Andhra boat mishap: Did loopholes in govt policy lead to a tragedy for many families?

The Irrigation Department says that the driver hired for the leisure trip was not experienced with the route but the Ports Department failed to share this information with them.
Andhra boat mishap: Did loopholes in govt policy lead to a tragedy for many families?
Andhra boat mishap: Did loopholes in govt policy lead to a tragedy for many families?
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As rescue efforts continue on Monday for the 24 still missing in Andhra Pradesh after a boat carrying over 60 persons capsized midstream in the Godavari river, a question arises if the mishap could have been prevented. The tragedy that took place on Sunday is the third such accident along the Godavari river since 2017, when the Andhra Pradesh Inland Vessel Rules came into effect. 

The rules brought all inland boats under the ambit of the Department of Ports but failed to specify that details on the number of boats, driver and passenger details, should be shared with the Irrigation Department officials or the Tourism Department on the ground. Details, that would have helped them know beforehand that the driver hired for the leisure trip on Sunday was not experienced with the route. 

One of the two drivers of the boat that ferried the 61 people was Sandadi Nukuraju from Kakinada, who has been confirmed dead. Irrigation Department officials say he was new to driving on the Godavari river and was not well versed with the dangerous points along the route. The boating services resumed on Sunday, the day of the tragedy, after flood warning levels were removed on September 11. Sandadi, an experienced driver who got his licence issued in 1985, had little time to study the route, reason Irrigation Department officials. 

KVN Travels, which operated the boat service, was unavailable for a comment on the absence of their regular drivers on the route.

Officials with the Irrigation Department are yet to ascertain the actual cause for the boat to tip over to one side. R Mohan Rao, Executive Engineer, Godavari division, speaking to TNM said, "As per the manual, we can resume boating after the flood warnings are withdrawn but on the ground, the reality is that the drivers are not willing to drive but the boat companies want to start services as there is public demand for boating.” KVN Travels service to the Papikondalu region is presently suspended on their website. 

Combined with the fact that at least one of the drivers was not well versed with the route, there is no way for the Irrigation Department to know how many boats are presently plying in the Godavari river."The curve where the accident took place, the river is narrow and turbulent. At the curve on one side, the river is very turbulent and on the other side, its somewhat plain but the driver on duty yesterday was new to the area, we don't know when he joined duty. The regular drivers were not there," says Mohan, who pointed out that there was no coordination between the Irrigation Department and the Department of Ports. "The coordination is lacking, we do not know who is coming and going or how many boats are there. Since there are no proper guidelines, we do not get that information.”

For the Irrigation Department to keep track of the traffic on the river, they require details on the number of boats, their licence details, details of the drivers and their assistants. "The timings of the boating points are also required because the traffic needs to be maintained at the time of flood warning. These details are not available with us," added Mohan. 

Those details are not shared with the people on the ground as they are not mandated to, under the Andhra Pradesh Inland Vessel Rules, 2017 under Inland Vessel Act, 1917. The rules were meant to improve the governing and monitoring of boats plying in the river waters.

The said rules have comprehensive procedures for construction, survey and registration of boats along with detailed standard operating procedures (SOP) for life-saving and firefighting mechanism on the boats in case of emergencies. The task of implementing the rules was transferred to the Department of Ports (DoP) from the Water Resources Department. The DoP constituted a 3-member committee to study the inland waterways in Andhra Pradesh and recommended all boats to be registered with the DoP, for better safety standards. These decisions were made in the aftermath of river accidents on the Krishna and Godavari rivers before 2017.

“Earlier, there used to be mismanagement in the Irrigation Department but those issues are not there anymore. Three accidents have taken place in the past two years, two in 2018 and the third is the present one," says Mohan, who is of the view that the new policy has not improved the situation on the ground.  

As far as the Kakinada port authorities are concerned, their task is only to ensure that the boats have fitness certificates and registration. "The Ports Department will give fitness certificate for the boat but Irrigation Department will give the schedule for the boats and details like what time after the flood can the boats go out. They have a manual, which indicates what needs to be done after the first warning, second warning and so on. In this case, as the first warning was revoked, boating resumed as per the manual," said an official with the Kakinada port.

Apart from the lack of proper inputs on the Godavari river traffic, the Irrigation Department says they also have no technical data on the Godavari river that would help them advise the drivers and caution them on routes and parts of the river they must avoid."There is no technical study done on the river for the ground staff to know what part of the river is dangerous. The survey needs to be done by the National Waterways of India. So at the moment, we are not having theoretical information on the river and its course, we are doing things based on the experience of the ground staff. Such surveys have been undertaken for other rivers," says Mohan. 

The AP Tourism Department promotes the East Godavari region as a river tourism hub.

As of 11 am on Monday, the Andhra Pradesh state disaster management authority with the combined effort of the navy and other services, has managed to retrieve nine bodies, while 24 persons are still missing.  

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