Kerala has had a rethink on its inland waterways project which it had been soft-pedalling so far, given the views of planners like E Sreedharan that it could cost a humongous Rs 10,000 crore. With the Centre unclogging fund flow for inland waterways, the state government has put the 610-km project connecting its northern and southern parts in the fast lane. Boosting its prospects is the Inland Waterways Authority of India’s (IWAI’s) decision to pick up a majority stake in the Kerala Waterways Infrastructures Ltd (KWIL), the special purpose vehicle that is implementing the Rs 2,300-crore West Coast Canal (WCC) project.
“To ensure speed, the last review meeting saw the deadline for completion of the project being advanced from March, 2020 to December, 2019,” says Paul Antony, the state’s former chief secretary. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who has been closely following progress in the project, had earlier commented, “It’s a dream project to make the entire Kovalam-Kasargod waterway navigable by March, 2020. It would push not just tourism, but also cargo transport.” By a rough estimate, 1,000 tonne of cargo carried by water transport would take over 100 trucks off the state’s roads.
What placed the project on the front burner was Union Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari’s announcement that states need only invest in land for development of river ports, with the Centre taking care of the remaining costs. This was in keeping with his ministry’s push to make Indian products more competitive globally by facilitating water transportation that lowers logistics costs. Logistics account for 18% of costs in India, compared to 8-10% in China and 12-13% in other countries.
To facilitate waterway development, KWIL was set up last year as a JV between the state government and the Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL), with each having 49% equity, and private stakeholders the remaining 2%. After the IWAI offered to pick up equity in the project, the Kerala Cabinet rejigged the equity structure last week, granting IWAI 49% stake in KWIL, with the state government and CIAL holding 26% and 25%, respectively.
The project aims to link 44 rivers and five backwaters in the state. One advantage Kerala enjoys is that the Kollam-Kottapuram stretch (205 km) of the waterway is already ready due to the efforts of IWAI. What has proved challenging, however, is acquisition of land, construction of new canals, linking of critical stretches and resolution of livelihood issues. Work on increasing the depth of the Paravathyputhanar canal in the southern stretch is underway. Canals in the Mahe-Valapattanam stretch have also had to be dredged to connect the 80-km waterway of rivers and backwaters to the northern tip of Kerala. The first phase of the project, linking 11 districts, would create hop-off points at tourist destinations. These are envisaged to attract the hospitality and tourism industry in due course of time.
“For tourism, it would make for an exciting turn. Besides, the slow relaxed boat rides that would leave less carbon footprint, the project would draw attention to historical sites like the Varkala tunnel,” says Jose Dominic, chairman, CGH Group of hotels. The Varkala tunnel was one of the bottlenecks for KWIL which it overcame through the assistance of experts from the Konkan Railway.
“Metroman E Sreedharan is right in the sense that economic returns on the investment would be slow-paced. However, the social returns would be visible sooner, in better air quality and less travelling time, as water cargo unclogs road traffic,” says
G Vijayaraghavan, former member, State Planning Board. A major security takeaway would be of inflammable material like petroleum being transported through the water route, he points out.