Two months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off a Roll-On/Roll-Off (Ro-Ro) ferry in Gujarat, connecting the towns of Ghoga in the Bhavnagar district of Saurashtra and Dahej in the Bharuch district of Southern Gujarat across the Gulf of Khambat. He recently took a seaplane from the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad to the Dharoi Dam in Mehsana.
So what’s special about the Ro-Ro and the seaplane? Aren’t these modes of transport commonly used? Perhaps, but they are ‘unconventional’ on the Indian transport scene.
Ro-Ro, as the name suggests involves vehicles ‘rolling on’ to a larger vehicle at their origin and ‘rolling off’ at their destination. It is sometimes called a rolling highway and is a form of ‘piggyback transport’. The concept is prevalent in the railway sector as well, with a 750-km long system operating along the Konkan Railway between Mumbai and Mangaluru, and one more between the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Vasai around Mumbai.
The distance between Ghoga and Dahej by road is around 300 km and currently takes nearly seven hours. While the condition of the roads is secondary (the lesser said the better), it is time that matters here. The two towns are barely 32 km (17 nautical miles) across the water and is slated to take somewhere around an hour to cover.
Modi took the seaplane from the Sabarmati river to the Dharoi Dam in Mehsana from where he proceeded to the Ambaji temple by road. The reason behind taking the seaplane was simple – the administration refused him permission for a roadshow, and thus, the rest is known to us all. This was the first time that a seaplane took off from the Sabarmati.
Both these modes of transport have existed in India for a while now. However, this is precisely where the problem lies. They just existed. No plans were drawn for their improvement, no schemes were launched to provide connectivity and thus, they were relegated to just being there.
Neither the seaplane nor the Ro-Ro ferry is new. Nor was the ferry in Gujarat the first in India. States such as Jharkhand and Assam have already had a functional system in place for a while. The bus from Kolkata to Dhaka too crosses the Padma via a ferry, although this is in Bangladesh.
In the case of the seaplane, services have been functional across the country for a while. State-run Jal Hans started operating a seaplane service in the Andaman and Nicobar islands in 2011 while Mehair operated one from Juhu in Mumbai to the Pavana Dam in Lonavala in 2014.
But the fact that they have been brought into national spotlight is what matters. For the last three years, Union Shipping and Road Transport Minister, Nitin Gadkari, has spoken at length about water-based transport. While the previous governments did start work on dredging rivers for inland waterways, Gadkari went ahead, declared 111 rivers as national waterways and further went on to overhaul the 100-year old Inland Vessels Act.
For the last 70 years since Independence, our transport infrastructure was nothing to boast about. Even though India has among the densest and relatively efficient railway systems, it is only better than the other modes of transport. That is, until our highways got an overhaul. For a city of its nature, Mumbai, along with its nodes spread out across the mainland, still lacks a proper water based transit system. In contrast, New York and London, cities that the Indian financial capital has often been equated to, have had water-based navigation for decades. Hovercraft services were introduced in the late 1990s but they too folded up due to lack of support. Similarly, there are many parts of the country that would warrant air-based connectivity, even if it is a seasonal demand. Building an airport in these areas would be futile since they would remain a white elephant for most of the time. However, a lake or a reservoir can’t be that far away, can it be? All that a seaplane service would need is a water body with plenty of water in it. While reservoirs are ideal, lakes or rivers can be used too.
Many airports globally feature a seaplane base adjacent to a regular airport, such as Anchorage in Alaska. Even our neighbour Sri Lanka has a water drome attached to the Colombo airport that connects to various other water dromes or seaplane bases across the country.
When India is looking so heavily on building a robust air-based regional connectivity system (UDAN), seaplanes should form an important part of it. When we are looking at reducing the time and costs involved in the cargo and shipment sector, water-based transit needs to be accorded a higher priority.
Two of the country’s busiest airports – Mumbai and Chennai – are located adjacent to rivers – the polluted Mithi and the dry Adyar respectively. If the rivers are cleaned, widened and dredged, they can very well be used as water dromes.
The discussion surrounding both these modes of transport, however, is headed in the wrong direction. While many are questioning whether or not either of these two were the first of its kind, or the fact that the seaplane was in Karachi earlier this month, it is pertinent to remember that all these details are indeed irrelevant.
The relevant questions are not about the past, but the future.
What is the future of our transport system? Will we stick to the age-old conventional modes of transit, or seriously consider the alternative options we have with us?
Srikanth’s interests include public transit, urban management and transportation infrastructure.
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