A 58-year-old tourist from Kamareddy district in Telangana drowned after a houseboat sank at the Kannitta boat jetty at Pallathuruthy, in Alappuzha, on Thursday. The deceased was identified as Ramachandra Reddy. Four others on the vessel, including three tourists, were rescued. According to the Alappuzha South police, the accident happened around 4 a.m. The boat identified as ‘White Orchid’, belonging to Melton of Vattavayal, was anchored at the time. “Reddy along with his son, a friend and their driver boarded the houseboat on Wednesday evening and stayed overnight on it. It is very likely the water entered the vessel after a wooden plank on its hull got dislodged,” said an official.
Both the Ports department, the licensing authority, and the Tourism police confirmed that the craft was not licensed to operate. “The boat was operating without mandatory certificates. Its registration had expired on March 12, 2013,” said a Ports department official on condition of anonymity. The Tourism police had issued a warning to the operators of the stricken boat earlier this month. “When we checked the boat on December 7, we found it unfit for operation. The operators told us the vessel was scheduled to undergo dry-docking on December 8. Instead of conducting maintenance, the vessel was shifted from the Punnamada Finishing Point to some other place and continued to operate in violation of the rules,” said Tourism sub-inspector P. Jayaram.
District Collector V.R. Krishna Teja has ordered a probe into the accident. Mr. Teja directed the Ports, Police and Fire and Rescue Services departments to carry out inspections on houseboats and other vessels. He said that stringent action would be taken against erring operators. The Alappuzha South police, meanwhile, registered a case against the owner of the stricken boat.
The latest accident, which happened during the Christmas-New Year holiday season when tourists flow is on the high, has cast a shadow over houseboat tourism in Alappuzha. Accidents involving houseboats have claimed at least five lives since April this year. Most of the vessels involved were later found to be operating flouting norms including without mandatory registration, licence, insurance and pollution certificates.
Though both the Ports department and Tourism police are conducting drives against illegal vessels, the sheer number of boats, coupled with a shortage of staff, is making it hard to bring order in the sector. According to officials, as many as 1,588 mechanically propelled boats, including houseboats, shikhara boats and speedboats, are registered with the Alappuzha Port Registry. That said, there are an estimated 1,500 houseboats in the backwaters of Alappuzha with nearly half of them operating in violation of norms.
“We have limitations. At present, there is only one chief surveyor for the entire State assisted by two surveyors on additional duty. Houseboat operations are spread across three districts and we are finding it hard to regulate the sector with the present staff strength and facilities,” the Ports department official said, adding that tourists should ensure the vessels they board have all mandatory certificates. The staff strength of the Tourism police stands at eight. They divide the duty between the houseboat sector and Alappuzha beach.
Though it is mandatory under the Kerala Inland Vessels Rules (KVIR) to establish an enforcement wing under a Dy.SP, and assisted by a sub-inspector and police officers for periodical inspection of the operation of the houseboats, it has not come to fruition yet.