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Rowing between life and death

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RISKY RIDE: Passengers on the upper deck of a tourist boat operating in Kochi backwaters. Photo: Vipinchandran
RISKY RIDE: Passengers on the upper deck of a tourist boat operating in Kochi backwaters. Photo: Vipinchandran

K.S. Sudhi

Boats in Kochi backwaters throwing all safety norms to winds

ON BOARD ST. XAVIER (KOCHI BACKWATERS): Boats were crisscrossing the Kochi backwaters throwing all safety norms to winds even as people were paying their last homage to the victims of the Thattekkad boat tragedy.

A one-hour boat cruise in Kochi backwaters is a risky ride along the narrow line between life and death.

As the small boat with 12 on board pitches and rolls in the waves, all that guards the passengers on the deck is a one-and-a-half feet high iron pipe railing. Precariously placed plastic chairs on the deck are stringed together with a thin plastic rope.

The partly afraid and partly astonished face of Devaki Krishnan tells all about the risky ride. The five-year-old girl moves to the edge of the seat as the boat sways in the waves. E.T. Sunil, her father, is certainly worried about the safety aspects of the trip. For the news of the accident is still fresh in his mind.

His concerns were true going by the safety system on board.

The boat had only three buoys against the mandatory four prescribed by the Cochin Port Trust (CPT) while issuing licence one in the upper deck and two in the lower cabins.

"While issuing licence, the CPT ensures that there are life saving apparatus like minimum four buoys, fire fighting apparatus like dry chemical powder, water jet and foam based-fire extinguishers and facilities for preventing and plugging leaks. However, in some cases, these are not kept on board after obtaining the licence," said an official of the marine wing of the CPT.

The CPT issued licences to 70 boats in January. They compounded one boat on Wednesday for operating without licence and one last week for overloading.

But driver of St. Xavier Dominic D'Silva cared the least for all these.

No fire extinguishers could be seen in the boat though Mr. D'Silva claimed to have one on board. The boat crew found a special application for a hand pump, to flush the toilet. The mandatory notice board for travellers detailing safe riding practices was also missing.

"We have five buoys and all the prescribed safety systems in the vessel," Mr. D'Silva said while steering the boat along the shipping channel.

The boat is in excellent condition and the under part of the boat is covered with fibre sheets for extra safety, he said.

As one strolls through the lower cabin of the boat, some wooden planks creek and slip. The plastic sheet spread on the floor of the boat stretches as the planks slightly move under pressure.

"Don't worry. They have not been nailed together. It has been kept lose for cleaning the boat," said Mr. D'Silva.

As a direct psychological impact of the Thattekkad tragedy, the number of guests has come down drastically. "I don't know swimming and I have not checked the safety aspects of the trip," said Chandan Singh Chauhan, who was unaware of the tragedy.

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