A tragedy is waiting to happen in the city’s backwaters with tourists being taken for a ride in unsafe boats, sometimes without life jackets, on wobbly upper decks with no proper railings to secure passengers. Some boats have stacked life jackets that are eight years old, sourced from the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department under the tsunami relief programme.
And the Cochin Port Trust and other enforcement agencies do not seem to have ever checked whether these life jackets can be used in times of emergency. There has been no recent safety audit even for the boats that operate out of the government boat jetty on Marine Drive.
Elsewhere on Marine Drive too, scores of private boats take tourists out into the backwaters, blatantly violating safety norms. Sure, no lessons have been learnt even after losing over 100 lives in the Kumarakom, Thattekkad and Thekkady boat disasters.
Former Head of Cusat’s Ship Technology Department S.K. Pyarilal, who was also a member of the B.R. Menon Committee on Boat Safety which was constituted following a spree of fatal boat accidents, said most tourist vessels in Kochi did not conform to the Kerala Inland Vessels (KIV) Act. They are not designed to carry guests on the upper deck. A few steel pipes, a temporary roof and a few plastic chairs are all that goes into adding a deck to a single-decked vessel.
An example of the safety hazard is the unsafe incline of the upper deck’s floor, which happens to be the lower deck’s roof. This incline prevents a seating arrangement as in buses. The plastic chairs are often tied to the side railings using nylon ropes. The Act insists that boats must have chairs fixed to the floor.
As per rules, boats must not tilt more than 10 degrees even if the weight shifts to one side. The steel side railings on the lower and upper decks must be at least a metre tall,” he said.
Boat operators claim that all boats that operate along Marine Drive conform to the KIV Act and are registered with the Cochin Port Trust. “Sadly, the people who inspect vessels are asking for a prohibitive fee of Rs.30,000 per boat to do the inclination test, whereas they don’t spend more than Rs.5,000 for the test,” said president of Marine Drive Tourist Boats Association Shibu P.A.
Though some boats charge as much as Rs. 200 for an hour-long backwater cruise, they are found wanting on many counts. Holding them accountable is tough since most boat operators do not issue tickets to guests. Acknowledging that many private boat operators fleece tourists, the Ernakulam District Tourism Promotion Council plans to standardise the tariff and intends to begin boat services, said its secretary T.N. Jayasankar.