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Updated: July 26, 2013 19:28 IST
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Making the waters link

P. Anima
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Illustration by Satheesh Vellinezhi
Illustration by Satheesh Vellinezhi

When the British mulled over having a waterway between Cochin and Beypore

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

The plans were grand. It was a time when the British were investing much time and money on improvement of transport in the region. The railways were to happen soon and they pondered over a system for transport along the coast which will make the carriage of goods from Travancore to Malabar easier.

In one of the documents from 1859, the government contemplates having an inland water communication from Cochin to Beypore. The documents capture the administrative confusion that will centre around such a huge project. The plan was discussed at the highest levels of the government in Madras. The Public Works Department, the Home Department and the Financial Railway Department are the ones mulling over the idea.

The Home Department had already expressed “concurrence in the views of the government in favour of the plan for carrying out the contemplated inland water communication between Cochin and Beypoor.”

The Chief Engineer has drawn up an estimate for this ambitious plan. They divide the waterway from Cochin to Beypore into two important divisions. The first one is from Cochin to Ponany and then from Ponany to Beypore. According to the Chief Engineer, the government had set a budget of Rs. 3,50,000 for widening the canal from Cochin to Ponany and widening and improving the old canal between Ponany and Beypore.

But, he writes, “The present estimate does not provide for steam navigation.” He advocates widening the canal for steam navigation and draws up a budget of Rs. 6 lakhs.

The document from the Public Works Department mentions that the government had mulled over two ways of communication in the region; “whether by rail or water.” “It was resolved on the 7th May 1858, that the latter should be adopted and that every effort should be made to perfect the water communication.”

The document signed by the Secretary to the Government says, “The canal is to be taken along the coast, a breadth of 12 yards is to be given to it, and a depth of three feet below low water is considered ample for boats of light draught, and the whole distance of canal between Beypoor and Cochin according to the line proposed to be taken will be 102 miles.”

Sourcing funds

The Secretary also lists the flips. No provision has been found for the large amount of money required for the project. The present state of the Public Works Department is “crippled”, he writes, and adds that if such a project is sanctioned the time-frame for its completion and the actual expenditure will remain nebulous in the current scenario.

He insists that the government should first make up its mind on whether steam navigation should be allowed on this canal. Making the canal open only for ordinary boats, he says, will bring down the budget by half to three and a half lakh. He also recommends the appointment of a special officer to carry out the project. The project, he recommends, should be treated as an “exceptional” one and the individual officer in charge should prepare a reliable data bank for it.

Steady stream of letters

A lot of letters and memorandums fly thick and fast on the budget for each division and allowing steamers on it. In one the British wonder if a wholesome waterway will eventually compete with the Railways. “The canal from Ponany to Beypoor, however desirable it may be, as a link in that system of inland navigation, which, it is hoped will one day extend from Cape Comorin along the whole length of the Western Coast of the Madras Presidency, would not benefit the Railway. Indeed it would compete with it,” says the note signed by the Chief Secretary.

Nevertheless, they also realise that a water carriage “from their station on the bank of the Ponany River to Cochin” is also crucial for the Railways. For that is the passage for goods further down to Allepey, Quilon and Cape Comorin, as the British wants it.

Considering the “productive character of the Malabar and Travancore country” the note mentions that the “the Governor in Council is decidedly of opinion that the Canal should be constructed.”

The British had in mind a slow extension of communication till Cape Comorin. Cochin, the note says, already had good backwater communication with Allepey and Quilon.

“And that between Quilon and Trevandrum there is only a break of about 5 miles.” Trevandrum to Cape Comorin was just a matter of going southwards a bit further but what the British were looking for was the “uninterrupted water communication from Cape Comorin to Ponany and the Railway, a distance of some 250 miles.”

A later letter signed by the Secretary to the Government says, “The Government have proposed in the Railway Department that the canal from Cochin to Ponany, 73 miles, shall be formed in connection with the Railway, and shall be suited to the use of steam. The canal from Ponany to Beypoor, 29 miles, is a work which certainly ought to be undertaken on general considerations, but it is not the opinion of Government that it need at present be made large enough for steamers.” The budget is re-worked to Rs. 2 lakhs.

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)

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