Kerala HC initiates suo motu PIL; Police slaps murder charges against boat owner

Kochi/Malappuram: With Kerala yet to recover from the shock of the fatal Tanur boat tragedy that claimed 22 lives, the Kerala High Court on Tuesday swung into action by initiating a PIL on its own to probe into the violation of rules that led to the mishap, which it described as “haunting.” Women and children were among the victims of the Sunday evening boat capsizing incident.

Under attack from various quarters, including the opposition, the Kerala government also strengthened the investigation into the accident by booking the owner of the boat for murder.

Initiating the PIL, the High Court directed the District Collector, Malappuram, to file a report into the incident that occurred near an estuary in the Tanur area of Malappuram district.

A vacation bench of Justices Devan Ramachandran and Shoba Annamma Eapen termed the boat accident “shocking” and “haunting” and said their “hearts were bleeding” and they “underwent sleepless nights” after seeing the lifeless bodies of the children.

Taking a serious note of the Tanur tragedy, the court said such accidents have been happening in the state since 1924 with “frightening regularity” solely due to “the deadly cocktail of callousness, greed, and official apathy.” It also arraigned the Kerala government, the District Tourism Promotion Council of Malappuram, the police chief and collector of that district, Tanur Municipality, the Port Officer, Alappuzha, and the senior Port Conservator, Beypore, as initial respondents in the PIL, which is slated to be heard next on May 12.

The bench said many more such incidents may happen “unless we put our foot firmly down” as the “patently visible” causal factors–overloading, blatant violation of statutory law, and skipping of essential safety requirements–were being repeated with impunity and “without fear, care, or caution”.

Prima facie, had the officials and authorities who were duty bound to monitor such boating operations done so, “this mishap–like the several earlier ones–would have never happened,” the court observed.

The court said that every such tragedy “triggers” a routine investigation followed by recommendations that go “unheeded” thereafter.

“The obdurate refusal to follow and enforce the most basic safety protocols, which are taken for granted in the civilised world, is the most infuriating, to say the least.

“More so since our state has hundreds of boats in tourism and further such incidents, though unthinkable, are waiting to happen somewhere, someplace, if the present state of affairs is allowed to continue,” the bench said.

The responsibility and onus of the officials and authorities were much more than that of the boat operators’ as it was the “deliberate and other support” for their illegal actions that allowed violations to be “perpetrated with no fear of law”.

“The final loss is to the citizens and no others because instances like this are erased from memory soon. Judicial intervention, therefore, in our firm view, now becomes necessitous lest the unfortunate loss of lives is forgotten,” the bench said.

Meanwhile, the police said the arrest of the errant boat owner, who is facing charges of operating the vessel without a licence, was recorded, and IPC Section 302 has been slapped against him.

Malappuram district police chief Sujith Das S, who is heading a special investigation team constituted to probe the incident, said the investigation is progressing, considering it a murder case.

“So, we will submit a report in court as an offence under IPC 302,” the officer told reporters.

He said the police are yet to confirm the total number of staff, who were present in the boat when tragedy struck.

“Its driver, Dineshan, is absconding. We are trying to get more details about the other employees from the owner. Their arrest will be made in the coming days,” the officer added.

Rejecting the criticism against the police from some quarters in connection with the mishap, Das said the operation of such boats come under the Port Department as per the Kerala Inland Vessels Act.

Earlier in the day, State police chief Anil Kant issued an order constituting a special team to investigate into the mishap. Sujith Das S would head the team, in which Tanur DYSP V V Benny, Tanur station house officer Jeevan George, and Kondotty ASP Vijay Bharat Reddy would be the members, an official statement said.

The probe would be held under the direct supervision of Neeraj Kumar Gupta, IG, North Zone, it said.

While announcing a judicial probe into the tragedy on Monday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan also said that a special investigation team of the Kerala police would also inquire into the matter.

The boat capsized near an estuary close to the Thoovaltheeram beach in the Tanur area at 7.30 pm on Sunday.

According to district officials, 15 of the deceased were minors aged eight months to 17 years, and there were 37 persons onboard the ill-fated boat.