Floating tragedies: How Kerala’s recreational boats flout safety norms, put lives at risk

The tragedy in Tanur, Kerala, exposes lack of safety precautions and overcrowding as common factors in Kerala's boat accidents, highlighted by inquiry commissions into previous incidents

The boat, ‘Atlantic’, which overturned was definitely overcrowded with the boat employees waiting till late evening to the boat to be filled beyond capacity. Photo: PTI

Dateline: Tanur, Malappuram. There were several families at the Thoovaltheeram beach side park around 6.40 pm on May 7, 2023, getting ready for the boat Atlantic, owned by Nasar Pattarakath, to leave for its final trip of the day. As they rushed inside, kids were eager and enthusiastic to ride.

Every eyewitness account of the ill-fated boat that capsized, killing as many as 22 people, including 15 children, has this as the common denominator. At least three local residents, who claimed to have witnessed its last trip, confirmed that a majority of the passengers who alighted the boat had not been wearing life vests. Abdul Majeed, of Chettipadi, Parappanangadi, gave an interesting account of why he cancelled the trip after realising that the safety precautions had not been properly followed.

Also read: Kerala boat mishap: Won’t allow tragedy to be forgotten, says HC while initiating PIL

Life jackets saved them

“Our family arrived here by 4 pm, and we enjoyed ourselves at the park and the floating bridge. There were many people present when we arrived for the boating. However, there were no safety precautions in the boat, and nobody wanted to wear a life jacket, despite the fact that it was now required following the 2009 Thattekad boat tragedy. Because of my fear, I refrained from letting my kids ride,” says Majeed.

The only reason Rajisa and Shibi, along with their daughter, were able to survive was because they insisted on wearing life jackets. “There were a few families with young children aboard the boat when we climbed on board. We received life jackets. We wore those despite the fact that they were oversized, and when the boat flipped, it helped us. For a while, our daughter went missing, but thankfully, we all made it out alive,” Rajisa said. She told reporters, “Watching our fellow passengers struggle for breath would haunt me for a lifetime.”

Different tragedies, same factors

The same set of factors were cited as the causes of the tragedy by nearly all expert committees and commissions that looked into previous boat accidents in Kerala. According to them, boat accidents are mainly caused by the following reasons — poor condition of the vessel, shoddy maintenance, absence of navigational aids, lack of demarcation and upkeep of the channel, overloading and negligent conduct of the crew.

In addition to these causes, improper safety precautions were a common denominator in all of these boating accidents. In many incidents, the use of life jackets was minimal. The accounts of the survivor and the other eyewitnesses of the Tanur mishap also corroborate this claim.

In the last century itself, Kerala has witnessed at least 21 boat accidents. The first-ever recorded boat tragedy in the Pallana river cost us the life of one of the greatest modern Malayalam poets, N. Kumaran Asan. The Redeemer boat tragedy, which occurred on January 16, 1924 and claimed 24 lives, including that of the poet, was caused by overcrowding of the boat.

As per the report of the first-ever judicial inquiry commission in the history of Travancore and Kerala, the boat had a maximum capacity of 95 people, but it was carrying 151 passengers with heavy luggage

The boat capsized at a remote place by midnight, making rescue efforts near impossible. As many as 127 people who knew swimming managed to get away when the boat overturned. Even though Kumaran Asan was a competent swimmer, it is thought that he may have been lost while trying to locate the closest shore. It took three days to recover his body. Three other boats reportedly passed through the channel, just after Redeemer capsized, but none of them bothered to help.

Also read: Kerala boat tragedy: More may have escaped disaster if they had spotted danger signs

Jalakanyaka: The biggest tragedy

The biggest boat tragedy in terms of loss of lives happened on September 30, 2009, when 45 tourists drowned as a boat named Jalakanyaka overturned at one of the deepest parts of Mullapperiyar reservoir inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve near Thekkady. The boat had 82 tourists on board of which 37 were rescued. E Mytheenkunju Commission that probed into the accident found out that the instability of the boat, overloading and lack of experience of the crew were the reasons for the mishap.

The Thattekkad boat tragedy that took place on February 20, 2007, was the most heart-wrenching of all accidents because 14 of the total deceased were children in the age group of 10 to 12. It was an excursion party from a school in Ernakulam district that met with the accident.

Justice MM Pareethupillai Commission found that the overloading of the boat and the untimely hour of the journey were the main causes for the accident.

Another judicial commission headed by Justice K. Narayana Kurup was appointed to inquire about the Kumarakom boat accident which occurred on July 27, 2002. According to the commission, the accident was primarily caused by the crew members’ negligence, overcrowding, and the boat’s poor condition and maintenance.

Overcrowding: The common reason

The reports of these four judicial commissions that investigated various boat accidents in Kerala shared a common finding. They highlighted overcrowding as the main reason for most of the accidents.

At least two of these inquiry commissions highlighted that the boats’ poor design was a contributing factor. Justice K. Narayana Kurup, in his report, had clearly stated this point. A properly designed passenger boat loaded to its rated capacity should not heel beyond a prescribed limit. However, a passenger boat, which does not satisfy this stability criteria, can heel beyond limit, especially under overloaded conditions, read the report. E. Maitheenkunju Commission had directed that wearing of safety jackets and providing safety instructions to the passengers must be made mandatory and sufficient number of life- saving devices should be provided.

Nearly all of the points made in the earlier inquiry commission reports have become relevant again in Tanur, where 22 precious lives were lost. The boat, Atlanta, which overturned, was definitely overcrowded, with the boat employees waiting till late evening for the boat to be filled beyond capacity. The local fishermen claim that this particular boat was a modified version of an older fishing boat rather than being properly designed or built.

Also read: Kerala boat tragedy: CM Vijayan announces judicial probe, compensation of ₹10 lakh

Rival groups in boating

“The site of the accident is neither sea nor a proper river. It’s part of the Canolly canal (The Canolly canal, which is a part of Kerala’s west coast canal network, was built by the British by combining the rivers and streams along the coast.) It crosses the Purappuzha stretch very near to the river mouth, says Shamir, a voluntary life guard who operates at this particular beach.

Here, the boating is conducted by two rival groups and they file complaints with the police against each other in regular intervals. This also must have contributed to the accident as well. “I’ve learnt that the ill-fated boat did not have necessary papers to operate,” added Shamir.

The commissions have repeatedly emphasised licensing and vessel fitness inspections as other crucial aspects. That has also been questioned in this case. There are several claims regarding how the boat’s owner was able to obtain the necessary permissions from the authorities.

After a preliminary inspection, the Atlantic’s application for a permit to carry a maximum of 21 passengers was denied due to a number of defects. The owner had reapplied for approval, but the Maritime Board is still processing the case. However, the boat only began to operate in the past month, operating in direct violation of all laws and regulations.

“Another boat owner did file a complaint, but the authorities were unconcerned because they viewed it as a normal part of the competitive environment between the two boat owners,” said a police officer on condition of anonymity.

Also read: 12 boat tragedies that have left Kerala mourning over the past century

Learning from mistakes?

“The boat owner Pattarakath Nasar has been arrested and charged with murder under section 302 of IPC. Two boat workers, including the driver of the vessel, are on the run,” said Sujith S. Das, the district police chief of Malappuram.

Following the Tanur accident, the chief minister has announced another inquiry. It is highly likely that the new commission will identify the same issues that have remained unaddressed for the past century, dating back to the Redeemer boat tragedy. The story will be reported again with only the names of the deceased being different if another calamity occurs in the future. It seems inevitable unless we learn from our mistakes now.