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Boats flip as safety drives flop

John L. Paul
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Most boats deserve to be grounded; owners evade safety audit and give registration the go-by

All Seasons, the house boat that sank at Alappuzha, killing two women and two children on Saturday morning.— Photo: Thulasi Kakkat
All Seasons, the house boat that sank at Alappuzha, killing two women and two children on Saturday morning.— Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Most traditional houseboats and tourist boats that operate in Kerala are not fit to be in the trade, something which enforcement officials and even boat operators admit. The innumerable accidents and fires involving houseboats in the recent past have not stirred their owners and law enforcers into taking preventive steps.

Safety audit

A senior official in the Ports Department spoke of how “numerous such boats are evading the safety audit and have not even registered with the authority constituted for the purpose despite setting a one year deadline by the Kerala Inland Vessels Act, 2010.” Though we detain houseboats and other vessels that are not registered, they are often let off following political pressure and public protests by boat owners. They even went on strike to build public opinion against us, he said.

A team led by District Collector, Superintendent of Police and port officer is in charge of conducting safety audit of boats. Often, they are tagged anti-tourism and anti-development when they conduct an audit and pull up violators. Apart from the boat’s structural safety, they must have ample number of life jackets, life buoys and fire extinguishers, which many boats do not have.

The head of Cusat’s Ship Technology Department, Prof. K Sivaprasad, said the focus on the stability of boats gained attention following the accident at Thekkady involving a KTDC boat. “Apart from unstable and ill-maintained boats, the carelessness of operators and crew too contribute to accidents and fires.” This is because many crew members lack an exposure to safety culture and are not properly trained.

Saturday’s accident could have been prevented had there been enough boat jetties in the area. “There are only 20 jetties now within the Finishing Point. This is sufficient for just over 40 boats. We need at least 50 jetties,” said Tomy Pulikattil of the Kerala Houseboat Owners Association, who is among the pioneers in the sector.

Regional boat jetties

He called for setting up regional jetties at various places in the backwaters. This will in turn help people residing near these jetties as well, since they too will gain a stake in the tourism trade. To a question on complaints that most tourist and house boats do not conform to specifications laid out in the KIV Act, he said entrepreneurs had to invest 40 per cent more in each boat, which many can't afford.

Officials are often tagged anti-tourism and anti-development when they conduct an audit and pull up violators.

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