Kochi: Come seventh of every month, a group of elderly people can be seen at Marine Drive, Ernakulam, reminiscing their life in the past -- when the Ernakulam boat jetty was swarming with passengers and they were busy with their job of station masters, shrank, driver and 'laskar'.
That is a group of 22 former staff of the State Water Transport Department (SWTD). And their stories are woven around a time when water transport was an important mode of transportation in Kerala.
"Since the formation of department in 1968 to late'90s, the water transport has enjoyed up to 80 per cent of transportation in Alappuzha, Kottayam and Kollam districts," B.K. Shilan, who joined the service in 1978 and retired as station master' nearly three decades later, said. "Though Ernakulam was hub of water transport in those days, the KSRTC was initially entrusted with operation of boat services from the Ernakulam boat jetty. However, the department took over all the services in June 1994. It was the cheapest mode of transport then and even now."
The popular services those days from the Ernakulam boat jetty include long haul ones like Ernakulam-Kotta-ppuram, Ernakulam-Chengannur (mainly for transportation of goods) and Ernakulam-Perumbalam. There were tea stalls inside the large wooden boats, built at yards like Sulkha in Kannur. The boats used to ply jam-packed then.
With bridges like Goshree bridges coming up by late 90-ies, the road transport slowly gained popularity and there was a major shift in the commuting ways of people. The SWTD was forced to replace large wooden boats with relatively small ones. Long haul services were stopped due to lack of patronage and the services limited to ferry ones across islands.
In the process, the road slowly became congested and the travelling time kept on increasing with the vehicle population steadily rising while the road infrastructure remaining more or less the same.
"Now the roads are getting more and more congested by each passing day," finance minister Thomas Isaac said during the launch of the state's fastest inland ferry service 'Vega 120' the other day. "There is a need for people to change from road transport to water transport. The same will happen if we focus on quick transport through water like the fast ferry." The LDF government has made substantial increase in the allocation for the department. Last year's budget had earmarked Rs 26 crore for the department to aid its modernisation process. It used to get around Rs 10 crore earlier.
Dr Isaac said road transport makes 95 per cent of transport in Kerala now. "In the olden days, waterways used to meet up to half the requirements, and a major share in cargo transport,' he said. "We should aim a similar share now for water transport now." He said jetties should have better infrastructure such as cranes to facilitate it.
"We used to have about 100 boats, made mostly of teak, when we started off," said M Sujith, traffic superintendent,Erna- kulam region. "Now in tune with the progress of technology, the department has switched over to the use of modern steel and fiber glass passenger boats. The old boats are being replaced in a step by step manner." The department now plies 52 boats in eight stations, serving over 10,000 people everyday.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan launched solar vessel 'Adithya', which is incidentally the country's first solar ferry, in the Vaikom-Tavanakadavu section on January 2017, marking the shift towards modernisation of the department. Thereafter, the department began to roll out steadier double-hull catamaran boats, and fast ferries to be deployed in long-haul sections giving tough competition to the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC).
"The newly launched 'Vega 120' in the Vaikom-Ernakulam route is a success with the boat enjoying good patronage," said Shaji K Nair, SWTD director. "The fares (Rs 40 for non AC and Rs 80 for AC cabin travel) are lesser than that of the KSRTC Superclass services and take less time to cover the distance during peak hours. Another fast ferry, which can travel at 25 kmph, will be rolled out by December-end to be deployed in the Kottayam-Alappuzha and Alappuzha-Kumarakom sections."...