The risks associated with boat travel in Kochi continue to remain largely unaddressed even as it remains the preferred option for thousands of commuters. Several vessels operating in the region have thrown caution to the winds in terms of meeting crucial requirements, while enforcement agencies continue to remain passive.
Speaking in the Assembly in July, 2016, Transport Minister A.K. Saseendran had said that of the 51 vessels used for operating ferry services in the State, 14 wooden boats were over 25 years old, while most of the remaining ones were over 15 years old.
But the Kerala State Water Transport Department (KSWTD) authorities maintained that none of the boats operated by the department in Kochi were that old. “All boats meet the safety standards stipulated by the State government and carry life-saving gear and modern communication equipment,” said a senior KSWTD official.
Besides, complaints are raised from time to time about ferry and junkar services being operated without side railings.
A report prepared by the State police last year also said that the backwaters of Kochi had too many fishing boats — 1,914 registered and several unregistered — that ply through the water bodies on a daily basis, raising the risk of collisions. “Despite the ferry-fishing boat collision that claimed nine lives at Kamalakkadavu in Fort Kochi two years ago, boats, including those from the Cochin Port Trust and the Navy, are still speeding through the stretch, posing serious threat to the lives of ferry passengers,” said S. Padmanabha Mallya, secretary, Paschimakochi Passengers Association.
Elsewhere on Marine Drive, private boats take tourists out into the backwaters, often in blatant violation of safety norms. Despite strict warnings, boats that are not designed to carry guests on the upper deck, do so by adding a temporary deck. There are also reports that some boats have stacked life jackets, which are a decade old, sourced from the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department under the tsunami relief programme.
According to official estimates, close to 400 tourist boats are operated in the Vembanad lake and surrounding water bodies.
Commenting on the issue, officials with the Coastal Police in Fort Kochi said the operation of over-crowded and old private boats threw up safety concerns. “While the first issue can be addressed through regular inspections, which we are doing on a regular basis, the other can be addressed only through intervention by the agencies concerned,” noted P. Rajkumar, Circle Inspector of Police, Coastal Police.
On the 2015 Fort Kochi boat tragedy in which a wooden passenger boat broke up after being hit by a speeding fishing boat, the officer said the police had no way to verify the bottom part of a vessel.
According to him, the risks were associated mainly with private tourist boats and ferry services operated by local bodies. “Age-old boats with antique engines develop trouble fast, especially when they are operated in saline water bodies. The operators, however, go for piecemeal solutions rather than subjecting the vessels to comprehensive maintenance,” he added.
On its part, the Coastal Police are carrying out an average of 15 to 18 inspections daily to check over crowding, mostly on private boats. The agency has registered 33 cases in this connection over the past two years, all against private operators.
On poor vigilance on the part of government authorities, Vinod K.R., Registering Authority, Department of Ports, said there were practical difficulties in implementing the norms. The shortage of dry-docks and surveyors have been a problem, he noted.
The State has only two officers for surveying boats, though the staff pattern of 2010 stipulates one chief surveyor and two surveyors as the requirement. Further, the department neither owns a boat of its own nor does it have a yard for docking boats that flout norms.
According to the official, boats operated by the KSWTD comply with safety standards, including the watertight integrity norms, as stipulated by the Kerala Inland Vessels Rules 2010. This, however, might not be the case with other ferry services.
“Given the acute shortage of staff, we have been able to carry out inspections of boats only once in three months,” the official said. Calling for a dedicated enforcement wing to monitor the safety of passenger boats, he said a proposal to form three enforcement wings, comprising 10 members each at Ernakulam, Kumarakom and Alappuzha, had been pending with the Home Department since 2015.
With regard to over-crowding of ferries in interior regions, the official pointed out that the only way to tackle the issue was to increase the frequency of boat services. “This is easier said than done due to shortage of boats,” added Mr. Vinod.