The curious pattern in repeated boat mishaps in Kerala — and the lessons not learnt

A report 10 years ago laid bare a pattern to boat accidents in Kerala. Latest tragedy shows nothing has changed.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published May 10, 2023 | 11:00 AM Updated May 10, 2023 | 11:00 AM

Kerala Boat tragedy

A report 10 years ago laid bare a pattern to boat accidents in Kerala. The tragedy in Malappuram on Sunday, 7 May, shows nothing has changed.

The report highlighted the common causes behind the various fatal capsizes: Poor condition of the vessels, their shoddy maintenance, overloading in most cases, and negligent crews.

The accident that occurred at Ottumpuram Thoovaltheeram in Malappuram on Sunday ticked most boxes in that pattern.

It also confirmed a depressing fact: The state is yet to learn any lessons.

Six-point pattern

Dr KR Shyamsundar, special rapporteur of India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), submitted a report in September 2013 after analysing six boat mishaps between July 2002 and June 2013.

This report highlighted 13 reasons for the recurring boat accidents in Kerala, six of which were the most common since July 2002.

These six reasons were:

  • The poor conditions of the vessels; these were aging, lacked watertight subdivisions, and the consequent free surface effect (which increases the danger of capsizing) of the hull.

  • Shoddy maintenance: Underwater hull damage not repaired;

  • Absence of navigational aids, as well as shortage or lack of adequate lifesaving appliances;

  • Lack of demarcation and upkeep of the channel;

  • Overloading, with passengers crowding on one side;

  • Negligent crew: Human error and dereliction of duty by the crew.

According to an official at the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority, a passenger boat capsized at Fort Kochi in 2015 after it was hit by a fishing boat, had also followed this pattern; eight lives were lost in that incident.

Repeating pattern?

Preliminary reports of the boat accident at Thoovaltheeram suggest similar factors were at play here as well, though the official cautioned against “jumping to conclusions”.

“Let the judicial commission come out with its findings,” the official told South First. “But if this accident also confirmed this pattern, then something is terribly wrong with our system.”

A commission of inquiry has been ordered to find the causes behind boat accidents in the state — the fourth time that such a probe has been instituted.

The previous three inquiries were:

  • The Justice K Narayana Kurup commission inquiring into the Kumarakom boat tragedy that claimed 29 lives on 27 July, 2002;

  • The Justice MM Pareed Pillay Commission inquiring into the Thattekad boat accident which claimed the lives of 14 students and three teachers on 2 February, 2007, and

  • The Justice E Moideen Kunju Commission, inquiring into the boat accident at Thekkady causing the death of 45 tourists on 30 September, 2009.

Lessons from the past

So what are the lessons that one could have learnt from the past tragedies?

In his inquiry report on the Kumarakom incident, Justice Narayana Kurup highlighted the danger of poorly-designed boats.

Rescue work under way after a boat capsized in the Malappuram district of Kerala on Sunday, 7 May, 2023.

Rescue work underway after a boat capsized in the Malappuram district of Kerala on Sunday, 7 May, 2023. (Supplied)

According to him, a properly designed passenger boat loaded to its rated capacity should not heel beyond a prescribed limit.

However, a passenger boat that does not satisfy the prescribed stability criteria can heel beyond the limit, especially under overloaded conditions, causing it to capsize.

The second lesson that could have been learnt relates to safety measures and supervision.

In the inquiry report following the boat accident at Thekkady, Justice Moideen Kunju stressed the need for making it mandatory to wear safety jackets and providing safety instructions to passengers.

He also highlighted the need for ensuring a sufficient number of life-saving devices depending upon the capacity of each boat.

The third lesson pertains to the absence of proper guidance; this is what led to the double-decker passenger boat Lily Darling capsizing at Punnamada in Alappuzha on 26 January, 2013.

The mishap, which claimed four lives, occurred when the crew failed to guide the tourists aboard and restrict their movement to one side of the boat.

What has also emerged in the past is the absence of rescuers. In the absence of an emergency rescue team or trained drivers/swimmers, it is left to the passengers to fend for themselves.

To address this issue, the Moideen Kunju Commission recommended establishing rescue coordination centres at important tourist sports such as Thoovaltheeram.

The Moideen Kunju Commission also stressed on the need for navigable waterways, properly maintained by dredging and removing of underwater obstacles that can damage a boat and cause it to capsize.

Mishap predicted

Kerala boat tragedy

Muralee Thummarkudy’s Facebook post.

Ironically, barely a month ago, an internationally renowned expert in disaster response had predicted that a riverine disaster was in the offing.

In a Facebook post on 1 April that has now gone viral, Muralee Thummarukudy warned of an imminent houseboat accident in the state that could claim more than 10 lives.

“Please don’t misconstrue. I am not a prophesier. I am a disaster management analyst and it is my job to identify possible disasters and avert them,” Thummarukudy had said in his post.

The post analysed the threats involved with houseboats, including the absence of safety briefings for passengers, safety drills for crew members, obscurity with licensing, and safety features including fire safety, among others.