On September 28, more than 300 Vypeen islanders, mostly women, undertook a night walk at the High Court junction demanding connectivity to the city. The walk was flagged off by actor Anna Ben, a Vypeen resident herself.

Actors Anna Ben, Pauly Valsan and Kailash flag off the Vypeen night walkActors Anna Ben, Pauly Valsan and Kailash flag off the Vypeen night walk. Credit: 24 Web Desk
news Transport Saturday, October 01, 2022 - 12:51

For the Vypeen islands in Kochi, connectivity has been an issue spanning decades. The people of the islands have been organising mass protests for years, which had at one point led to the building of the Goshree bridges in 2004. Taking into consideration their strategic position and natural resources, the islands have since been used for several prestigious development projects like the Vallarpadam Container Terminal and the LNG Terminal. Yet, the needs of the islanders continue to be ignored. Their fight for drinking water took years to gain the authorities’ attention, and problems persisted till as recently as 2016. It was not until 2020 that Kadamakkudi, one of the islands, got a bridge connecting it to the Container Terminal road. Here is a people, now defined by their continued protests for basic necessities, still forced to take to the streets to get what is due to their lot.  

Even today, buses from Vypeen are not allowed to ply beyond the High Court junction in Kochi, and the commuters have to alight here and board a different bus to reach other parts of the city. Giving city permits to buses will mean that the people of Vypeen can cut down on their transport expenses, thus reducing their dependence on private vehicles. Even after 18 years of petitioning various authorities, however, there is no solution in sight for the travails of the islanders.

The most recent protest taken out by the people was on Wednesday, September 28, when more than 300 islanders, mostly women, undertook a night walk at the High Court junction. Organised under the ambit of the Federation of Residents Apex Councils in Goshree Islands (FRAG), the night walk was flagged off by actor Anna Ben. Anna had previously penned an open letter to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, outlining the struggles that the people of Vypeen face due to the absence of a well-connected public transport system.

Speaking to TNM, Anna pointed out that Vypeen was inhabited mostly by working class people who do not wield much power. “This could be the reason why their basic needs like transport and healthcare continue to be neglected,” she said. A Vypeen resident herself, Anna recounted her childhood memories of going to Kochi city on boats. “It took several mishaps for the authorities to finally build the bridges. They tend to wait for something untoward to happen before they bring about any change. I hope they do not do the same with regard to extending bus routes,” she said.

Ensuring connectivity to the city also ushers in better socio-economic conditions for the suburbs, Anna said. “It was after the bridges were built in 2004 that so many shops and commercial establishments were set up in Vypeen. The condition of our roads improved significantly. Students here also got better access to schools and colleges in the city,” she said. But Vypeen’s connectivity prospects shouldn’t end there, she added. “Not everybody works at the High Court. People need to travel further into the city to reach their destinations. Having to board a second bus increases the cost of transport, and drains much of the meagre pay they receive as salespersons or domestic workers.”

Extending bus service to other parts of Kochi was one of the promises in LDF’s election manifesto during the 2016 Assembly election. A full term and another year later, the promise remains unfulfilled. The National Transportation Planning and Research Centre (NATPAC) had conducted a survey and recommended the extension of buses from Vypeen to three locations in the city. Transport Minister Antony Raju was apprised of the developments in a high-level meeting in July, in which he directed officials to take necessary steps to permit mofussil buses to ply on city roads. Yet, there is an inordinate delay in granting the necessary permits, possibly caused by bureaucratic lethargy. “It is distressing that our rallies and protests have not borne fruit yet. As a next step, we plan to bring the issue to the notice of the Chief Minister. We hope to meet with him soon,” Anna said.

On being asked what prompted her to join the people’s protests, Anna said that the issue is very personal to her. “I was born and brought up here, and have grown up hearing about and experiencing the difficulties of not having proper public transport. Beyond political faultlines, this is a very real problem, the solution to which will benefit a large number of islanders.” 

