KOCHI: It is a sad irony that the tragedy atPunnamada happened on the same day as the Kerala tableau at the R-Day parade in New Delhi showcased the houseboat. Following the accident, along with the usual handwringing the blame game too has begun as the government and thetourism industry accused each of other for being primarily responsible.
"Houseboats are a major attraction for tourists in the state and such incidents bring ill-repute to the tourism sector. We will be taking immediate steps to bring in more stringent regulations for houseboat operators", said tourism minister AP Anil Kumar.
However, All Kerala Houseboat Owners' Association claims that the government is also to be blamed for the mishap. "The 12 boat jetties here are in a bad shape and only two jetties can be used. Though the government has gone ahead and given licence to several new operators, they have not improved the facilities. Many houseboats don't have proper parking facility", said association member Devasia Iype.
The government, in turn, contends that any effort to bring in regulation has been met with stiff resistance from houseboat operators. "In the past, we did try to bring in regulations, but the houseboat lobby objected. But this tragedy is an eye-opener that we need to have regulations in place to ensure tourists' safety", added Anil Kumar.
The tourism department has called a meeting with ports department officials next week to form rules and regulations to ensure safety of tourists who embark on a houseboat.
The ports department issues licence to houseboats to operate. Before issuing a licence, the ports department officials verify if the houseboat adheres to the required safety and security measures. Meanwhile, tourism department does classification of the houseboats, depending on the facilities available in the houseboat. The classification is done only after the houseboat gets a licence to operate.
"There has been proliferation of houseboats in the last few years but there is no regulation on its safety, upkeep and crew. It is essential to immediately lay down regulations to streamline houseboat operations and bring in more discipline in the sector", admitted tourism secretary Suman Billa.
To curb this, the tourism department is now mooting the idea of posting marshals at boarding points to regulate the number of people using each boat. "We want to ensure that any operator who violates the rules and regulations will face stringent action, even cancellation of the houseboat licence", added Billa.
Though a large number of houseboats are professionally managed, there are several without valid licence or licensed crew. "The power to issue licence has been entrusted with the state ports department. But they don't have enough officials to check the safety aspects in the houseboat", said All Kerala Houseboat Owners' Association member, V C Zacharia. Similarly, though houseboats in Kerala are bound by the Kerala Inland Vessels Rules, 2000, which requires that the houseboat driver must have passed ITI course for diesel mechanic or motor mechanic, it remains on paper. "None of the houseboats meets this requirement. Most of the houseboats hire drivers who had undergone gone 4-day training with the port department", added Zacharia.
Ports minister K Babu doesn't deny this. He said, "From now we will strictly implement the rules and only if the houseboats meets all the requirements will they be allowed to operate".
Two children among 4 killed in Alappuzha boat accident
On a day when a replica of a ‘kettuvallom’ (Kerala’s traditional houseboat) was the State’s Republic Day float in New Delhi, two women tourists and their two children were killed in a boat accident here on Saturday morning.
The dead were part of a 63-member team of employees of a business firm based in Nungambakkam, Chennai, and their family members. The team was on two-day tour of the State.
The accident occurred at the Kayal Kurissadi boat jetty, where the team was to board a houseboat for a daylong trip to the backwaters. The team reached Kochi on Saturday early morning and checked in at a hotel at Vazhakkala in the city before heading towards Alappuzha by road.
The accident occurred when the team was boarding the houseboat kept ready for them. Rajesh V., one of the survivors who has been admitted to the General Hospital, told The Hindu that their boat was berthed by the side of another boat near the jetty and they were asked to pass through the first boat to reach their boat.
When the women and children passed along the boat berthed closer to the jetty, it started to tilt, due to the load factor. Some of the tourists were trapped inside the boat as it sank.
Locals and other boat operators, who were present at the spot, told The Hindu that the boat was berthed there for repair.
When the boat tilted, the crowd panicked.
“We could rescue those who were closer to the jetty and even those on the other side of the boat. But in the panic, some of them got inside the boat and were trapped as the boat sank in no time. We tried to break a window that remained above water level and pulled some out, but the two women and children could not make it,” said Kunjumon, one of the boat workers who was involved in the rescue operations.
The dead were identified as Sudheshini, 26, wife of Pandidurai, Flat Number 155, MGR Nagar, Athannur, Oorappakkam, Kancheepuram district, and her five-year-old daughter, Ilakkya, and Rohini, 32, wife of Manoj, Number GA, Pioneer House, 28, Saravana Street, T. Nagar, Chennai, and her daughter, Sushmita, 14. Nidha, 42, was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of the Alappuzha General Hospital.
Those admitted to the hospital, besides Ms. Nidha, were Kalpana, 27; Sahana, four-and-a-half; Hridayavarsha, 10; Prathibha, 34; Rajkumar, 32, and Albert, 43. Sheeba, 34, wife of Ashokan, one of the houseboat operators, was admitted to the hospital, after she collapsed on reaching the spot and witnessing the tragedy.
K.C. Venugopal, Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation, supervised the rescue operations there.
“All arrangements were made to take the bodies to Chennai in mobile freezers and an Air-bus was arranged for rest of the team to accompany them. Police and Revenue officials have also been asked to escort the team,” he told The Hindu.
A.P. Anil Kumar, Minister for Tourism; T.M. Thomas Isaac, MLA; P. Venugopal, Alappuzha District Collector; K. Padmakumar, Inspector General of Police, Kochi Range; and Thomson Jose, Superintendent of Police, Alappuzha; were present at the hospital to handle the situation. The tourist team was scheduled to return to Kochi by Saturday evening and stay there for the night.
They had plans to visit Athirapally waterfalls in Thrissur on Sunday before returning to Chennai by the evening train.
