Lessons from the Andaman boat tragedy

The recent boat tragedy in the Andamans has come as a shock for me. Not because I lost someone in the tragedy, but because I have been a recent visitor to these exotic islands.

The beautiful Andaman and Nicobar are a chain of islands more than 1000 kilometres from mainland India, but closer to countries like Myanmar and Indonesia, which gives them an exotic “foreign” feel, if one may say so.

I had travelled to the islands in February last year on my first trip post marriage, and I must say Andamans is one of the best travel destinations not just in India but Asia. In fact, the Radhanagar Beach at Havelock features among the top beaches of Asia.

And tourist footfalls to the Islands have been on the rise in the recent years, despite steep airfares.

So, why has a tragedy of such magnitude occurred at a travel destination where safety of tourists – Indian as well as foreign - should be a priority for authorities.

This is because safety of tourists is probably not a PRIORITY for the administration there.

As is amply clear from the recent tragedy, more people, than the rated capacity of the vessel, were travelling in the boat. Moreover, very few of them, or probably none, were wearing life jackets – something which could have easily saved most of the lives lost.

Here, I am blaming the administration because apart from the boat owners, operators and tourist guides/tour managers, the Andaman administration has failed to prevent the tragedy, which now appears, was waiting to happen.

To put this in perspective, I will recount two incidents from my trip.

While returning from North Bay island to Port Blair on a speed boat one evening, our group of 10, including five women, had faced difficulties in disembarking. Due to the low tide, the water level had come down and stairs on the jetty were not approachable from the speed boat. The sea too was little rough and we had to walk in water to reach the shore.

As far as I remember, there was not a single diver or life guard in sight to ensure the safety of tourists.

In another incident while travelling from the Havelock port to the Elephant Beach, we were asked to wear life-jackets that were past their life cycles and in a terrible condition. We literally had to fight with the operator of the boat – which itself looked rickety and gave us no sense of security - and our guide to arrange for better life jackets.

The excuse given for the worn-out life jackets was that these are never “required” and are used only because the “law” mandates that they are carried on the boat. If we don`t wear them, the operator said, the police could challan them. So, preventing a fine rather than ensuring safety of lives seemed to be a priority!

Moreover, very few cops could be seen both at Port Blair and Havelock to ensure rules are being followed by boat operators.

And now, one boat operator/owner`s greed to maximise revenue by carrying extra passengers has led to the death of 22 innocent lives.

The administration at Andamans needs to learn a lesson from the tragedy.

There is a pressing need for the Andaman administration to have in place a tourist police, substantial number of life guards at all boarding and disembarking points, lessons on safety rules for all boat crew, and awareness sessions for all tourists, apart from better infrastructure.

With Andamans being a Union Territory, the Centre has to step in and make it a safer place for tourists and for locals as well.

As put by one of the tourist guides, Andamans is India`s Mauritius and we must preserve it that way.