Barely five months after the death of four tourists aboard a houseboat in Alapuzha district, “criminal deviation from rules’’ has snuffed out the lives of a young couple from Visakhapatnam in the Punnamada lake in the same district on Tuesday.
The ‘shikara’ in which they were travelling was issued a ‘stop memo’ only a few weeks ago by the State government’s ports department, but that did not stop the driver from taking the couple out for what turned out to be their last ride. A day after the accident, Jacob Thomas, the director of the ports department, told The Hindu that the owner and driver of the boat are responsible for the violation of safety norms leading to the deaths.
The police have not let out the identity of the driver or the boat owner, nor have they confirmed whether the boat driver was licensed to operate the vessel at all. But sources, who were at the accident spot, said the sequence of events suggested that the driver was inexperienced. “The driver lowered a tarpaulin to cover the bamboo canopy when heavy rain hit the vessel. The tarpaulin got caught in the outboard engine and the driver may have lost control of the vessel when he tried to clear the engine fan,” said a policeman who was present at the rescue operations.
Lowering the tarpaulin during heavy winds also increased the boat’s resistance to the wind, thus making it more unstable, Mr. Thomas said. “The driver and owner are guilty of leading to the accident. The driver also swam to safety when he should have helped his passengers hold on to the boat. That is a very unethical action for a vessel’s master,” said Mr. Thomas.
“The vessel was registered with the State government’s ports department. After registration, boat owners have to get a stability certificate for their vessels. In May, our surveyor issued a ‘stop memo’ to the vessel as the operators did not undertake the mandatory stability test. The boat was not licensed to operate at the time of the accident,” said Jacob Thomas, director of ports.
Mr. Thomas said, “clear negligence and criminal deviation from rules” was the cause of the accident. He said the deaths could have been avoided if the couple had been wearing life jackets when they went aboard the ‘shikara.’
The Department of Ports norms make it mandatory for passengers and crew of tourist boats on the backwaters to wear life jackets at all times. While the boat that capsized on Tuesday had been carrying five life jackets as per norms, those on board did not wear them, even when the vessel was being buffeted by heavy winds. Ellisitti Nagamani, 26, and her husband Sagar, 30, had boarded the ‘shikara’ around noon and the accident occurred around 3 p.m., when they had reached the open portion of the lake. The vessel capsized after it was caught in the heavy winds and rain that lashed Alappuzha.
All Kerala Houseboat Owners’ Association secretary Sreekumar N. said ‘shikaras’ were introduced in Alappuzha about 10 years ago. “They were named after the ‘shikara’ boats of Kashmir. But these are built like our traditional boats itself,” he said. While country boats are built with small freeboards (height of the vessel above water) as they are traditionally kept open, the ‘shikara’ has a modified bamboo canopy atop it for shade. Mr. Sreekumar said a new legislation was being drafted that would regularise the freeboard for mechanised passenger vessels operating in Kerala.