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Governance : Why the boats don’t sail?

Little has changed in the field of passenger or cargo inland water transportation in the country over the last two decades


THE National Waterways Act, passed in both Houses of Parliament in March 2016, increased the number of national waterways across the country from the earlier 6 to 111, with plans of connecting the country with Myanmar via Bangladesh through waterways.

In an interview to PTI in May 2017, the Union Transport and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari said, “The Cabinet has approved Rs. 2,000 crore from CFR and we can easily get works done worth Rs. 12,000 crore from that by raising more funds. It is my endeavour to operationalise 10 waterways before December 2018,”

Yet, irrespective of whether the number of national Waterways is 2, 6 or 111, little has changed in the field of passenger or cargo Inland water transportation in the country over the last two decades. And the only time the subject makes it to the news is either to report an accident or to announce a new government proclamation or scheme that may or may not ever see the light of the day.

The Accidents
On April 30, 2012, in one of the worst river travel accidents in the country, a motorised wooden country-boat capsized in the Brahmaputra at Medattari, Dhubri district of Assam drowning 103 people. By various estimates the boat, the most ubiquitous type in the state, carried 350 or more passengers, which was at least 200 per cent over-capacity. It may have also included livestock because such vessels serve as the only mode of communication between the towns and villages on the river banks, and the massive riverine islands known locally as Chars or Chaporis.

Nick Bramley, the Chairman of the Inland Navigation Section International Transport Workers Federation, commenting on the accident said, “Everything points to poor training, dangerous working practices, inadequate regulation and near non-existent enforcement as being the root causes for this and similar losses of life.” These hard-hitting and unflattering words are a true appraisal of the current state of river travel of not only Assam, but equally applicable to most of India wherever river crossing on boats is an integral part of life.

More recently, on August 26, 2015, this time in Kerala, a fishing trawler rammed into a KSWTD (Kerala State Water Transport Department) ferry near Kochi Fort, killing 11 persons and injuring 20 others. The cause of the accident was first attributed to the fishing trawler’s driver losing control due to waves created by Navy boats cruising nearby at high speeds, but later it was discovered that he didn’t even posses the necessary driver’s license. The unfortunate ferry, MB Bharath, a 35-year-old steel and wood vessel, as per the description of witnesses “cracked like biscuit.” It was also short of life jackets and the local Manorama News quoted “According to the fitness certificate, the boat should have 42 lifebuoys. But MB Bharath had only three.”

The following month of September 2015, in another river accident in Assam about 20 people went missing after a boat carrying about 200 persons capsized on the Kalahi river at Sampupara near Chaigaon after hitting an underwater object.

In May 2016, again in Kerala, a car fell off a ferry between Stationkadavu and VP Thuruth drowning its driver and as per the rules the vessel wasn’t even allowed to carry any 3 or 4-wheeled vehicles.

In the same month, 20 persons drowned after an overcrowded country boat capsized in the Ganges near Kalna Ghat in Bardhaman district, Bengal. The administration claimed that the boat was ferrying around 55 people, who were returning from a fair. However eyewitnesses said that it had over 200 passengers and about 100 had drowned or got carried away by the river current.

April this year saw 15 lives being lost when a wooden boat jetty in Bengal’s Telenipara in Bhadreshwar area of Hooghly district collapsed during the morning high tide in the Hooghly river.

The latest waterway accident took place in Assam last month in September 2017, with 10 persons drowning when four village boats capsized in Sabon river during a sudden storm in Assam’s Goalpara district.

Current State of Affairs
AFTER the 2015 accident at Kochi, the Kerala State Water Transport Department decided to go for a long overdue replacement of their fleet with new twin-engine double hull catamarans made from fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) at a cost of Rs. 1.5 crore each. The laudable choice in selecting of such vessels was a marked departure from the traditional mindset of river navigation authorities that so far had always relied upon metal ferries. The FRP twin-hulled catamarans offer unparalleled safety and economy in the inland water environment due to their twin hulls, light composite rust-proof structure and high impact resistance.

