A waterway sputters on

The 610-km West Coast Canal connects 11 of the 14 districts in Kerala. Once completed, the waterway can shoulder a major share of the cargo transport, thereby decongesting roads, reducing accidents. However, the government’s apparent laxity towards the project has puzzled many.

Updated - April 23, 2022 08:05 pm IST

Published - April 23, 2022 07:55 pm IST - KOCHI 

The 205-km Kollam-Kottappuram National Waterways III (NW III), which was developed for over ₹300 crore, has remained grossly underutilised for transporting cargo and passengers 15 years since it was commissioned by the then Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan. But stakeholders now pin their hopes on the expected completion, by 2025, of the 610-km West Coast Canal (WCC) that would provide seamless inland waterway connectivity between Bekal in Kasaragod and Kovalam in Thiruvananthapuram. 

This would provide direct waterway connectivity to 11 of the 14 districts in Kerala. The entire NW III — which was later on extended by 160 km from Kottappuram to Kozhikode — would thus become part of the WCC. 

Once completed, it is expected to catalyse a shift in cargo transport from roads to waterways. To hasten this, the demand is rife that the State government announce a policy decision making it mandatory that hazardous and other non-perishable cargo be transported through the waterways – much like in Europe and to a lesser extent in China. Another demand is that the government reinstate incentives that were available for waterway transport of cargo and passengers (including tourists) until a year ago. 

Waterways have been acknowledged globally as the most energy-efficient, safe, and eco-friendly mode of transporting goods and passengers. The worsening of congestion, reflected equally in pollution and accidents, has been a bane of Kerala, where over 4,000 people die each year in road accidents. 

Once completed, the WCC would comprise the 365-km Kollam-Kozhikode National Waterways III (Kollam-Kottapuram 168 km, Udyogamandal Canal 23 km, Champakara Canal 14 km, Kottapuram-Kozhikode 160 km) flanked on its north and south by a total of 237 km of State Waterways consisting of Bekal-Kozhikode and Kollam-Kovalam waterways. The WCC would run almost parallel to the coastline and the highway that links Thiruvananthapuram with Kasaragod. Three man-made canals have been envisaged between Mahe and Valapattanam and yet another canal between Neeleswaram and Chithari rivers, to establish waterway connectivity between the northern and southern ends of the State, sources associated with the WCC said. 

The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) is spearheading dredging and related activities on the Kollam-Kozhikode National Waterways, while Kerala Waterways and Infrastructures Ltd. (KWIL) that was incorporated in 2017 and has the Government of Kerala and Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) as core promoters, is taking ahead the WCC. Ultimately, the Kovalam-Bekal waterway is proposed to be developed in a phased manner, having 40 m width and a draft of 2.2 m. 

“Once completed, the waterway is expected to boost economic activities and tourism throughout Kerala. Tourist villages and activity centres have been proposed every 20-25 km of the proposed inland waterway, to promote destinations, art and culture. The prime objective of the proposed waterway project would still be to shift the entire movement of hazardous cargo in Kerala from roads to the waterway by 2025, followed later on by other cargo in a phased manner,” sources associated with the WCC said. 

Hassles to be cleared 

Director of IWAI Mathew George spoke about how incomplete portions on NW III, including a 1-km stretch at Chavara would shortly be dredged and widened to 32 m, to enable two-way movement of barges and boats. “A work tender been floated for this. In addition, the Irrigation Department is expected to reconstruct the navigation lock at Thrikunnapuzha by March 2023, enabling hassle-free commute for vessels. Likewise, transportation of hydrochloric acid from Travancore Cochin Chemicals (TCC) at Eloor, Kochi, to Kerala Metals and Minerals Ltd. (KMML) in Chavara, is set to begin by August,” he said. 

Interestingly, a detailed project report (DPR) for extending NW III beyond Kottappuram up to Kozhikode is yet to be finalised. “The DPR will be finalised once there is assurance from the State government and other stakeholders about operating adequate number of barges and other vessels,” Mr. George added.  

Hazardous cargo

What is baffling entrepreneurs, who are willing to invest in specialised barges to ferry different types of cargo, is that the State government not taking a policy decision making it mandatory to transport hazardous cargo like petroleum products, LPG, and chemicals through the waterways in which both the Centre and State have invested heavily, despite dozens of fatal and non-fatal accidents involving tanker and bullet lorries transporting such goods across the State. Some of them have been demanding the introduction of roll on-roll off (Ro-Ro) barges, to ferry lorries laden with hazardous goods to their final destination, in order to decongest roads and to prevent accidents involving these lorries. 

Pointing fingers 

“With the government yet to take a policy decision to shift hazardous cargo transport through the waterways, 15 years since NW III was commissioned, and the subsidy of ₹1 per tonne per km being withdrawn, suspicion is rife that a section of lorry operators who want to retain their stranglehold over the State’s cargo transport sector, is putting pressure on the government. How else can one explain the government remaining evasive, even as the tiny State is amongst the States that record the highest number of road accidents each year. A bulk of them occur on highways, where goods carriers abound,” said a barge operator, who preferred not to be identified. 

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