Consumer rights
Water-tight safety
Pushpa Girimaji

EVERY boat tragedy in the country highlights the low priority that we give, as a people, to safety. And the low value that we attach to human life. Otherwise, how can we go on overloading the boats far in excess of their capacity, knowing fully well that the boats capsize in such a situation? How can we provide boating facilities without the necessary safety infrastructure, including life jackets and life buoys on the boat and lifeguards and first-aid facilities on the shore? It is really unfortunate that every boat tragedy tells the same story of negligence.

Consider the boat tragedy that came up before the apex consumer court, wherein 23 precious lives were lost — many of them young children, only because the boat carried 38 passengers, ignoring the fact that its capacity was only for 20. And as usual, there were no life jackets or life buoys on the boat. There were not even lifeguards. If 15 passengers were saved, it’s thanks to swimmers among the visitors to the lake and the firemen who were later called in.

Even though the order of the apex consumer court was delivered on November 2, 2006, the tragedy happened at the Sursagar lake near Vadodara in 1993. It was a holiday (August 11) on account of Krishna Janamashtami and the water resort was overcrowded with holiday-makers and tickets were issued indiscriminately and the boat loaded far beyond its capacity. And the inevitable happened in the middle of the lake. In its order delivered in 2002, the Gujarat State Commission held both the Vadodara Municipal Corporation, which controlled and managed the lake, as well as Ripple Aqua Sports, which provided the boating facility on behalf of the Corporation, jointly and severally liable to pay the victims family compensation.

Sure enough, both filed appeals before the apex court against the order. The Corporation argued that it was not liable because (a) it was performing a statutory function and (b) as per its contract with Aqua Sports, the insurance company and Aqua Sports were liable. Aqua Sports, in contrast, contended that only the Corporation and the insurance company were liable. The complainants also filed cross appeals seeking enhancement of the compensation amount.

After examining the case in detail, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission pointed out that providing recreational facilities to the people of the city was a discretionary function performed by the Corporation. However that cast a statutory duty on the Corporation to maintain constant vigil, so as to ensure the safety of those who took the boat rides. The Corporation failed in this duty.

In fact, the apex court pointed to several failings on the part of the Corporation. First and foremost, the boats supplied to Aqua Sports did not have the necessary safety gadgets. There were neither any lifeguards nor first-aid facilities. In addition, the terms of the contract that the Corporation had with Aqua Sports clearly gave the Corporation the freedom to terminate the contract in public interest. The contract also prohibited Aqua Sports from making out any alterations in the boat or carrying persons in excess of the capacity of the boat. And it also gave the corporation the power to inspect and ensure that these were carried out stringently. Observed the Commission: "It was apparent that the entire control with regard to the boating activity vested with the Corporation. Yet, it did not keep a vigil over the boating activities to ensure that they were safe."

The Commission also pointed out that the primary liability rested with Rippple Aqua Sports, which had, in contravention of its contract with the Corporation, taken 38 passengers on a boat that had a capacity to carry only 20, thereby putting those on the boat at risk. It therefore upheld the order of the State Commission holding the Corporation and the Aqua Sports jointly and severally liable to pay compensation The State Commission had awarded varying amounts of compensation to the victims’ families, calculating the amount on the basis of their earning capacity, etc and also awarded 10 per cent interest on the amount. The National Commission said it did not see any reason to interfere with the amount decided by the State Commission, except in respect of girl children.

On the ground that they would not contribute anything to the assets of their parents after their marriage, the State Commission had awarded a lower compensation to the parents who had lost young girls in the tragedy. Dismissing this as an "erroneous assumption", the Commission held that girls were also assets to their parents. Referring to the second schedule to the Motor Vehicles Act, which did not discriminate between a boy and a girl, the apex court said a similar yardstick should be used and enhanced the compensation awarded to parents who had lost their young daughters in the tragedy.