In the course of this week, two major boat tragedies — the first in Bihar and now in Kerala — have claimed over 100 lives. In Bihar, at least 60 persons, including 34 children drowned when a boat sank in the swollen Bagmati river. In the tourist resort of Thekkady on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, more than 40 people died in an accident that involved a State Tourism Corporation’s new double-decker boat. Evidently, both the tragedies could have been averted if only the established safety norms had been followed. Such tragedies, however, are not new to the subcontinent, or even to the South East Asian region. Several Commissions of Inquiry and expert committees have time and again pinpointed the basic norms to be observed when boats carry passengers. This applied equally to a ferry service across a river and tourist rides on lakes. Some of the fundamental norms of safety relate to and include the number of passengers taken on board, the safety gadgets and trained rescue personnel to be ready at hand in the vessel, the dos and don’ts for the passengers, and the imperative of ensuring that they indeed adhered to the rules. Unfortunately, these are honoured more in the breach.
In the Thekkady tragedy — the Kerala government has ordered a judicial inquiry into the accident — groups of tourists from other States including Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, and West Bengal were involved. Preliminary reports indicate that when a sizable section of the tourists on board moved to one side to catch a glimpse of the elephants moving around the lake, the boat capsized. As it happened to be a Kerala Tourism Corporation boat, lifeguards and safety gadgets were available. But the tourists were not wearing the life jackets on board — apparently, nobody had insisted on their doing so. Since the accident took place at least seven kilometres away from the boathouse, it took time for the rescue boats to get into the act. Bad weather compounded the problem; some passengers could still be rescued. It does not require an enquiry commission or committee to pronounce what went wrong and what should be done to avert such disasters. It is a simple question of implementing the safety norms that have already been worked out and circulated. Just as it requires the enforcement agencies to implement the rules, passengers must also take the prescribed safety precautions seriously, and cooperate with the authorities as well as the ferry operators. Non-government organisations could pitch in and launch an awareness campaign which should go some way in securing better compliance of the safety norms by the boat operators and users alike.