No investigation by a sitting judge, or compensation for bereaved families, or admission of lapses, or passing the buck is going to make any difference to the fact that over 40 people died in a shocking tragedy during a holiday trip arranged by Kerala’s much-vaunted tourism development corporation. It is Kerala’s achievement that the lack of professionalism that seems routine in states such as West Bengal has become unthinkable in that state. Yet such an image, associated with middle- to high-end tourism, cannot be sustained without a scrupulous sense of responsibility and ceaseless monitoring. The almost new, although properly licensed, double-decker fibreglass boat with 76 tourists that capsized in the lake near Thekkady while on a visit to the Periyar wildlife sanctuary was being piloted by a driver who had driven the boat just four times. From his later comments, it would seem he was more at home with wooden boats. The boat capsized because the passengers crowded to one side to catch a glimpse of animals on the bank. They did not have life jackets, although unopened packs of these were found later. No safety instructions had been given, apart from the driver’s warnings when it was too late. The whole incident has the colourings of nightmare.
The tragedy says something important and not very pleasant about Indian attitudes, especially because it happened in a state known for its high professional standards. There is always a peculiar carelessness regarding basic details. The tourism industry has provided numerous jobs and has helped training institutions flourish. Yet the staff on the boat was not adequately trained, and the driver was not at home with his vessel. There is no centralized state authority to inspect the capability of the vessels, although the backwaters of Kerala have been built up as a tourist attraction. India’s service industry has to learn that nothing can be taken for granted; when people pay for a holiday, they do not expect to die.