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Ill-fated houseboat had illegally added an upper deck; KMB, Ports dept. slammed for inaction

The Kerala Maritime Board (KMB) and the Ports department are under fire as the houseboat that sank in Alappuzha on Thursday morning, resulting in the death of a tourist and a providential escape for four others, had illegally added its upper deck, had not renewed its licence since 2013, and was not dry-docked every two years, official sources said.

It shows that the two agencies remained mute spectators even as a total of five tourists lost their life in similar incidents on board houseboats during the past year, mainly in Alappuzha, representatives of houseboat operators associations and naval architects, who were associated with inspecting houseboats and other tourist vessels, said. That officials of the two agencies failed to take note of an entire upper deck being added illegally to the ill-fated vessel itself is proof of their lackadaisical attitude since it has an adverse fallout on the stability of the wooden vessel whose hull is not built to support two decks, the sources added.

The service of an upright ship surveyor was terminated earlier this year, in what was an apparent trap laid by his colleagues, even as there had been acute shortage of surveyors in Kerala to inspect new and old tourist boats, said a naval architect. “Many naval architects too were similarly terminated, affecting inspection of vessels. There are now few personnel to approve design and conduct safety and stability checks of houseboats. The backwater tourism sector will bring more ill-luck to the State if the situation continued, what with Thursday’s sinking of a houseboat occurring right at the peak of the tourist season,” he added. According to him, it is shocking that the State government has not learnt from fatal incidents that occurred during the past two decades like the ones at Kumarakom, Thekkady, Thattekad, and Fort Kochi that together claimed around 150 lives.

That wooden boats are exempted from having multiple compartments in their hull has made them particularly vulnerable, vis-a-vis their steel and fibre counterparts. The availability of multiple compartments means the other compartments are safe even if water seeped into a compartment or two, he said.

Interestingly, the practice of blacklisting houseboats and other tourist vessels that operated without licence and other mandatory norms and publishing their names online were dropped a few years ago, reportedly owing to pressure from operators. A proposal to introduce GPS tracking too was given up, making tracking of such vessels all the more tough.

A houseboat operator primarily blamed the KMB and the registering authority of the Ports department for neglecting the “perilous situation in the houseboat sector, which has of late been sitting atop a powder keg. Tourists are subsequently in a fix, unable to identify vessels that have adhered to norms.”

Admitting that there was shortage of surveyors to inspect vessels, a senior KMB official said even the sole crew member who was on board the houseboat that sank on Thursday had not undergone the mandatory training. “With the government fixing a carrying capacity on boats that operate in Alappuzha, those registered elsewhere often operate here illegally,” he said.

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