Fishermen charge up to Rs.1,000 per trip and customers are normally large families and groups from companies

If there is a lesson to be learnt from Sunday's Christmas-day boating tragedy at Pulicat, it is that lessons from similar disasters are seldom learnt. In May 1994, 29 school students, who were on an excursion, drowned in the lake after their boat capsized. In 2009, two persons who had come to attend a temple festival near Ennore drowned in the sea when they went boating.

Joseph of Nettukuppam, Ennore says that incidents of fisherfolk ferrying tourists on boats, only to see some of them drown, are not uncommon. “The men who handle the boat can swim, but most tourists don't; and there are no safety measures on such boats. Nobody has any lifejackets.”. Mr. Joseph recalls how after an earlier incident the fisherfolk panchayat of that hamlet had imposed a heavy fine and punished those responsible.

R. Karunakaran, president of Light House Kuppam Panchayat, who accompanied the children to the Ponneri Government Hospital, said that only a maximum of 13 people can be taken on a boat. “I wonder how 25 persons used one boat. There are 13 fishing hamlets in my panchayat and I intend sending notices to all of them asking them not to allow fisherfolk to take tourists for pleasure trips,” he said.

He had been asking the government for developing the Light house beach, which is a major tourist attraction, he said. “Some work is on. But it has to be speeded up. If the facility is developed, people will not go in boats.”

Residents say that as north Chennai does not have many tourist spots, many prefer joy rides by boat. They say fisherfolk charge up to Rs.1,000 per trip and their customers are normally large families and groups from companies.

However, Pulicat is not one of the nine tourist spots where the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) runs boating services. “In other places, we use only boats that cannot tumble, built with technical expertise from IIT- Madras. This is to ensure 100 per cent safety,” says a TTDC official.

Also, TTDC insists that tourists wear life jackets in pedal boats, motor boats and water scooters, except the bigger ones that carry 16 to 20 people.

“We are in the process of building basic amenities in Pulicat, including rest rooms and tourist interpretation centres,” says a Tourism Department official.

“It will take time to introduce boat houses there because both States (Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) have to be consulted. Since there is not much to do there, most tourists prefer the boating facilities, without thinking much about their safety,” an official added.

The Centre's Commissionerate of Tourism said earlier this year that the Centre had given Rs. 2.6 crore to the State Tourism Department to develop Pulicat.

It also claimed that necessary sensitisation had been done with regard to use of life vests while boating. This was in response to a report in The Hindu that had highlighted the lack of safety measures in the boats operated there by the fishermen.