The Inland Water Transport Department of Assam has only 66 operational vessels out of an original fleet of 215. When the river goes into spate, most of the vessels are docked and river transport comes to a standstill, as the boat’s engines don’t have the power to go against the current

A solar powered electric Catamaran Ferry “Aditya” made by a private company Navalt Solar and Electric Boats, has also been commissioned in the state in March 2017 and has been running successfully till date, creating a revolution in river transport.

In Assam, things haven’t changed much since the fateful day in 2012 and despite being designated National Waterway No.2, the Brahmaputra remains anything but one. Cargo vessels are virtually nonexistent; most of the government owned ferries are grounded or have become floating piles of rust and passenger transportation largely comprises of motorised wooden country boats, locally known as “Bhutbhutis”; the same kind that sank in Dhubri.

The Inland Water Transport Department of Assam (IWTDA) has only 66 (36 as per another report) operational vessels out of an original fleet of 215. Most are are slow steel ferry boats capable of achieving speeds of only 2-4 knots, uneconomical due to high fuel and maintenance expenses. During the rains when the river goes into spate, most of the vessels are docked and river transport comes to a standstill, as the boat’s engines don’t have the power to go against the current.

The lack of vessels causes large intervals in-between service timings of the few plying ferries and consequently, river traffic is dominated by the Bhutbhutis, having abysmally low safety standards, lacking basic safety equipment and usually outfitted with agricultural or reconditioned automotive diesel engines. Moreover, because of lax enforcement, they are often grossly overloaded with passengers and vehicles.


Today there are over 6,000 such boats plying the Brahmaputra in Assam alone and currently with no alternatives, the government is in no position to either regulate or ban them.

The situation in Bengal is almost identical with Assam again with a skeleton government ferry service comprising of floating rust buckets and with over 12,000 little-regulated Bhutbhutis plying its waterways.

Goa is probably the only state in the Indian mainland that continues to have a reasonably functional government run passenger river transport system. Their many ferries may be of an inefficient archaic design, but nonetheless they run without accidents transporting thousands of people every day, that to free of cost.

The state also had the most successful river based cargo transportation system in the country comprising of privately owned river barges that transported iron ore to the sea port. The system collapsed overnight with the ban on mining in the state turning them into NPAs.

In April 2017, the newly elected BJP State government of Assam organised the controversial Namami Brahmaputra Festival. Promoted as the “Biggest River Festival of India,” the quasi-religious-tourism event was planned on the lines of the Sindhu Darshan Yatra and Namami Gange festivals toeing the line of the party’s saffron agenda. However, shortly after its inauguration a massive storm followed by heavy rainfall inundated the venue and raised the river’s water levels dangerously, much to the delight of its critics who quickly dubbed it “Tsunami Brahmaputra.”

IT was during this festival that the State’s Transport Minister Sri Chandra Mohan Patowary announced the plan of introducing 50 water-taxis, including a city (Guwahati) to airport link to beat the traffic congestion. So far no water-taxis have been acquired but some steps seem to have been initiated with the State’s IWT releasing an advertisement in September calling for Expression of Interest from manufacturers.

Making loud declarations with regards to water transport, but failing to reach the first stages of implementation has become a repetitive pattern of successive Assam governments. Earlier in 2011, the then Tourism and Transport Minister Chandan Brahma announced the plan to purchase two imported luxury high-speed catamarans at a cost of Rs. 7 crore each, for taking tourists from Guwahati to the riverine island of Majuli. Luckily, they were not acquired as the lack of tourists aside, this class of high-speed vessels is completely unsuitable for a shallow braided river system like the Brahmaputra. And even if they were, their fate would have been the same as the MV Mahabahu, Assam Tourism department’s ambitious JV project which has turned into a floating white elephant.

In 2013 the state’s tourism department released a tender for acquiring a river yacht, but with so many self-contradictory technical errors that most manufacturers didn’t dare bid.

