Overcrowded boats operate beyond sea mouth without adequate safety measures

A perfect recipe for disaster lurks not just within Kochi’s backwaters, but beyond the sea mouth where overcrowded private tourist boats operate without adequate number of life-saving equipment.

All this is taking place right under the nose of the Cochin Port Trust (CPT) and the coastal police. While tourist and other vessels can come to the aid of vessels in distress in the backwaters, this is not the case with those that operate well into the sea.

The slack enforcement of Kerala Inland Vessel Rules 2010 by the two agencies and the Department of Ports (DoP) has made matters worse.

There is also difference of opinion among the stakeholders on whether vessels that have not been classified can operate beyond the sea mouth.

The Director of Ports Jacob Thomas said it was up to the CPT to permit a vessel to operate in the sea off Kochi. “The State government has notified 12 nautical miles (20 kms) off the coast as the limit for the inland waterway,” he said.

Along with Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation Corporation’s Sagara Rani I and II (the only classified vessels operating in Kochi), a private operator has been permitted by the CPT to operate 3 kms beyond the sea mouth in fair weather. As per licence, the private boat must not carry more than 100 people to the sea, though it has a capacity to carry 200 passengers in the backwaters, a port official said. There are complaints that this rule is often violated.

Spree of accidents

A spree of major boat accidents in different parts of Kerala in the past decade has not stirred officials into action, the latest being a house boat capsizing in Alappuzha on January 26, killing four tourists. In Kochi, the excess number of passengers are carried mostly on the upper deck — most of which are built illegally — making travel in private boats a nightmare.

Many boats are not registered with the DoP either – another grave rule violation.

Surprise inspections

Safety has taken a back seat since the number of surprise inspections has reduced. “Most vessels in Kochi do not comply with stability requirements and have not undergone inclination tests to assess their passenger capacity per deck, despite us issuing only conditional registration,” said a senior official in the DoP. He added that the agency intended to increase the number of naval architects and other experts to consultancy panel within a month.

Grey areas

However, the division of labour among the three main agencies is still not clear. A CPT official said it was up to the local and coastal police to do surprise inspections on boats at jetties, while the DoP too must step up enforcement.

City Police Commissioner K.G. James said safety was everybody’s responsibility. “Instructions have been issued to step up patrolling and also to conduct frequent inspections,” he said.

“Many boats in Kochi carry all its guests on the upper deck, though only one third of the total number of guests is permitted on the deck. The lower deck of vessels must be redesigned so that guests can have a better view of the water body while seated there,” a senior CPT official said.

A naval architect who is among the consultants for boat safety, S.K. Pyarilal, said all boats, especially sea-going ones must do a calculation of flooding, to prevent sinking. “The vessel must not sink even if a compartment in hull is flooded. Sadly, over 75 boats have been registered after 2010 despite flooding and preliminary stability calculation not being done,” he said.

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