The terrible human tragedy that happened at Vypin-Fort Cochin ferry point on August 26 this year has shocked our conscience and shaken our faith in the public water transport system. Media reports carry allegations and counter-allegations and the blame game continues for some time. Thereafter, the authorities and the general public will develop a complacent attitude, and passengers will continue to travel through the same ferry service across the Cochin port channel, albeit with a heightened degree of apprehension and nervousness.
Can we not think of a permanent solution to prevent such disasters from happening again? Why don’t we construct an underground tunnel from Vypin to Fort Cochin over a distance of about one kilometre under the shipping channel? Such underground tunnels and dual carriage motorways can be seen in London under the Thames river and in Netherlands near the Rotterdam port under the Maas river. Ships pass through both the rivers and the channel tunnels have been constructed about 60-70 metres below the riverbed so that ship movements through the shipping channel are left undisturbed.
In the English Channel in the North Sea, a rail channel tunnel has been built under the sea connecting Dover in the United Kingdom with Calais in Northern France, over a distance of 50.5 km. At the lowest point, this underground tunnel is 75 metres deep. The undersea portion of the tunnel itself is 37.9 km. Eurostar passenger trains run through the tunnel at a speed of 160 km per hour and the entire length of 50.5 km is covered in just 35 minutes, whereas a ferry takes about 90 minutes. This Euro tunnel has been in operation for about 21 years, having been commissioned in November 1994.
The most recent construction is the new tunnel in Istanbul in Turkey where work on a 13.6 km undersea passage is in progress. This channel tunnel is 60 metres below the sea bed and, when completed, will link Kazlicesme on Istanbul’s European side with Goztepe on the Asian side. So, the technical feasibility of constructing an underground tunnel across the shipping channel from Vypin to Fort Cochin is beyond doubt. What would be the cost involved? As the distance is very short — less than one km from Vypin to Fort Cochin — the total cost including land acquisition is likely to be less than Rs 1,000 crores. Who will bear the cost? In the construction of the channel tunnel between France and the United Kingdom, neither the French nor the British Government bore the cost of construction. A consortium of private investors from France and the UK invested £4.65 billion on this project with a concession to operate the channel tunnel by charging a fee for the vehicles carried. A channel tunnel at the Vypin-Fort Cochin ferry sector will help passengers cross over the shipping channel safely and securely. A journey from the High court or Marine Drive to Fort Cochin through the Goshri bridges and the channel tunnel will take just 10-12 minutes while it would take an hour to reach Fort Cochin via the congested roads. Tourists, vehicles, public transport operators and regular commuters will find intra-city travel faster, easier and convenient which, in turn, will propel business prospects and promote growth.
The life span of a dual carriage channel tunnel will be about 100 years or even more. The government should view the construction of this tunnel as a social overhead capital to be collectively availed of by the urban and rural population as a permanent national asset and an effective alternative mode of transportation in city limits. The overriding concern of the government should not be the commercial viability of this project but public safety and enhancement of the public transport system and quality of life in Cochin, which has now been included as one of the planned 100 smart cities that are to be developed in India.
It is relevant to point out that in many transportation projects where mass transportation is involved, it is difficult to achieve financial sustainability. The fundamental issue begins with the unique nature and role of transportation, and particularly its function in the life of our nation — one that goes far beyond the immediate direct benefits.
Transportation is an essential part of the fabric of our nation. Transportation has elements of both a public utility and of a private enterprise. It is not a final product. It is an intermediate service. The ultimate value of transportation is not judged of itself but in how well it meets with the needs of the general public. Transportation is geo-political. It binds a nation together. These days it does even more. It binds our nation to its trading partners worldwide.
There is an international container transshipment terminal at Cochin. Even after four years of its existence, the terminal has not been able to achieve its designed capacity. A channel tunnel between Vypin and Fort Cochin, when constructed, will become an important infrastructural facility which will open up opportunities for faster transportation of containers, reducing significantly the distance in hinterland transportation. The Vizhinjam transshipment port project involving an investment of Rs 7,200 crore did not meet with the test of financial sustainability. That is why it did not attract any bidders despite being advertised thrice. When the Government of Kerala stepped in with public funds and the Government of India offered viability funding to the project, with 20 per cent of the project cost, then, finally, a private investor showed interest in taking up the Vizhinjam project.
A recent report suggests that Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe discussed with Nitin Gadkari, India’s Shipping Minister, a project to link Thalaimannar in Sri Lanka with Dhanushkodi in India through an undersea channel tunnel over a distance of 22 km, involving an investment of Rs 33,000 crores. The report further states that the Asian Development Bank has promised financial support to the project.
As in the case of the Cochin Metro, if the state government can entrust this work to DMRC under the overall control and supervision of Dr E Sreedharan, a channel tunnel between Vypin and Cochin could become a reality within a period of three years.
The author is an Adjunct Professor of Indian Maritime Universities, Chennai.