Malappuram boat tragedy: Result of the many ills plaguing Kerala’s water tourism sector

The Tanur boat tragedy once again calls for a permanent system to monitor the safety and quality of passenger boats.

ByK A Shaji

Published May 09, 2023 | 3:58 PMUpdated May 09, 2023 | 3:58 PM

Malappuram boat tragedy: Result of the many ills plaguing Kerala’s water tourism sector

Water is a metaphor in Abraham Verghese’s latest, The Covenant of Water, Oprah Winfrey’s 101st Book Club pick.

The recurring metaphor kills at least one member of each generation in the Parambil family, which the Big Ammachi (Big Mother) terms, “The Condition”.

“The Condition” keeps repeating in — and haunting — Kerala, the land of 44 major rivers, 34 lakes, and numerous other water bodies.

The difference, however, in God’s Own Country is that “The Condition” is largely manmade.

In the latest tragedy, 22 people, mostly children and women, drowned when a recreational boat sank close to the Poorappuzha estuary at Ottumpuram near Thoovaltheeram in the Malappuram district’s Tanur on Sunday, 7 May.

Ten people suffered injuries in the incident; five others swam to safety.

The mandatory blame game began in earnestness as is the norm after each tragedy that numbs the conscience.

Sadly, the tragedy was predicted a little over a month ago.

The lack of professionalism will lead to a houseboat incident in which 10 or more people will drown, disaster management expert Muralee Thummarukudy posted on his Facebook page on 1 April.

The expert’s prediction came true too soon, and with a magnitude that even he might not have envisaged.

As per official data, over 300 people have been killed in boat mishaps across the state in the past 10 years.

Related: Police form SIT; HC initiates suo motu PIL, seeks report

Caution thrown to the wind

The Kerala Maritime Board (KMB), which conducted a preliminary investigation into the incident, found overcrowding and carrying passengers on the upper deck of the double-decker boat, Atlantic, led to the tragedy.

Kerala Boat tragedy

Scene from the site of the boat tragedy on Malappuram. (Supplied)

Originally a fishing boat, it was modified at an unlicensed yard to provide fun rides for tourists, it was found.

The boat’s passenger capacity was 22 people, KMB’s Port Officer Satish Nair told South First.

Reportedly, the vessel had more than 40 people when it listed to port, capsized and sank — taking most of the weekend revellers with it.

Detailing, Nair said passengers were allowed only on the lower deck, and they should have been seated on fixed chairs. The Atlantic, however, had people standing, even on the upper deck where none are allowed while sailing.

The boat’s makeshift stairs allowed people to go up to the top deck once the lower deck was full. The boat took more people than the permitted capacity in violation of safety norms. More than half of the revellers did not have the mandatory life vests.

Nair said locals confirmed that some people on the upper deck even danced while the boat started sailing.

Related: Kerala mourns the dead as boat tragedy decimates families

Shocking details

The initial probe has revealed more shocking details than what the people witnessed on that fateful Sunday.

Vembanad

Houseboats in Kumarakom canal. (Shafeeq Thamarassery)

The shrank — or helmsman — did not hold a licence to operate the boat, which itself had been waiting for registration with the Registrar of Ports.

Soon after the incident, the boat’s owner, Nazar Pattarakath, went into hiding and was picked up in Kozhikode on Monday.

He reportedly told the police that the boat had passed the stability, design and drawing tests conducted by the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT).

According to Kerala Maritime Organisation’s general secretary AM James, qualified and properly trained shranks should be employed. They should be able to handle unforeseen circumstances.

The Tourism Department and the local self-governments are duty-bound to monitor the boats’ fitness and if they stick to their capacity, he told South First.

James opined that enough officials should be deployed at all water destinations to enforce rules and regulations without any compromise.

Kerala tragedy: 22 dead as tourist boat capsizes in Malappuram

Proposal in cold storage 

Meanwhile, highly placed sources in the Department of Ports confirmed to South First that a proposal to create a 17-member police team under a deputy superintendent of police to enforce maritime rules is still pending with the state government.

Tourism experts also point to a dismal state of affairs, where almost 30 percent of tourist boats are being operated without the mandatory permissions.

Even those with permission are often overloaded without conforming to safety standards.

Vessels that operate without meeting the safety standards include houseboats and shikaras, which attract foreign and domestic tourists to the backwaters of Vembanad in Kottayam-Alappuzha, and Ashtamudi in Kollam.

Even houseboat operators are accused of overloading, specifically while catering to large groups of tourists preferring daytime cruises.

All of Kerala’s 14 districts have water tourism destinations. In most places, agents could be seen luring tourists with discount offers.

The primary responsibility to check the agents is with the police and the Port Department.

Also read: 2 dead as boat capsizes at the Muthalapozhi harbour mouth

Lessons from Thekkady

After the 2009 Thekkady tragedy, which killed 45 tourists, mostly from Kolkata and Mumbai, the state government issued an order with mandatory safety specifications for operating boats.

Thekkady lake

Thekkady lake in Periyar Tiger Reserve. (Sourced)

No such specifications were enforced strictly till then, and the state had been witnessing boat tragedies at regular intervals.

Going by the order, a free supply of life vests to all passengers, emergency medical facilities, and provision for drinking water are mandatory for operating boats.

Even minor children are not exempted from wearing life jackets. Lifeguards on boats must brief passengers on the need for wearing life vests before the cruise.

The passenger capacity should be displayed prominently on boats.

The order also recommended private-public partnerships for arranging rescue boats with telecommunication facilities at all major water destinations.

The order also stressed better safety measures in the case of double-deckers and wanted their numbers to be limited.

According to KV Ravisankar, an entrepreneur in the travel sector, all boats should have registration certificates from the Kerala Maritime Board, crew licences, and survey certificates.

Besides making life jackets compulsory, a permanent mechanism should be installed to prevent overloading.

According to him, the fitness certificate must be renewed every year and properly displayed inside the boat.

Also read: Enchanting views hide impending death of Vembanad lake

A delayed Act

In addition, Kerala has yet to frame rules for the Inland Vessels Act of 2021, replacing a 1917 Act.

The construction and operational safety aspects of boat-making come under the Act. It contains strict restrictions on building new boats and refurbishing old ones.

Illegal boat operations must be stopped across the state, feel tourism promoters.

Retired justice MM Pareed Pillai, of the judicial commission that investigated the 2007 Thattekad boat tragedy, told South First that if his recommendations had been implemented, the Tanur tragedy could have been averted.

He said that greedy tourism promoters and people with scant regard for their and others’ safety are complicating the situation.

Pillai said the recommendations of several judicial commissions are piling up in the state but there is seldom any follow-up.

Experts said Kerala’s waterways need periodic repairing, and the condition of the vessels must be checked regularly. Waterways should be dredged at least twice a year, they opined.

Two weeks ago, Kochi got India’s first water metro, offering safe and comfortable boat rides.

Experts added that Kerala’s water transport system should focus more on safety and quality since houseboats are the major revenue earners,