From 14, the number of boats between Kochi and Varapuzha has come down to 1

It’s past 9.30 a.m. on Friday and principal Jessy Varghese is waiting anxiously by the Varapuzha boat jetty. The MB Velankanni, the only boat plying between the city and Varapuzha island, is late.

The boat ferries close to 200 students of the Holy Infant Boys High School and St. Joseph’s Girls High School at Edampadom in Varapuzha every day. The bell doesn’t ring in these schools until the boat has docked at the Varapuzha jetty right in front of the boys’ school. “The boat hasn’t run today. I think it may have stopped for repairs or something. It will be 11.30 a.m. by the time the children make it to school now after taking a bus and walking,” says Ms. Varghese, principal of Holy Infant Boys High School. It’s almost 10.00 a.m. and she pops out of her office to check if any students are waiting in the jetty on the island opposite. There are none in sight.

Till a few years ago, 14 boats plied from jetties in the city to the remote island of Varapuzha. Today, there is just one. If the boat doesn’t operate from some reason, the islanders are in a fix.

The new roads and bridges that link the islands have reduced the patronage for boats. However, there are still many islanders who prefer the boat over buses. “Parents drop their children at the jetty and know that they will reach here safely. Buses are few in number and you have to take two or three buses to get here from the city,” says Ms. Varghese.

But surviving on the Rs.2 concession charge paid by students is tough for boat owners. Students from Moolampilly, Pizhala, Chennur, and Kothad islands from Class I onwards crowd into the lone boat to go to school.

Boat ticket rates have not been revised for the last 12 years. “Various political factors are behind the reluctance to raise ticket rates. A private operator can’t run a boat on the 18 km Ernakulam-Varapuzha route with such low fares. That’s why boat owners are stopping operations,” says Ebenser Chullikkat, a former boat owner.

A study by the Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi, showed that while 166 boat trips were operated by State operators from government jetties in 2005, the trips had fallen to 59 a day by 2012. The trend is similar when it comes to private boats too. This is despite urban planners and government bodies stressing on the need to develop inland water navigation. Introducing faster, more fuel-efficient boats has also been proposed. Most proposals, however, have remained on paper.

A government boat conductor said a boat on the Varapuzha route would require around 40 litres of diesel per day. “The daily collection on the route would be around Rs.2,000 a day. That won’t even cover the fuel costs,” he said.

The only way out for private operators is to either shut shop or break the rules. Many operators charge more than the government fare. But passengers do not complain as they are dependent on private boats in the absence of government services. Boat operators also cram passengers into the vessel, posing a threat to the stability of the vessel.

Despite the crowd and higher fare, many passengers choose boats over buses due to convenience. “Most people who buy goods from the Varapuzha market take the boat. They can carry large bags on the boat and the boat operators always wait for the passengers to board, unlike the bus conductors,” says Mr. Chullikkat.

He suggests that private companies with large funds marked for corporate social responsibility projects could support boat services on certain key routes. “Boat services to the islands have to be preserved for the people’s convenience,” he said.

Principal Jessy Varghese, meanwhile, has only one plea. “If the government ran a boat service on this route, it would be a great help,” she says as she waits for her students.

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