The death toll in the tragic boat mishap that took place on the Batighar creek, close to Mahanadi river mouth in Odisha’s Kendrapara district on Wednesday, has risen to nine with rescuers fishing out the bodies during the wee hours on Thursday.

The ill-fated boat, which had been to the idyllic Hukitola Island carrying 55 tourists from Hansina village under Kujang police station jurisdiction of Jagatsinghpur district, was returning to Paradip when the mishap took place at around 7 pm near Nipania village.

The deceased include seven small children and two women. One person is still reported missing. The bodies were fished out at 3 am on Thursday after almost 6 hour-long coordinated rescue operations by the Coast Guard, Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF), and fire brigade. Local residents also rose to the occasion by lending helping hands to the rescuers, said Kendrapara Collector Dasarathi Satpathy.

The boat was carrying passengers beyond its capacity and was not equipped with life jackets to meet with exigencies of this nature. It also did not have the permit to ferry passengers.

The administration has ordered an inquiry into the incident. Two boat operators have been taken into custody.

The mishap took place when a group of people on-board asked the boatman to anchor the boat so that they could relieve themselves near the riverbed. While the boatman was anchoring, the boat turned turtle resulting in the mishap. As darkness had enveloped the spot, the rescue operation was adversely affected. Besides, the place was remote and inaccessible, said Satpathy.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik expressed deep condolence towards the bereaved family members and announced Rs 4 lakh ex gratia compensation to the next of kin of the deceased persons.

It’s pertinent to note here that a boat capsizing tragedy had struck near Bahakud ghat in Mahanadi river in Mahakalpada block 14 years ago. On March 1, 2004, 13 local cricketers drowned in Mahanadi and died while crossing the river to take part in a local tournament.

The Hukitola boat tragedy reveals a flagrant violation of safety guidelines.

The guidelines circulated four years back had made it mandatory for boat operators to carry life jackets for the safety of tourists. But the boat that capsized on Wednesday was not carrying a single life jacket.

The Inland Water Transport Department’s license was a must for the operation of boat. Besides, IWT’s fitness certificate had been made mandatory for the plying of boats.

Of the over 100 boats plying to tourist spots and river-locked villages in Kendrapara district, a majority of them do not possess IWT licence and fitness certificates.

Kendrapara Collector Satpathy said the Block Development Officers (BDOs) and Tahasildars have been instructed to inspect the boats which carry riverside villagers in the district. The block and tehsil level officials have been asked to see that both country and motor-operated boats carry life jackets. The boat operators would face penal action if found carrying passengers beyond their capacity. This is a measure that could immediately reduce the number of fatalities in the boating sector. The administration is ready to render financial assistance to the boat owners to procure life jackets.

The administration also warned all private boat owners, mostly carrying tourists to Hukitola, Batighar, Jamboo, Madali, Ekkakula and other eco-tourism spots, to provide life-saving jackets to travellers.