The underutilised potential of Inland waterways...

Kerala, true to its name "God's Own Country", is gifted with over 1600 kms of navigable inland waterways across 41 rivers. Kerala is among those states which have realised the potential of inland waterways. The state has a dedicated company to run transportation services across Inland waterways in the state - the Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation Corporation (KSINC). This company operates cargo services within the state, while the State Water Transport Department (SWTD) is responsible for passenger ferry services in the state.

The 181-km long National Waterway 3 (from Kottapuram in Thrissur district to Kollam) is one of the premier inland navigation channels in Kerala. The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) is planning to extend the West Cost Channel all the way to Hosdurg in Kasaragod District in the North and Kovalam in Trivandrum District in the south, which will make it a 560-km inland channel.

The SWTD is based at Alappuzha, and operates passenger ferry services from its bases in various districts in Kerala, including but not restricted to Alappuzha, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Kollam and Kannur districts. Regular ferry services are operated on some major routes, including Alappuzha-Kottayam, Alappuzha-Changanassery, Alappuzha-Kollam, Ernakulam-Fort Kochi, Ernakulam-Vypeen, etc.

Ernakulam is one city which has a very huge inland navigation potential. The city is surrounded on all sides by navigable waterbodies. In fact, the easiest connection between the city centre (Ernakulam) and parts of the old city (Mattanchery, Fort Kochi, etc) is through inland waterways. The SWTD operates frequent boats from Fort Kochi/Mattancherry/Vypeen/W.Island and Ernakulam Main Boat Jetty. Recently, the SWTD also proposed new boat services from Thevara to Kakkanad, while will help reduce traffic on the roads by a huge margin.

SWTD boats usually carry around 100 passengers, and are generally made of wood or steel. A few fibre-made boats were introduced, but were discontinued on most routes following operational difficulties during adverse conditions. Recently, the department announced plans to add about 15 Steel boats. These boats, being built by Steel Industries Limited Kerala (SILK) Kannur, are being introduced in a phased manner. Few such boats were introduced recently.

I recently made a journey from Ernakulam to Fort Kochi in a boat. There is a boat every 15-25 minutes between the two points. Almost all the trips run packed to capacity - SWTD makes it a point to sell only as many tickets as the seating capacity of the boat is. Overcrowding strictly prohibited and hence during weekends passengers often have to return without being able to get tickets. The ticket fare is Rs. 2.50 (compared to Rs. 9 by road) - and the boat completes the journey in just 15 minutes (compared to 30-45 minutes by road)!!! And in the 15 minutes, the boat takes you on a ride through the shipping channel, giving you an awesome view of Cochin Port and the surrounding tourist places. 

A ride through the channel in a tourist boat costs anywhere between Rs. 100 and Rs. 250, with the ride lasting an hour. The government boat offers you 75% of the sights for just about 1-2.5% the cost! The seats in the government boat is not luxurious by any stretch of imagination - it is just a plain wooden bench. The ride is airy, and entertainment is provided through an FM radio on board! The next time you plan to go to Fort Kochi, make it a point to include a boat ride through Kochi's own waters.

A ride through Alappuzha's backwaters is a must for any tourist coming to Kerala - paddy fields stretching across the horizon, backwater canals, and other breathtaking sights will leave a lasting impression on one's mind. The Alappuzha-Kollam route - a distance of about 81 kms - is operated using a specially modified tourist boat. The Rs. 300, 8 hour ride, promises a lot of interesting sights to tourists. Alappuzha is the location to be, if you are interested in backwater boat rides.

At the inauguration of the Kollam-Alappuzha boat service, the minister for transport rued, "We utilise only 20% of our inland navigation potential" - a sad truth! A well developed boating system will help reduce congestion on Kochi's roads by a huge percentage. The government should go behind the Urban Ministry to get funds to purchase boats under the JNNURM scheme for Kochi. Currently, the SWTD base at Kochi operates to Fort Kochi, Mattanchery, W.Island, Vypeen, Bolghatty and Mulavukad. The department agrees that they still have unexplored areas around the city - its high time the government opens up to potential of waterways. They are an economical and eco-friendly way of mass transportation.


Unknown said…
A sad truth unfortunately. I agree that Kerala has one of the best potential for a full-fledged waterway transport. It holds true for Bombay also. I agree that the boat rides between Fort Kochi and Ernakulam is indeed a scenic one considering you get a panoramic view of the Cochin harbour.