Boat tragedies are undoubtedly common in India, given the limited awareness about safety norms among both providers and users of poorly organised ferry services. However, there can be no excuse for the occurrence of boat mishaps even in well-known tourist destinations where norms and regulations ought to be in place and strictly enforced. The latest disaster that has left 21 tourists dead, most of them from Tamil Nadu, has occurred in the sea off Port Blair, and appears to have every ingredient that is typically found in such tragedies: absence of life-jackets or any other life-saving equipment, accommodation of passengers beyond capacity and the lack of enough rescuers on board. It did not help matters that official rescue efforts took well over an hour to reach those holding on to pieces of wood from the boat that sank within 10 minutes after springing a leak. That 29 people could be rescued is indeed a silver lining, but even more could have been saved as the site was not far from the coast, according to the survivors. It is clear that no lessons have been learnt from recent accidents. In September 2009, 45 people drowned in the tourist resort of Thekkady in Kerala after a double-decker boat run by the State Tourism Development Corporation capsized. More than 200 people died in one of the worst-ever boat tragedies that took place in the Brahmaputra in Assam in 2012. The Pulicat lake in Tamil Nadu has seen a couple of tragedies – the drowning of 29 students in May 1994 and of 22 people on Christmas day in 2011.
Official data on deaths in India due to unnatural causes indicate that the number of people drowning in boat capsizes every year is invariably high. From around 550 in 2002, the annual number has crossed the 800 mark five times since then, and 900 three times. The figure for 2012 was 668. While some of these could have occurred due to circumstances beyond the boatmen’s control, such as the sudden onset of foul weather, most of these tragedies could have been avoided had fundamental norms of safety been complied with. Official enquiries have repeatedly pointed to the lapses, but these findings are either ignored or the norms forgotten after a short spell of compliance. There is a case for prosecution too as these deaths are often due to criminal negligence on the part of boat or ferry operators, but what will ultimately make a difference is a sustained awareness drive among operators and users. Passengers and tourists should also verify and demand compliance with safety measures before boarding and not merely leave enforcement to the authorities.