In the sleepy fishing villages that dot the circumference of the Pulicat lake, Sunday's accident that claimed the lives of over 20 persons came as no surprise. Fishermen say that the at least four to five accidents happen in and around the Pulicat lake each year.
But safety concerns and the absolute lack of any mechanism to regulate the tourist boating operation have never come to the forefront since the fatality numbers were low. The fact that the fishermen have started opposing boating is a tragic irony. It was a very good source of additional income for them.
The Pazhaverkadu village itself was almost inaccessible even a decade ago. The reasonably good roads, the schools and the pucca buildings are available now partly because of the money pumped into the local economy by visiting tourists. Its only claim to fame for many years was that actor Tamil film Citizen, starring actor Ajith, was shot on the shores around these parts.
“Boating began as a ferrying service,” says R.Mugundan, a fisherman belonging to the Lighthouse kuppam. It provided connectivity between Pazhaverkkadu and a small 300-foot-wide strip of land sandwiched between the backwater and the sea.
“Operating boats was a livelihood issue. It was never meant to cater to tourists. If it has to continue, the Tourist Department has to take over and adequate safety precautions should be taken,” Mr. Murugan says.
Now, a bridge has come up connecting the land strip to the mainland. Many lights have been installed along it, but none of them work. “The panchayat does not even have the money to pay the power cost,” says Muhammad Ali, another fisherman.
Though the lake receives about 500-1,000 tourists on festive days, it does not even have adequate lighting or first-aid infrastructure. During Sunday's rescue operation, efforts were severely hampered because of it.
But for a group of alert fishermen who risked their lives, not even the three children who were rescued in the aftermath of Sunday's accident would have had a chance. Many of them stayed with the children at the Ponneri government hospital as they were being treated. Scenes inside their ward were chaotic. “The children asked me to look after the car and the three two-wheelers in which the group had come,” Ashok, the fisherman who rescued them, said. “They had no idea they had just lost their parents,” he added.