Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Safety lapses exposed in Kerala boat tragedy

30 Sep 2009. ET Bureau

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The magical experience of a boat cruise on the Thekkady lake, a premier tourist destination in Kerala's Idukki district, turned into one of deep mourning, as a boat carrying an estimated 75 tourists and boat crew went down, killing many. None of the passengers was known to be wearing a life jacket.

The accident occurred around 5 pm, in the lake that is known for the tree stumps that dot the waters, some of them submerged, making boat navigation the exclusive domain of experienced boat drivers.

Idukki additional district magistrate V Jayaprakash told ET that 23 bodies had been recovered by 8 pm, with reports that many more bodies were expected to be located. The local administration pressed the services of police, ambulance and medical staff into service. However, poor lighting and the difficulty of operating rescue boats in the lake in the dark owing to the possibility of submerged tree stumps causing another accident, severely hampered rescue efforts.

There was no immediate confirmation of the number of passengers on board, but Mr Jayaprakash said each boat that was operated on the lake had a specific carrying capacity
and that unofficial reports he could gather put the number of passengers at 75, many of them learnt to be tourists from Karnataka.

The tragedy has once again brought attention to the issue of implementing safety standards for tourism services in general and for boat cruises in particular, that are talked about at seminars but forgotten soon after.

In February 2007, 15 school children and three teachers of the St Antony's Upper Primary School, Elavoor, drowned when their cruise boat capsized at the Thattekkad bird sanctuary. The accident had happened around sunset, at almost the same time as the Thekkady tragedy, making rescue efforts difficult. As was the case in Thekkady, none was wearing a life jacket.

On that occasion, the owner-cum-driver of the boat, PM Raju, had been awarded a sentence of five years' rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1.5 lakh for being guilty of rash navigation of vessel and culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The sentence was later suspended on appeal.

A bigger boat capsize had happened in 2002 at Kumarakom, another premium tourist destination, when 29 people drowned, with the only difference being that the victims were local commuters and not tourists.

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