This September 2017, waking up to the state of the river vessels plying in the state and the plight of the several lakhs of passengers using them daily, the Bengal transport minister Suvendu Adhikari unveiled a new standardised model and handed over the design specifications to 20 vessel manufacturers after inaugurating the new Jaladhara scheme for waterways. Four steel vessels were also handed over to four municipalities in the state.

“We want these bhutbhutis to be completely replaced by safe boats designed by Shalimar Works, the shipbuilding PSU under the transport department. We will offer a subsidy of Rs. 1 lakh to those who will replace their bhutbhutis. We will also request the manufacturers to introduce buy-back scheme of their old boats to provide incentive for the replacement process,” said Adhikari.

RO-RO (Roll On-Roll Off) ferries are watercrafts that carry both people and vehicles like cars, commercial and cargo vehicles have become almost synonymous with inland and bay area ferries around the world. Not surprisingly, this class of vessels has caught the imagination of both the Central and State authorities in India with plans of deploying them all over the country from Assam to Gujarat, Maharashtra and Kerala.

In Kerala, one is witness to a classic bureaucratic stalemate that showcases all that is wrong in the field of inland water transport in the country; from delays to lack of planning, infrastructure and coordination between the concerned agencies

Early 2017 saw the arrival of such a new RO-RO river vessel in Assam, supposedly as a gift from the central government having a price tag of Rs. 10 crore. The 250 MT DWT (Dead Weight Tonnage or a vessel’s displacement) vessel had been named MV Gopinath Bordoloi and since July this year, it has been assigned duty between Dhubri and Hatsingimari bordering Meghalaya to reduce the circuitous road distance of 220 km for vehicles and trucks. Surprisingly, the operation of the vessel has been entrusted to the Central government’s Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) and not to the state’s Inland Water Transport department. By doing so, the Ministry of Shipping has effectively side-stepped the state government and kept things under its direct control.

It is purportedly the first of six vessels of its class to enter service as part of the current government’s ambitious plan of reviving river based cargo transport.

Also in the plans, is to dredge the Brahmaputra and build a massive cargo transshipment and loading terminal in western Assam in order to carry loaded trucks upstream up to Dibrugarh via the river to reduce the cost of surface transportation. Somewhat like how Konkan railway is doing in Maharashtra and Goa carrying trucks piggyback on railway racks. And once again the state machinery, including the Brahmaputra Board has been largely kept out of the loop and the task is going to be undertaken by IWAI and the National Dredging Corporation, with Assam’s Ministry of Transport and that of River Resources reduced to spectators or at the most a cheerleader’s role.


Furthermore, some of the questions that have yet remained unanswered are: How would the vessels be freed if they get stuck in the river’s many sand-banks? How would the trucks be unloaded if the vessel breaks down mid-river? What would be the return cargo downstream? Whether a full loaded vessel can pass through the shallow sections or if it has the required engine power to travel upstream during summer at the time of peak water flow?

IT cannot be denied that for over one hundred years, river-based transport did dominate the Brahmaputra valley, but had all but ceased by the late 1990s. Till then, the Central Inland Water Corporation Barges carried tea from Assam to Kolkata via Bangladesh and brought in heavy machinery for the refineries, and the state’s Inland Water Transport department still had a semblance of a fleet. However, the combination of rampant corruption, aged vessels, bureaucratic incompetence and flip-flopping relations with Bangladesh sounded the death knell of both the domestic and international river freight on the river.

Meanwhile, in Kerala in tandem with the KSWT, the Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation Corporation (KSINC) has also started construction of a twin-engine fibreglass boat for the Kochi Corporation. The Kochi Metro Rail Ltd (KMRL) has also embarked on an ambitious Rs. 747 core Water Metro project, again adopting the catamaran design; the first of their ferries is currently being built in a shipyard in Goa.

The Stalemates
While the first RO-RO facility has been already launched in Assam, actually the country’s first such service was supposed to have started in April this year between Ghogha in Bhavnagar district and Dahej in Gujarat across the Gulf of Cambay, to reduce a road distance of 231 km to 30 nautical kilometers and travel time from seven hours to less than one hour. The total project cost was initially estimated to be Rs. 234 crore, with 50 per cent funded by the Ministry of Shipping’s Sagarmala programme.

