Avoidable boat accidents
Pushpa Girimaji

Overloading a boat is an absolute no-no. It is in fact an invitation to disaster. Yet, this is done without a thought to safety. And it is done despite a string of boat tragedies caused as a result of such overloading. It is unfortunate that this basic safety factor has not percolated into the collective consciousness of the people.

Last year two major boat mishaps occurred because of overloading—one on Wular lake near Srinagar and the other on the Yamuna canal near Ballabgarh in Haryana. And this year, already we have witnessed two boat accidents—one on the river Krishna in Andhra Pradesh and the other on Thattekkad lake in Kerala—only because this all-important safety factor was completely ignored.

But what makes the Wular lake tragedy of 2006 and the Thattekkad lake tragedy of 2007 even more frightening is the fact that in both these mishaps, schoolchildren were literally led to their death by schoolteachers. In most boat accidents that occur in different parts of the country, the passengers are illiterate villagers—one can understand their lack of safety consciousness. But in these two accidents, the children had come on an excursion with their teachers, who are supposed to be responsible, learned and knowledgeable persons. To think that they allowed overloading of boats, resulting in the loss of precious lives makes one worry about the kind of education they will impart to students.

In the Wular lake mishap, the teachers packed 37 people (of them, 33 were small schoolchildren) on to an assault boat (owned by the Indian Navy) that had a capacity to carry 16. Twentyone children died as a result—the boat overturned while taking a bend. Now in the case of Thattekkad lake, reports say that 35 children were crammed into a boat that had a capacity to carry approximately six people. To be precise, the boat was overloaded to six times its capacity. In fact, the reports say that a total of 100 children were carried in this fashion in three boats. Worse, the boats were not even regular boats, certified by the authorities. In fact the reports say that the boats in which the children travelled were an assembly of three canoes loosely tied together. Even more shocking is the fact that the boat that capsized was leaking and when the water started filling up, instead of turning back immediately, one of the teachers asked the children to scoop out the water and when it did not help, asked them to move to the rear of the boat. This was another horrifying factor —that the teacher was ignorant of the need for balancing the weight on a boat. And it was this action that led to the boat tilting and capsizing.

Like in some of the earlier cases that came up before the consumer court, in this case too, I am sure the local administration and all those responsible for the death of the children will be held liable and compensation awarded to the parents. Only last year, the apex consumer court came down heavily on the local administration for allowing overloading of the boat at the Sursagar lake near Vadodara, resulting in the capsizing of the boat.

The case pertained to a tragedy that had happened in 1993. While awarding compensation to the families of the victims, the consumer court had sent out a clear message that it would not condone such negligence.

If we have to ensure that such accidents do not happen ever again, we, as citizens or consumers of these water transportation services, have to become safety conscious.

So do not take boat rides unless there are adequate safety measures including life jackets for each person on the boat (they must be in good condition and worn the way they should be) and life buoys on the boat. Check the quality of the boat and make sure that it is sturdy and is licensed to run. Also check the capacity of the boat and ensure that it is not overloaded. Find out if there are lifeguards around and good communication and first-aid facilities in case of an accident. And wherever and whenever you come across boats being run negligently, complain. Do not keep quiet and do not take chances. If you are sending your children on a school holiday, find out the quality of teachers that accompany them. Are they responsible?

Are they safety conscious? Will they really take care of your child?