Tourist boats in the backwaters of Kochi load more guests than their capacity

Tourist boats in the backwaters of Kochi continue to load more guests than their capacity, hardly five days after an overloaded houseboat toppled in Alappuzha, killing four tourists.

Despite promises of stern action, neither the port authorities nor the police are enforcing safety norms, the proof of which was evident along the Marine Drive here on Thursday.

A couple of double-decker boats were loaded beyond their capacity, with the upper deck packed with people. Even worse, over a dozen guests – most of them women — were seen precariously perched on the open space near the ladder that is used to link the two decks in some vessels.

Unstable boat jetties

A repeat of what happened in Alappuzha on Republic Day does not seem remote, unless the GCDA and other stakeholders construct sufficient number of boat jetties along the Marine Drive. Currently, most private tourist boats operate from dilapidated jetties built of bamboo and wood.

Contrary to the promise made by the GCDA, the agency is yet to demolish the many wooden jetties that have given away because of their inferior construction.

Though life jackets and buoys were visible in most boats, they were missing on the upper deck of a few, even with people showing a marked preference for the upper deck because of the better view.

Boat operators admit that the police have permitted only one-third of the boat’s capacity on the upper deck, the rest seated on the lower deck. But this is seldom enforced, despite the inherently unstable nature of double-decker vessels.

The president of Marine Drive Tourist Boats’ Association P.A. Shibu said most boats have set an upper limit of 30 people per trip. “A few boats can accommodate more guests.” Reacting to reports about the unwillingness among operators to make their vessels undergo the inclination test, Mr. Shibu said that the Rs. 30,000 fee was unreasonable. He added that most tourist boats in Kochi have more draught than their counterparts in Alappuzha since the sea is nearby. “This makes these vessels safer.”

Safety adalat

The head of Cusat’s ship technology department, Prof K Sivaprasad, said overloading and compromising on safety aspects cannot be permitted even if the design and make of a vessel is good. He suggested that an adalat be held in Kochi, so that unfit vessels can be identified. “The most accident-prone are double-decker vessels and an inclination test is a must for them.”

Prof. Sivaprasad called for setting up a dry dock or slipway in Kochi, needed for inspecting the condition of each boat’s hull. On most boats having non-fixed chairs (mostly made of plastic) on the upper deck, he said it increases the risk of people crowding to one side, thus affecting the vessel’s balance. “Fixed chairs reduce the density of the crowd,” he said.

Interestingly, many vessels are yet to comply with the safety norms issued by the Cochin Port Trust a year ago. It says that registration is a must for issuing or renewing a boat’s licence. Any vessel which violates this can be confiscated.

The vessel’s name must be stuck on life jackets and fire extinguishers and no boat must operate after dusk. This is apart from the mandatory rule that norms binding passenger safety must be displayed prominently in each vessel. A good share of these norms are violated by most tourist vessels in Kochi.

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