THE latest news about this project dates back to March 2017, citing that the project cost had appreciated to Rs. 615 crore and that it would be inaugurated by Narendra Modi during his next visit to his home state. But considering the PM’s much-publicised recent visit to his mother for seeking her blessings on his birthday on September 17, there was no reference to the project already delayed by five years.

In Goa, in 2015 the government announced that a modern ferry service would once again connect Vasco to Dona Paula, Panaji in 20 minutes, shortening a road distance of over an hour from January 2016 onwards. The Mormugao Port Trust (MPT), under the Ministry of Shipping, Government of India, had floated a tender to restart ferry services from Baina in Vasco to Panaji that had been discontinued for two decades.

Subsequently, Drishti Marine Solutions Pvt Ltd, Mumbai, was awarded the tender for the lowest fare of Rs. 100 per person. Almost two years later in April 2017, still with no ferry, it was declared that the service would start from October this year and that the company had received all the necessary clearances and that the MPT had allocated them 1,500 sq.m land on Baina beach. The following month Goa newspapers reported a massive fire on the Baina Beach where 33 floating docks, which were to be used as a floating jetty for the proposed ferry, were gutted. The company alleged sabotage by vested interests that wanted to hinder their operations.

Further south on the same coastline, in Kerala, one is witness to a classic bureaucratic stalemate that showcases all that is wrong in the field of inland water transport in the country; from delays to lack of planning, infrastructure and coordination between the concerned agencies.

Here we have not one, but two ready RO-RO vessels Sethusagar I and Sethusagar II built by Cochin Shipyards at the cost of Rs. 3.8 crore each, ordered by the Kochi City Municipal Corporation for plying in the Vypeen-Fort Kochi sector. Each of these 150 MT DWT vessels is capable of transporting 50 passengers, 12 cars and four lorries or 50 passengers, 18 cars and 50 two-wheelers.

Ordered in March 2015, the delivery of the vessels was supposed to be in July 2016 but was delayed to December 2016 for the first vessel and February this year for the second. The Corporation too wasn’t in a hurry to take possession claiming that the terminals for the vessels were not ready. Both the vessels were finally inaugurated in a function in March 2017 but left idling in the docks.

A news item dated June 3, 2017 stated that the Kochi City Corporation authorities were planning to entrust the operation of the RO-RO vessels to the KSINC (Kerala State Inland Navigation Corporation) after deciding that they themselves were not competent to run a ferry service.

However, by mid July 2017 they apparently changed their minds as the KSINC demanded that both the vessels be handed over to them along with funds for operating them. They also decided against leasing out the vessels to contractors following a public outcry. “The decision was taken following public demand. We’ll form a company for operation of the vessels, however, it would take some time for the process to complete,” Kochi Mayor Soumini Jain told the Deccan Chronicle.

Meanwhile, there were also demands that the operation of the RO-RO services be entrusted to the Kochi Metro Rail Ltd (KMRL), which is starting their own Water Metro Service.

SO the impasse continues as to who would finally operate the RO-RO service, leaving the two vessels docked and they would probably remain so even if the bureaucratic hurdles are overcome because, as of mid summer the Cochin Port Trust was still to complete the construction of the jetties.

Furthermore, a July Times of India article on this subject fleetingly mentioned that “the vessels should secure all clearances, including safety certificates, from authorities concerned” thus raising the legitimate question that after all this time, do the vessels have the necessary documentation and clearances?

A Global Revival
The Indian government’s recent thrust on reviving Inland water transport has mostly focused on freight and cargo, and except for Kerala, no serious effort has been made anywhere on modernising passenger transport. Lakhs of commuters still have to depend upon utterly unsafe and un-regulated country boats and the archaic steel and metal ferries belonging to the various State Governments hemorrhage their organization due to their inefficiency and high cost of ownership.

