Last week, coffee mug in hand, I idly stretched for the morning newspaper. The Thursday morning headlines on the local daily screamed at me” Fifteen kids, three teachers perish in boating tragedy at Thattekkad, Ernakulam”.
God Lord, this couldn’t be happening in my own backyard, Kerala, with its tropical green cover, popular in tourist parlance as “ God’s own country”, with its languid lakes, verdant backwaters! Little did I realize that my own state, my idyllic paradise, had a rather abysmal track record in observing even basic safety norms, in surface and water transport.In hindsight, all accidents leave us with scarred, benumbing thoughts on how it could all have been avoided. As one read intently through the report, it struck me that a totally callous disregard for simple, straightforward safety norms, had invited the tragedy.On a pleasant Wednesday evening, what started off as a simple,merry ride down Periyar river, swiftly turned in to a nightmarish experience. About 100 schoolchildren and 12 staff members,were packed like sardines hurriedly on board three boats, which were floating contraptions, an apology for safe cruise vessels. Even though the vessels had a permit for cruising on river, the boat that met with the accident, lacked a mandatory certificate of safety. While the permitted capacity of the boat was around 15, it carried 37 passengers. The cruise extended well beyond the permitted time limit of 6’oclock.
As and when the tragedy unfolded, late in to the evening, with poor lighting, rescue and relief operations became increasingly difficult. The unkindest cut was in the shocking absence of proper onboard safety equipment like liferaft, dinghy or buoys, which would have aided survival! For the picnic party, it was the final leg of a joyous one-day picnic. Mid stream, as the first sign of a leak developed, panic set in and the boat sank in no time in to a deep trench, a grim reminder of illegal sand- mining on the riverbed.
It is a cruel irony that man and nature collectively conspired to provide a watery grave to 18 innocent, precious lives, that fateful day.This tragedy leaves more questions unanswered for me, as a professional associated with the safety department of a transport organization. The booming tourism industry in my state has mushroomed in to many unorganized sub sectors in the hospitality business, spawning in its wake, many unprofessional players who cut corners, while complying with basic safety norms. At the policy level, the need of the hour is for a Surface and water tourism safety board, which would frame comprehensive legislation for all river and lake bound vessels. All drivers should possess a competency certificate, besides emergency troubleshooting skills certificate.
Perhaps it is time for the state authorities also to frame safety guidelines to be observed during school picnics and excursions, involving an extra risk dimension, say, ride on a boat or trekking in the woods etc. Otherwise, the heart-rending sight of a disconsolate dad, weeping over his dear departed twin daughters, a poignant photograph that brought a lump in every throat and a tear in every eye , would continue to haunt us for long. In any business, as in hospitality and tourism, it is safety first and foremost, forever.