Ever since she was a schoolgirl, Anna has been hearing promises that the issue will be solved soon. Each time they came close to a solution, a new issue would crop up, further delaying the process. “Fortunately, I am now in a position where I can amplify the people’s voices. It is an issue that affects a large number of people, and this is the least I could do to help,” Anna said.  

Anil Plavians, secretary of FRAG, said that Vypeen, Asia’s most densely populated island, supplies a major share of the human resources that runs Kochi city. They constitute a large section of the city’s ‘day population’, but are still treated as secondary citizens. “Apathy from the authorities has prevented Vypeen from fully enjoying the benefits of development,” he added.

Both Anil and Anna agree that women face bigger challenges than men because of the connectivity issue. According to Anil, all major textile shops in the city are barely two stops away from the High Court junction. “These shops mostly employ women from Vypeen as salespersons. A heavy bout of rain will flood the junction, forcing these women to wade through knee-deep water to board the next bus. The women are acutely aware of the injustice they have to suffer, which is why so many of them turned out for the night walk,” he said.

A large section of the commuters from Vypeen are women working in unorganised sectors like retail shops and domestic work in the city. While men may hitch a ride or manage other alternatives to get to their workplaces, the women are left with no choice but to suffer through the inconveniences. They are also forced to spend a significant part of their earnings on transportation charges. 

Actor Pauly Valsan, another Vypeen resident who was among the hundreds of women who took out the night walk on Wednesday, described to TNM the struggles that women, children and the elderly face due to the connectivity problem. “Women above 60 years are among the crowd that travels to the city to work as domestic workers in Kochi’s flats. The biggest hurdle they face is the extra bus fare they have to pay when they board the second bus. It eats into the meagre savings that their job earns them.”

School children who study in the city are forced to take private vehicles and school buses because of the present inconvenience, Pauly said. “Parents prefer any mode of transport other than private buses, no matter how expensive or unaffordable it might be.”

While there is increasing awareness regarding the need for metro cities to strive to be inclusive towards persons with disabilities, inaccessible bus services remain a hurdle for such people from the island, Anil said. “Having to board two buses to reach the General Hospital in Kochi or go to any other destination is a trying ordeal for persons with disabilities. The elderly also face similar difficulties,” he said.

Authorities cite the heavy traffic within city limits as the reason for not granting city permits to mofussil buses from Vypeen; an argument which Anil discredits with the fact that the arrival of the metro rail has reduced the number of private buses plying in Kochi city by about 25%. “Buses from Vypeen will merely replace these buses. In addition to that, private vehicles from the islands will see considerable fall,” he said.

In fact, much celebrated transport projects like metro rail and water metro also fail to address the islanders’ needs, in Anil’s opinion. “Kochi city has reached saturation in terms of development. Now, it needs to expand to the suburbs. Had Vypeen been included in the metro network, a large number of city residents would’ve moved here, thus decongesting the city. Even with the upcoming water metro project, the full potential of the project has not been explored. Vypeen, with an average of one lakh daily commuters of whom 35,000 depend on public transport, has been allotted the same benefits as smaller islands with 10,000 or so commuters,” he added.

Besides, there are no bus services to Vypeen from the city after 9.30 pm, forcing common people to use other expensive means of transport, Anil said. Before the Goshree bridges came, the last boat to the island used to be at 11 pm. Less number of bus services after dusk is a challenge, especially for women, Anna said. “Even when I was in college, I was not able to stay back past 6 pm without being worried about getting a bus back home. The streets and buses would be mostly filled with men by then.” In her opinion, women’s safety is an important yardstick by which to measure the development in a city. “Kochi still has a long way to go to make women feel safe on its streets, especially at night,” she added.

Anil’s words echo the disappointment of a people whose demands have been turned down for close to two decades. “Discussions have been conducted on multiple occasions between the government departments concerned. Yet, the permits continue to be delayed. The government has to show the necessary political will to implement the NATPAC recommendations. Buses should be extended to Thevara, Kakkanad and Vyttila urgently,” he said. Not only will it make commuting accessible for islanders, but buses to the city will also considerably reduce the traffic burden in the city as more islanders will opt for public transport, he added.

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