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Thekkady tragedy: ‘12 passengers over capacity on boat’

VR Jayaraj | Idukki

In a preliminary probe report on the Thekkady lake boat tragedy, the Crime Branch of Kerala Police is on Monday likely to blame the cruiser’s employees for the accident that claimed the lives of 45 tourists. However, doubts on the lakeworthiness of Jalakanyaka, the boat owned by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC), are still being aired by experts and the forensic exam results support these suspicions.

There are widespread complaints that the Kerala Government and KTDC are trying to absolve themselves of the guilt by putting the entire blame on the boat employees. According to the Crime Branch’s probe report, overloading of the boat and negligence on the driver’s part caused the tragedy.

According to Superintendent of Police (Crime Branch) PA Wilson, the boat was carrying 12 passengers in excess of its capacity of 75 and the unwarranted act of driver Victor Samuel alias Betty of swerving the boat while at high speed caused the tragedy on September 30. Police have registered a case against Betty for unintentional homicide.

The report would tell the Government that there were 12 additional passengers on the boat’s upper deck when the accident occurred. As per police findings, 87 passengers were on board at the time of the accident, and not 74 as KTDC had claimed. The authorities also solved the confusion in this difference in numbers: Some survivors had left the place without reporting anything.

The police arrived at these conclusions after taking statements from survivors, rescue workers and Aneesh, the attendant on Jalakanyaka. Wilson said more information had to be gathered from driver Betty, who was undergoing treatment at the Medical College Hospital in Theni, Tamil Nadu.

Betty had said the boat overturned after the passengers assembled on one side at the same time to view a herd of bison, but had admitted that swerving the boat could have acted as a catalyst to capsizing. Boat attendant Aneesh also had given almost the same version.

However, the Crime Branch report had nothing to say about the doubts expressed by experts about the lakeworthiness of the brand new fibre boat, commissioned only on August 17. Even after reports about the Crime Branch’s findings came out, experts maintained that an extra weight of 12 passengers would in no way lead to a capsizing on the placid waters of Thekkady lake.

The initial findings of forensic experts supported these suspicions. After preliminary examination of the ill-fated boat — moored on temporary stakes at Manakkavala, near where the accident took place — the forensic experts held a scene reconstruction experiment.

It suggested that Jalaknyaka had structural imbalance as the boat showed a slant to one side, possibly justifying the argument of experts that the boat could have had structural problems. Justice K Narayana Kurup, who had probed the Thattekkad boat tragedy in which 18 lives were lost, had said, “There should have been some manufacturing defect in the boat.”

However, K Mohanan, head of the forensic scientists’ team, said a clear picture would emerge only after detailed examinations that would probably be carried out on Monday.

There are allegations that KTDC is trying to underplay the “structural imbalance” possibility because the blame would then land on its door. Rumours are doing the rounds in the department that KTDC chairman Cheriyan Philip has already launched liaison exercises to keep the top CPI(M) leadership in good humour.


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