Lack of safety culture leads to boat mishaps in India

Kochi: Twenty-one Indians lost their lives on November 12 when an overcrowded boat sank near the confluence of Krishna and Godavari rivers 15 miles off Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh.

The boat operator Simple Water Sports had no valid license to ply and the driver was inexperienced and clueless about the route. Life jackets were not provided to passengers. The driver’s contention was that jackets were not necessary for such a short journey.

The boat, which had recently undergoe repairs, was supposed to go on a trial run on Krishna instead of ferrying passengers. The driver even ignored an official’s warning not to take passengers.

Five years ago, 203 passengers died when another overloaded ferry split in half and sank during a storm in Brahmaputra River in Assam.

Boat accidents like these are common in India which has a 7,517 km coastline and seven major rivers with numerous tributaries criss-crossing states.

What causes accidents?

Most boat accidents in India over the past decades point to negligence of ferry operators, drivers, passengers or officials.

“Each has to follow rules. It’s a collective responsibility. Sadly, we lack a culture of safety,” said Bijumon of Kochi Water Metro project that aims to link boat services to metro network for an integrated public transport system in Kerala.

Boats are overloaded with passengers, goods, motorbikes, bicycles and animals especially in regions where road bridges linking places are absent. In such areas, there is no system in place to monitor passenger flow at the starting point of a boat’s journey and en route.

Many ferry operators do not have valid license to ply. They ignore periodic repairs and maintenance of boats as that involves huge money. Officials do not carry out surprise inspection of boats to find whether safety norms are followed.

“Periodic out-of-water examination of a boat’s hull is hardly followed. ‘Boat maintenance’ is a joke. To get the fitness certificate of a boat renewed, ferry operators give it a new coat of paint and bribe officials,” said Bastin Joseph who regularly takes the ferry from Ernakulam to Mattancherry in Kochi.

“Even licenses for ageing vessels get renewed this way,” he said.

However, a top Kochi port official, who did not want to be named, said permits are never issued to ageing vessels and wooden boats.

Some boats do not have gear boxes to reduce speed or mechanism for reversing.  They often ram into ships. Accidents also happen when drunk drivers fail to notice obstacles. Sometimes, drivers fail to bring the boat alongside the jetty when passengers begin to disembark. The chances of passengers falling into the water through the gap between the boat and jetty are high in such situations.

Unruly passengers create chaos resulting in accidents. They suddenly rush to one side of the boat to view something. The boat tilts and the driver loses control of the vessel.  The recent boat tragedy off Vijayawada and the one at Lake Thekkady in 2009 are partly blamed on passengers.

“Thekkady accident happened because the boat builder did not follow design. A team of police officials standing on its upper deck and the boat going full throttle after taking a sharp turn were the immediate causes,” said Dr K. Sivaprasad, associate professor, department of ship technology, at the Cochin University of Science and Technology.

“Ships can take any load. But boats are sensitive. A crowded boat with a few passengers standing and leaning out can make it tilt. Boat builders must follow the design. Any compromise on that can lead to accidents,”   Sivaprasad said.

Many drivers have not received proper training or license to drive a boat.  Workshops are hardly conducted for boat crew on communication device, signalling system, fire fight, search and rescue, navigation and passenger management.

Reluctance to wear life jackets

Ferry operators are more interested in making money than the safety of passengers.

They do not insist that all passengers should wear life jackets. Passengers too are reluctant to wear them.

“It’s not practical. Why should they waste 10 minutes in wearing sweaty or wet jackets for a 5-minute boat journey,” asked S. Padmanabha Mallya of Marine Drive Tourist Boat Operators Association.

Advanced weather warning system are not installed or properly displayed in areas where people depend on water transport. Ferry operators do not follow weather bulletins and guidelines issued by meteorological officials.

Many lives can be saved if rescue boats with quick response teams are stationed at all landings.