Coping with danger onboard the ‘fishing vessels’ in Lakshadweep

Coping with danger onboard the ‘fishing boats’ in Lakshadweep
22 April, 2013 Kochi

On Saturday morning, five people onboard a trawler drowned after the boat capsized while ferrying around 30 from Amini Island to Kadmat, a distance of just about a kilometer. Two of them were children.

Twenty-four others either swam to safety or were rescued by local people and the coastal police. Police sources said the vessel, Al Ameen, capsized when the passengers thronged to one side of the vessel on learning that its engine had failed. The condition of a couple of passengers was stated to be critical.

With no other mode of water transport available between the isles, Al Ameen and another trawler ferry people to and fro in the morning and evening every day except Fridays. The neighbouring islands belong to the Amindivi sub-group of islands, located in the central part of Lakshadweep. Kadmat has an area of just over 3 sq km and a population of over 5,000. It is located about 75 km from Kavaratti, headquarters of Lakshadweep.

Acute shortage of boats from islands in Lakshadweep to nearby islands and to mainland Kerala forces people to cram themselves into whatever vessel is available, at the cost of safety. This often ends in disasters like what happened on Saturday when a trawler carrying 29 people capsized near Kadamat island, resulting in the death of five people.

Sources said that the commuters opted for this mode of unsafe transport as there is acute shortfall of safe, bigger boats to ferry people between 11 of the 36 inhabited islands in the archipelago.

Organized Tourism, Lakshadweep Islands

Tourism activities in the island is currently conducted in a controlled manner due to very low carrying capacity of the island and the fragility of the eco system. More over, the transport infrastructure making the accessibility very difficult.

To get to the islands, tourists are forced to ride on fishing boats to reach their destination, a ride close to death, as the media reports.

Sampat and Soumita, working in Kolkata, had planned to visit three islands — Agatti, Kadmat and Kavaratti. The couple reached Agatti after a one-and-a-half hour journey by flight from Kochi, and were supposed to take a ferry service to Kadmat island as arranged by the tour operator. As the ferry was cancelled, they were asked to opt for a ‘Pablo’ boat to reach Kadmat, for which they had to pay an extra Rs.18,000.

“We were told that tourists were not allowed to stay in Agatti as the existing resorts had been closed down due to some ongoing court cases. By then, all arrangements had been made and therefore, we unwillingly parted with the amount,” said Mr. Sampat.

The ‘Pablo’ boat was nothing more than a crude fishing boat. The couple pushed off around 3 p.m. to Kadmat. We were told the journey would take about four hours. “The boat had no seats and we settled on the edge of a raised platform from where a boatman controlled the engine and the rudder”.

After two hours, the soft rolling waves became menacing and started crashing onto the sides of the boat. “The wind picked up pace and the boat was swaying dangerously. The sea became darker and the light was fading. We could see life jackets on the floor, about six feet away from us and felt reassured that, in the worst case, we could just grab those.”As the sea grew wilder, the waves started crashing fiercely onto the deck. “As the sea was choppy, we thought it would be a good idea to wear the lifejackets. But the six feet between us and the lifejackets seemed like an endless gorge. We had just started a new life and it seemed as if it would end in the middle of the Arabian Sea”. Certain lights were visible at a distance and it was from the island Amini. It would take another half an hour to reach Kadmat.

“We were sailing in pitch black darkness. The sea, which had calmed down a bit near Aminiisland, again picked up from where it had left off. We sailed in the darkness for another half hour, clinging to each other till light was seen from Kadmatisland. It was 9 p.m. by the time the boat entered the lagoon and berthed at the boat jetty. The journey which should’ve taken over three hours, lasted six hours. “We were glad to touch the ground, and gladder to be alive.”

The background fact:

Public vessels are confined mostly for the V.I.P’s or the officials of Lakshadweep Administration in around Kavaratti. A majority of people of Lakshadweep are deprived of good transport facilities or quick access to hospitals even in emergency.

The Lakshadweep Administration should set in place more number of safe and sea-worthy vessels for transporting the islanders and the tourists from islands to islands.  If this is not feasible, entrust the transport system between the islands to another constituted body who could safely handle the passengers.  The second option, it could be reasonably hoped, will avert at least the killing of innocent human beings. [.....Continue]

Administration’s failure

Lakshadweep-based human rights activist and political leader Komalam Koya said that the accident would not have happened if the island’s administration and Lakshadweep Development Corporation Ltd (LDCL) had put in operation 65-foot-long boats (called ‘Pookunji’ in local parlance) for inter-island transport. “Only Kavaratti island has a few such vessels. Due to its absence, people are forced to travel in 30-foot-long trawlers like the one that capsized.”

He alleged that there was inordinate delay in commissioning bigger vessels and high-speed vessels that can carry up to 150 people. The high-speed ones are also operated from the islands to ports in Kerala. There are allegations of graft in awarding contracts to construct vessels, which is one reason for the huge delay in fixing a contractor and commissioning boats, MrKoya said.

Mainland connectivity

Due to the shortage, hundreds of islanders – including those who want specialty medical care, have to wait for weeks to get a ticket for boarding ships from the islands to Kochi and Beypore, he said and added that many agencies in the island are vying with one another to gain control of the boat/ship operations and maintenance in the isle, with dubious intent. This apart, there are complaints of most islands in Lakshadweep not having berthing facility, forcing people who return from Kerala to jump down from ships into small boats which take them to their islands.

‘More ships needed’

While stating that people commuting in trawlers through the sea is very unsafe, the Director of Lakshadweep Ports, Mikhdad, said that there is need to introduce high-speed vessels between islands to ensure safe commuting during the monsoon and unfavourable weather. Referring to Thursday’s incident, he said that people might have crammed themselves into the boat because of the vacation season. “We will approach the Central government for speeding up the acquisition process of bigger vessels,” he said and added that two more ships, each having capacity for 400 passengers, will be ready for inter-island and island-mainland transport by December.

Even this will not be sufficient to cater to the whopping demand for boats and ships, sources said.

View Related Press Reports:
‘It seemed our life would end in the middle of Arabian Sea’

Five drown in Lakshadweep boat capsize

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