KOCHI: From the days of yore, Kerala enjoyed a prominent place in the international maritime trade circuit, thanks to its long coastline, rivers and network of inland waterways. Its riverine towns and markets were a hive of activity and country boats and barges filled to the brim with spices, paddy and coir skimmed through the backwaters bound for harbours and ports across the land. However, with the passage of time, the glory of the waterways and riverine markets ebbed away and better road and rail connectivity post-Independence further eclipsed the prospects of cargo transportation through waterways. Now the tide has turned. The state government is getting ready to lend a lease of life to the waterways. CIAL Infrastructure Ltd, a subsidiary of Cochin International Airport Limited, has been entrusted with the task of developing the 611- km-long waterway from Kovalam to Kasargod to ferry people and cargo.
The proposed waterway - including National Waterway III Kollam-Kottappuram and Kottapuram-Kozhikode stretches and state waterways passing through most of the districts - has the potential to play a big role in transporting cargo and passengers and boosting tourism. Despite challenges galore, the involvement of CIAL Infrastructure has raised the hopes as it has proved its mettle many times in the past by materialising projects from scratch.
A CIAL official said the company would engage in making the state waterways navigable and linking them with the National Waterways - the development of which is led by Inland Waterways Authority of India - and coastal shipping places. Developing the state waterway stretching around 200 km between Kozhikode and Kasargod and the 76-km-long Kollam-Kovalam waterway would be the chief mandate of CIAL, said the official.
The work on a new 18-km-long canal between Kuttiyadi and Mahi is fast progressing. Another 26-km-long canal would be dug in the Mahi-Valapattanam stretch, ensuring seamless connection between Kozhikode and Bekal in Kasargod. Similarly, the 74-km Kovalam-Kollam waterway will be made fully navigable after undertaking dredging operations at some points and expanding the tunnels near Varkala, said officials.
This would ensure smooth transportation of cargo and passengers from Kovalam to Kasargod. But there are challenges galore. Further, enhancing the depth and width of canals and backwaters by dredging and demolishing some of the existing structures along the banks is a herculean task.
Similarly, CIAL has to ensure the river or canal should have at least 2 metres depth and a width of 14 metres to provide a uniform bed for smooth navigation.
However, this project raises a lot of questions, which have to be addressed. The million dollar question is whether people would be interested to travel through the waterways at a speed of around 30 km per hour other than for leisure. A senior officer of the Coastal Shipping and Inland Navigation Department said even the National Waterway connecting Kollam and Kottappuram has failed to make any headway in improving cargo traffic in the stretch.The resistance from the public in these critical areas would also be high and it has to be seen if the government would be ready to quell the opposition within its rank and file as well, he said. However, despite the odds, the Chief Minister seems to be determined to take the project forward and he has announced a special purpose vehicle will be formed as per the directions of the Centre to develop the proposed waterway.