Six years after commissioning, National Waterway III remains underutilised

Six years after its commissioning, the 205-km Kollam-Kottappuram National Waterway III remains grossly underutilised.

Back in 2007, while inaugurating NW III, the then Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan had spoken of steps being taken to make Kovalam-Neeleswaram waterway operational in two years. This was to be done by developing the State’s waterways beyond NW III.

A host of issues

However, even NW III is not fully navigable because of a host of regional issues. And, hundreds of lorries continue to ferry goods through Kerala’s notoriously congested national highways even as water transport remains a cheaper and more energy-efficient alternative. As a result, the waterway and nine terminals built in the Kollam-Kottapuram (located in Thrissur) route by Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) are lying idle.

A senior IWAI official said over 20 years since work began, NW III was not fully navigable because of a few persistent hiccups. “Steps are being taken to surmount them, but the State government must be proactive so that the waterway is navigable within a few months.”

Over a year ago, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had announced that NW III would be opened to boats ferrying bulk cargo and passengers by December 2012. The announcement was repeated a few months ago, of the waterway being made navigable by 2013-end.

The main hurdle is opposition to dumping of slush dredged out from water bodies. As per norms, NW III must have a two-metre depth and 32-metre width so that even huge barges that transport 600 tonnes of goods may safely use them. “Land owners on either side welcome depositing of sand on their premises, but are opposed to depositing of slush,” sources said.

IWAI officials are peeved that unlike other parts of India, they have to hold frequent discussions with stakeholders, including land owners and local body representatives to go ahead with dredging and allied works, especially in places such as Chavara and some parts of Kuttanad.

“Fishing nets erected illegally on water bodies too stifle the movement of boats,” they said. A compensation of up to Rs. 1 lakh per net was handed over. But newer nets are propping up at many places to claim compensation.

Ammonia transport

The situation is better in Kochi, where dredging has resumed at Thevara after a four-year gap to transport ammonia to Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore Ltd (FACT). The district administration and local bodies were cooperating since they were aware of the danger posed by lorries transporting ammonia, LPG, fuel and hazardous chemicals through busy roads, sources said.

Dredging and bank-protection works are under way at many places in Kuttanad. “Here too, dumping the dredged material is tough since paddy fields dot either side of the waterway,” they said.

Barges, ro-ro (roll on, roll off) vessels that transport lorries laden with goods, and boats of different types would have begun through NW III by now, but for inadequate political and administrative will in speeding up the pace of works.

Of late, the IWAI has been getting enquiries from, among others, Kerala Tourism and KTDC, to use its nine terminals in the State as berthing points for tourists. This follows a spate of fatal accidents at unsafe boat jetties.

Coastal waterway

On how NW III would complement the State government’s coastal waterway project, an IWAI official said the agency had entrusted a firm with the task of designing a vessel that could carry bulk cargo through both the waterways. This synergy is crucial to transport goods in an economical and eco-friendly manner.

Efforts are also required to link regional navigable canals (feeder canals) with NW III so they too can be used to transport goods and people. After years of neglect, the work on developing NW III got an impetus following a speech by the then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in the State Legislative Assembly that Kerala needed ‘smart waterways’ to usher in economic growth.

Lorry lobby

The allegation is rife that the “lorry lobby” is instigating protests to stifle the development of NW III and coastal waterway, since shifting to cheaper, safer and eco-friendly water transport will affect their business.