Thiruvananthapuram: What is the most important lesson you learn from history? The question was put to historian Justin Marozzi. “We learn nothing from history. We never have and we never will”, was his reply.
Marozzi’s sweeping take that past experiences do not really enjoin on humans to improve their ways appears true considering the recurrence of boat tragedies in Kerala. The latest being the local tourist boat capsizing in an estuary near Tanur in Malappuram district on Sunday, in which 22 people met with a watery grave.
As expected, the mishap followed a furry of allegations blaming squarely the state agencies and authorities for abject failure in enforcing water transportation regulations.
Caught in the firing line are the water transport department, tourism department, port department and the municipal authorities. The state government has ordered a judicial inquiry into the accident, and the owner of the boat arrested.
The ill-fated boat, overcrowded with local people of modest means including children on outing, is a class-room case of how a vessel should not be allowed to operate.
It has been alleged that the vessel, named pretentiously as ‘Atlantic’, was originally a fishing boat which went for a make-over sometime back to become a small-time cruise to cater to the labour-weary local community of the coastal area. It did not even have the most basic safety gears like life jackets in sufficient numbers on board. The qualification of the crew is also under the lens.
A man who gave up at the last minute the idea of making a trip along with his family members said he saw a ticket seller going around the make-shift jetty edging people to board the vessel despite it had already been overcrowded. Also, local people now say they had often seen the boat tilting for carrying people much beyond its capacity.
Media too have gone hyping over the searing tragedy that affected an entire local community. But the question remains how came that local journalists missed that the boat’s operator had been doing good business without bothering about even the basic safety protocols?
Blessed with as many as 44 rivers, mostly west flowing from the Western Ghats, and sprawling back water systems, inland navigation has been a major means of passenger and freight movement in Kerala for centuries. This is especially true of the central and south Kerala encompassed with a large backwater system, inter-linked with canals and inlets.
To start with it was country-made canoes that took people and agriculture produce through waters. By the turn of the 20th century steam powered or motorised boats started sailing the rivers and backwaters in the erstwhile princely states of Travancore and Cochin. The administrations in these states pressed into service boat services. Though long-distance boat services were terminated after the improvement in rail and road services, a few short distance passenger boat services are still being operated in parts of Kerala.
Over the years, house boat tourism has become the most attractive holiday and recreational product marking the backwater towns like Alappuzha and Kochi prominently on the tourism map.
While inland navigation is a blessing for the state it has often spawned tragedies as well. Since 1924, 11 major boat capsizes have happened in Kerala.
A boat tragedy that remains etched in the collective memory of Malayalis is the one that happened near Alappuzha in 1924. Mahakavi Kumaran Asan, the greatest of the modern Malayalam poets, was one of the passengers of the ill-fated boat. Ironically, the vessel was named ‘Redeemer’, which means ‘one’s saviour.’
Among the recent boat mishaps that impacted people beyond the state was the capsize of the double-decker tourist vessel Jalakanyaka at Mullaperiyar reservoir. Most of those 45 drowned were holidayers from north India, including Delhi. The boat, operated by a state agency, had 80 people on board against its maximum capacity of 75.
The boats that capsized since last century were mostly passenger services that carry people across regular ferries.
It has become a routine exercise to order a high-level probe after each accident. Quite a few inquiry reports are there on the table, all of which have found serious lapses in enforcement of regulations, rules and protocols. But hardly any effective action has been taken on any of them.
In the wake of the local tourism boom, scores of river banks across Kerala have turned into boating points. Also, rowing, surfing and canoeing are vital components of adventure tourism, actively promoted by the state. Though clear-cut rules and regulations are there on the paper on how these activities are to be carried out, they are brazenly flouted by the operators and the authorities remain blinded to violations. Unless there is a thorough overhauling of the regulation enforcement mechanism, water tragedies are bound to recur in the state.