The Thekkady boat disaster occurred on September 30, 2009, when the double-decker passenger boat Jalakanyaka sank in LakeThekkady, Periyar National Park, Kerala, India. When the boat capsized, 45 tourists died, most of them from Delhi and Kolkata.A total of 82 people were on the boat. The boat's helmsman, Victor Samuel, and another crew member were arrested on 5 October.
The boat set off from a landing at 4:30 p.m. and capsized 7 km away, at approximately 5 p.m. on 30 September 2009. It capsized in one of the deepest parts of the reservoir, in an area around 100m deep.
By 8 p.m, a rescue team recovered 26 bodies, and two survivors. Initial rescue operations were completed by local government officials and the public before the state and federal government crews arrived. None of the initial rescue boats had divers, however a team of divers from Indian Navy was assigned to help the rescue operation 5–6 hours later. A team of 40-50 navy divers were rushed to the spot from the Southern Naval Command at Kochi. On 3 October, the search for bodies was still ongoing.
Four bodies were noted as missing until 3 October, when three were recovered by Navy divers: four-and-a-half-year-old Aishwarya and her mother Senthilkumari, from Bangalore, and Apoorva, 16, from Hyderabad. A Navy helicopter spotted the body of Aishwarya first, and her mother was found nearby. The final missing passenger, Apoorva’s 19 year old brother Abhilash, was discovered on the evening of October 3 by an underwater camera, but bad weather delayed its retrieval until the following day.
Twenty people, mostly on the upper deck, were rescued by boats sent by KTDC, the Forest Department, and Tamil Nadu Public Works Department.
Both State and National government acted, asking defence establishments in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram to launch rescue attempts. Navy divers from Kochi were forced to travel overland, after their helicopter, sent to locate the victims, was turned back by bad weather.
Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the Home and Tourism Minister of Kerala and, and N. K. Premachandran, the minister for Water Resources, arrived in Thekkady late at night, and they coordinated rescue operations according to press reports.
Originally, KTDC claimed that there were 74 passengers, but police findings showed 87 passengers; some confusion in the numbers was caused by some survivors leaving the scene without reporting to the police.
The fatalities consists mostly of women, mainly from outside Kerala. The dead included people from Tamil Nadu, Delhi and West Bengal; more than 50 belonged to a group from Karnataka, who had come in a tourist bus to Thekkady as part of a tour of Kerala.
Preliminary reports stated that the accident occurred when a large number of passengers rushed to one side of the boat to see a herd of bison which emerged from the forest. The sudden movement caused the boat to capsize, and all of the passengers were thrown into the water.
Later, this initial report was challenged when some of the rescued tourists reported structural problems with the boat, saying that it was tilted throughout the trip, for about 30 minutes. Then at one point the boat took a sharp turn, overturned and capsized.
The boat was owned and operated by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation. The government has been blamed for not privatizing these boats, for not enforcing safety precautions and for not having efficient disaster recovery plans. The crew of the boat, driver and helper escaped the incident. The passengers were not provided a life jacket before the trip, and there were no lifeguards.
The Pioneer newspaper of Dehli reported "widespread complaints" against both Kerala Government and KTDC "trying to absolve themselves of the guilt by putting the entire blame on the boat employees." The Crime Branch’s probe report blamed the incident on a combination of driver negligence and overloading.
On October 2, it was announced that the government would pay the expenses for sending the bodies of the deceased to their home states and that 5 lakhsRs. would be provided to the next kin of each of the dead in the accident. The Government of Kerala ordered a judicial inquiry into the boat tragedy.
Questioned at the scene on Monday October 5, helmsman Victor Samuel (alias Betty) attributed the incident to the sudden movement of tourists, but fellow crew member Aneesh (also written Anish) pointed out the overloading of the upper deck. Preliminary inquiries revealed that the boat was overloaded, with 12 more than its capacity of 75. The Crime Branch determined that when Samuel "suddenly turned the boat to the right, after the tourists sighted the wild animals”, it had contributed to the incident.Superintendent of Police (Crime Branch) PA Wilson said that "the unwarranted act of driver Victor Samuel [...] swerving the boat while at high speed caused the tragedy". The Crime Branch did not make a final report, pending further questioning of survivors, but Samuel and Aneesh were arrested, to be taken before the Magistrate Court at Peerumade. Sameul has been charged with "causing death unintentionally."
Also under consideration was the possibility raised by reports that the boat listed to one side due to a structural imbalance. The police stated that the Jalakanyaka, which was recovered and brought to the dock in Thekkady, "had inherent problems". A careful forensic examination was scheduled to begin.
Oommen Chandy, Leader of Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, criticized the ongoing Crime Branch probe, alleging an attempt to make the steersman a scapegoat. "an attempt is on to put the blame and responsibility of the accident on the steersman," Chandy said.
Chandry told reporters that, instead of a judicial probe, the government should appoint an expert committee headed by a judicial officer.
He urged Chairman Cherian Philip to consider quitting his post. "Instead of supervising the rescue operations at Thekkady, Philip chose to be part of' Human Chain', a political function of CPI-M, he said.
The Decclan Herald said that the accident was "a result of sheer negligence", and the Express Buzz said it was "faulty from the start", with excess passengers on unsecured plastic chairs.
Other criticisms include (1) lack of disaster recovery planning and procedures for all departments; and (2) refusal to privatize and insure tourist boats with proper government oversight.
At a meeting on 5 October, state Tourism Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan announced several new safety measures: safety checks for tourist boats, mandatory life jackets for those under 15 and for those over 15 who do not supply a valid reason, lifeguards and rescue boats in proportion to the number of passengers.