Here is an abridged version of the investigative report by Shruti Karthikeyan of the 2010-2011 batch on Kerala's inland waterways was adjudged the best by Manoj K Das, who was at the time Resident Editor of Deccan Chronicle (Kerala).
Shruti Karthikeyan

Development of waterways is trapped in poor planning

A Rs 60 crore project to develop waterways in Kerala is trapped in planning discrepancies, ecological aspects of coastal regulations and financial problems caused by escalation in project costs. Three feeder canals in Kerala were selected for improvement based on the preliminary reports prepared by the Irrigation Department of Kerala. The state government identified Kottayam-Alappuzha canal (23 kilometres), Alappuzha-Changanacherry canal (27 kilometres) and Kottayam-Vaikom canal of 38 kilometres, with the assistance of World Bank-funded scheme. Bhageeratha Engineering Limited based in Kochi was handed over the Rs 60-crore contract on Aug 12, 2003, by the Inland Water Transport Division (IWTD) under the Water Resources Department. The feeder canals project received 80 per cent assistance from the World Bank and 20 per cent from the state government.

It had undertaken the contract for upgradation of feeder canals, dredging, construction of boat jetties, two terminals at Kottayam and Changanacherry and setting up navigational equipment With an inland container terminal set to come up at Kottayam with tourist inflow increasing and Kuttanad’s connection with the outer world depending heavily on these waterways, the project envisaged removal of water hyacinths and other obstructions, strengthening of the canal shores with concrete sheets and stonewalls; deepening of the canals; 116 new wharfs and six new bridges (Illickal, Kanjiram, Thiruvatta, Kidangara, Arpookara and Pulikuttysseri) and 10 walkover bridges. The engineering company started the work on Sept 10, 2003, and the contract was given for two years. But, an investigation done by this reporter found out that there were serious discrepancies in the implementation of this project.

The project was important as the IWT system, like any other form of transportation, caters to the movement of both passengers and cargo. In a surprising case of graft as discovered in a Right To Information response, out of the Rs 60 crore allocated for the project only Rs 16 crore has been utilised. The West Coast Canal is being developed for movement of bulk carriages, the necessity to develop feeder canal system and navigable stretches of rivers from isolated areas to the main artery of water routes has become imperative. Hence, Government of Kerala had undertaken a programme to improve feeder canals and modernisation of boat jetties.

However, by August 2005, Bhageeratha could complete only 12.43 per cent and the contract was terminated on Nov 14, 2005. According to former Member of Legislative Assembly VN Vasavan, the feeder canals pilot project under Phase One was re-tendered and the pending works were handed over by KSTP to Messiers Piltech on Dec 22, 2007. The contract included construction of approach road to Arpookara Road Bridge, Thiruvatta Road Bridge, Boat terminal building at Changanacherry, four steel foot bridges and 12 boat jetties at different locations on the Alappuzha-Kottayam, Alappuzha-Changanacherry and Kottayam-Vaikom routes. The new contract was for Rs 6.5 crore and the deadline for completion was June 2009. Piltech civil contractor CS Abraham said the IWT gave only the remaining work of Phase One to the company. Out of the four steel bridges only Maniyamparambu footbridge is complete and the other three proposed bridges are at Karapuzha, Prapuzha and Pathinaril Chira. Mr Abraham said the work on these three bridges were terminated as the people in these places wanted bridges, which would enable the movement of line boats.

The construction of Kanjiram Bridge and Kottayam Boat Jetty terminal was included in Phase One of the feeder canal pilot project. Construction of Kanjiram Bridge was executed through KSTP and the original proposal was to construct the bridge with the central span of 37m and two land spans of 37m on either side. Bhageeratha Engineering Limited carried out only the piling works of the central span of 37m and left the work incomplete. This bridge connects both the Mallarickal and Kanjiram wards. For 20 years, the Thiruvarppu panchayat officials had been promising the local residents of constructing a concrete bridge connecting both these wards.

Public Works Department (PWD) assistant engineer Bindu Kumar said one reason for the delay in the construction of the bridge is the objection by the Irrigation department citing ecological issues. KSTP had submitted a new estimate of Rs 19 crore to the government, but the contract was finalised for Rs 14 crore and handed over to PWD in December 2010. The construction of this bridge and other works will begin only after the Assembly polls are over, said the PWD engineers. According to Water Resource Minister NK Premachandran, the work on these routes got delayed due to inter-departmental problems. Kottayam IWT engineer Binoy (who uses only one name) refused to comment on the delay.

It is not clear whether all the work will be completed as the remaining amount of Rs 47 crore is likely to have lapsed. A RTI response stated that the remaining amount of the project has been earmarked for different works in Phase One of the project. But, as per information gathered from KSTP and other sources, it is evident there is no remaining work in Phase One. Although waterways is an an economical and ecofriendly way of mass transportation, it is neglected by the government and neither the minister nor government is likely to take the responsibility. During the inauguration of the Kollam-Alappuzha boat service in January, Transport Minister Jose Thettayil said, “We utilise only 20 per cent of our inland navigation potential.” It is the responsibility of the government to strive to develop inland navigationfor the economic and social benefits of Kerala.