When Jalakanyaka, the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) boat that capsized in Mullaperiyar lake in Thekkady on September 30, was tugged on shore, rescue workers were shocked. They found lifejackets, mandatory for such cruises, dumped in the engine room, most of them still not taken out of their packets.
An embarrassed KTDC chairman Cherian Philip admitted: “Many lives would have been saved (had the life jackets been used).”
Forty-five people died in the mishap.
Across the Gangetic plains and in Kerala and the north east, thousands of people rely on water transport every day. During the monsoon boat rides are risky, especially when rivers overflow. Boat mishaps take hundreds of lives every year in the country. Yet, many of these tragedies are man-made and can be averted.
Just two days before the Thekkady tragedy, more than 60 people drowned in the swollen Bagmati river in Bihar after an overcrowded boat carrying Dussehra revellers sank.
In Uttar Pradesh, 14 pilgrims drowned in April when an overcrowded vessel capsized in the Yamuna in Jalaun district, 185 km southwest of Lucknow. Inquiries revealed that the old boat had a big hole that was plugged with polythene bags. Some pranksters removed the cover sinking the boat instantly.
According to the Inland Vessels Act of 1917 (last amended in 1985), a boat carrying 80 passengers should have 40 lifebuoys. However, since it may not be possible to stock 40 buoys in a boat, it was suggested to keep buoyancy-floating apparatuses on board.
It is mandatory for all vessels to get fitness certificates from the inspectorate of boats and other authorities every six months. But most of the time boat owners ‘manage’ certificates without testing their vessels, a boat inspector said on condition of anonymity.
The law also says that boat drivers should have at least six years experience. The driver of Jalakanyaka, Victor Samuel, said he had six months experience in driving fibre boats. From his comments, it seems he was better trained to handle wooden boats.
He claimed the vessel overturned as the tourists crowded towards one side to see wild elephants. But some survivors of the ill-fated journey have disputed that claim.
K.H. Sinnur, a senior DRDO scientist from Hyderabad who was with his family on the boat, lost both his children — a 22-year-old son and18-year-old daughter — in the mishap. He told the inquiry team that the boat was carrying additional travellers besides the 74 ticket-holders. Experts have also found fault with the boat’s design. “The boat had a 2.9 degree slant to the right. A slant of this extent is highly dangerous for such a vessel,” said S.K. Pyarelal, a shipbuilding technology expert who inspected the boat.
“After every tragedy the government announces big relief. But nothing is spent in ensuring that the boats are of good quality and safe,” said a senior officer of the Provincial Armed Constabulary, which carries out water rescue operations in Uttar Pradesh.
Bihar Transport Minister R.N. Singh admitted that 300 to 400 people died in river tragedies every year in the state, the death toll among the highest in the country. “We are going to adopt a long-term plan. Boat owners and employees will be trained and fitness regulations will be strictly adhered to,” he said. The Inland Waterways Authority of India runs a National Inland Navigation Institute in Patna that has a facility to train boatmen and divers, but it is lying unutilised.
In Assam, once a boat owner applies for licence, a surveyor appointed by the State Inland Water Transport (IWT) department has to give a report to the IWT after thoroughly checking the boat. However, the state IWT lacks an enforcement cell to check if boats on the Brahmaputra and other rivers have licences and are not violating security norms. “We have written to the government several times asking for creation of an enforcement cell, but we haven’t got the government’s nod yet,” said R H Khan, deputy director of IWT, Assam.
Kerala alone has 44 rain-fed rivers and many backwaters. Hundreds of tourist ferries and passenger boats crisscross these water bodies every day. But unless authorities in Kerala and elsewhere ensure that water transport safety norms don’t remain only on paper, boat mishaps will claim many more lives.
(With inputs from Vijay Swaroop in Patna, Pankaj Jaiswal in Lucknow, Joydeep Thakur in Kolkata and Digambar Patwari in Guwahati)