residents, listened to their stories, and heard the survivors’ firsthand accounts. During his visit, he assured the community that the government would provide all necessary support.

The tragic boat accident has raised many questions that might have gone unnoticed if six people hadn’t lost their lives. Now, these questions are at the forefront, but no one seems to be providing answers. Residents voiced their frustration, pointing out that they live just 5 to 6 kilometers from Lal Chowk, the city center, yet in the twenty-first century, they still don’t have a footbridge.

As search operations continue and families wait anxiously for news of their loved ones, the anguish and heartbreak are palpable. On the river banks, a silent vigil unfolds as a large crowd gathers, their collective sorrow weighing heavily in the air. Each passing moment is fraught with tension and uncertainty, as hope and despair intermingle in equal measure.