Globally, passenger transport on inland waterways has been on a rebound as road traffic congestion and overloading of urban transit public transport has people restarting discontinued water routes or introducing new ones.

Take, for example, New York, where passenger ferries ceased plying on the Hudson and East River in 1967 due to the Metro and numerous bridges. Until in 1981 a new ferry service, NY Waterway was launched and today it transports an average of 35,000 people per day with its fleet of 33 ferries, mostly catamarans, making eight million passenger trips per year and servicing 21 routes. Their main business rival New York Water Taxi (NYWT) operates a fleet of 12 catamarans, whereas their newest competitor, the East River Ferry, launched in 2011 met their three-year goal of 1.2 million riders in only 14 months.

IN England, the Thames was one of the busiest waterways in the world up to the 20th century, but its importance diminished with the expansion of road and rail networks. So from WW I onwards the river had no regular ferry service until 1999, when MBNA Thames Clippers started a river bus service. Today they operate both commuter and tourist routes between eastern and central London transporting about 8,500 passengers daily in 15 high-speed catamarans.

Heading south to Africa, in Nigeria, the Lagos State Government revived the public ferry services after they stopped plying for over 18 years. Today the waterways are full of small 30-50 seat ferries operated by government and private companies.

In 2011, Earthwise Ventures introduced the MV Amani and MV Blubird, two 65 foot FRP catamarans that can carry 125 passenger each, that traverse Lake Victoria in under 10 hours, once again improving connectivity between Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

In Asia, southern China has one of the most effectively utilised cargo and passenger river transport systems in the world. There are high speed catamarans connecting Hongkong to Guangzhou and Macau across the Zhujiang (Pearl) river’s estuary, and eight other inland river routes connecting all the major cities of the delta.

Up north, split by the Yangtze river, Wuhan and Wuchan are connected by seven bridges and yet the Wuhan Ferry Corporation, established in 1900, regularly plies ferries on three crossings every day. There are also daily passenger and tourist cruises travelling all the way to Shanghai a distance of 1,125 km. In Shanghai too, passenger ferries continue to crisscross the Huangpu River.

Still Nautical Miles To Go
After decades of utter neglect, there is finally a government level realization in India that inland water transport is a viable alternative to overland transport and is a sector that urgently needs revival. However, the legacy of rampant corruption, red tape, apathy and lack of funds of the various government bodies in charge of inland water transport is not something that can be overcome easily.

The Indian government’s recent thrust on reviving Inland water transport has mostly focused on freight and cargo, and except for Kerala, no serious effort has been made anywhere on modernising passenger transport

And even with all the new initiatives there are glaring questions that remain unanswered. Such as how come the IWAI which was conceived for development and maintenance of IWT infrastructure on national waterways and conduct of river surveys and mapping, installing navigational aids and dredging to keep a minimal draft, has suddenly been elevated to the position of a vessel operator as in the case of the Ro-Ro ferry in Assam?

Similarly, why is that a 150 MT DWTRO-RO ferry built in Kerala costs Rs. 3.8 crore, but a 250 DWT Ferry of the same class operating in Assam costs Rs. 10 crore; almost 3 times the cost but at less than double in displacement?

Even today, with all the steps taken for resurrecting the field, it still remains under exclusive government political and bureaucratic control where ironically the only winners in the passenger river travel sector are the Bhutbhuti owners operating with full impunity and the unscrupulous officials who get their monthly cut from them.

A more pragmatic approach would be handing it over partly or in full to the private sector under attractive but time-bound schemes, but provided the concerned government departments themselves don’t throw spanners in the works or operate in a Rip Van Winkle’ time frame.

Likewise, with all the emphasis being laid upon cargo and vehicle transport, except for Kerala passenger transit has been largely ignored everywhere. Thus, a three-pronged approach for dividing river navigation into cargo, vehicular transfer and purely passenger services should be adopted. Where barges, self-powered or tugged would handle cargo, vehicular transfer is handled by RO-RO services and pure passenger services comprise of lightweight vessels like FRP composite catamarans, which provide maximum safety along with operational economy.

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