It was half-past one o’clock in the afternoon on August 26, 2015. Just like any other day, MV Bharat, the passenger boat carrying 40 people, was ferrying from Vypin Island in Ernakulam to Fort Kochi, separated by about 600 meters of water where Vembanad Lake opens into the Arabian Sea. Four minutes into the journey, tragedy hit the passengers on board when a speeding fishing boat collided with the passenger boat, killing about 11 people.
On August 26 this year, it will be four years since ‘Fort Kochi Boat tragedy’, as it is known today. Even after all these years and the Kochi Corporation roping in roll on/roll off (RoRo) ferry service in the route, passengers point out that the ferry services have not started in full swing. In addition to passengers, RoRo ferries are used to carry cars and two-wheelers.
“The RoRo ferry vessels are the result of the public outcry following the Fort Kochi boat tragedy. After the 2015 incident, people started pointing out to the unsafe boats, which were years old, and soon the RoRo ferry project was sanctioned. However, the vessels were commissioned only in August 2018, three years after the boat accident,” recalls Majnu Komath, president of Fort Vypin Janakeeya Kutayma, an association that works for the welfare of residents of Vypin.
“Our organisation was even formed solely to press the authorities to provide an alternative ferry service for people plying to and fro Fort Kochi and Vypin Island. This fight has now turned into a herculean task to make this RoRo ferry service function in full swing,” he says.
Days after it was inaugurated in 2018, one of the two RoRo vessels hit a concrete slab at the ferry jetty and damaged its propeller. Though the vessel was repaired in weeks, it had to be stowed away due to lack of trained operators to run the vessel. It finally took about three months for the Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation Corporation (KSINC), which is in-charge of the ferry operation, to train and deploy a new operator who can run the repaired RoRo vessel.
The plight of passengers was not solved with this, as only one of the ferry vessels was operating full time from 6.30 am to 9 pm. The second vessel is operational only between 2 pm and 8 pm. Passengers have since last December been raising demand to deploy the second vessel for full-time service.
“But till date, our demands have gone in vain as KSINC continue to say that they do not have trained operators to make the second vessel run full time,” he says.
Passengers dragged into issue between officials
To add to their plight, the passengers are now caught in the crossfires of a dispute between Kochi Corporation and KSINC over a memorandum of understanding (MoU) or an agreement to run the ferry services in the route.
The ferries have been plying the Vypin-Fort Kochi route based on this MoU. This agreement, however, has expired. According to the officials of KSINC, differences over some clauses in the agreement have been prolonging the process. Now, the two bodies are yet to sign this agreement.
An official from the KSINC spoke to TNM, explaining their disagreement over some clauses. “For instance, there is a clause in the agreement saying KSINC will be liable to a fine of around Rs 7,000 even if one trip per day is cancelled. But we cannot agree to this as only one RoRo vessel is functioning full time, while the other is running for a short duration. This is because of the lack of trained helmsmen (a person who steers the ship). We will be training new people, but since we don’t have a spare RoRo vessel for training, the one in service needs to be taken,” an official of KSINC told TNM.
He also added that the Kochi Corporation has added some new clauses in the agreement.
Responding to this, Kochi Corporation officials told TNM that the new clauses were added to ensure transparency in the service. “Apart from complaints from passengers that both the vessels are not running full time, the Corporation Council members pointed out that the financial estimate that KSINC has submitted so far is not transparent. So, we included a clause that calls for a joint bank account between the Corporation and KSINC. But they have a disagreement over this clause,” said an official of Kochi Corporation.
The official also added that till date, the civic body has not received any share of profit from KSINC. As per the earlier MoU, Kochi Corporation and KSINC have an equal share in the profit of RoRo service.
Some reports also pointed out that in case of accidents, if the agreement is not signed, the insurance company will not compensate for the damage or loss incurred by the vessel.
Meanwhile, Kochi Corporation Opposition leader KJ Antony told TNM that officials of the Corporation should make things clear to the public. “If there is some issue that needs to be sorted out with KSINC, it needs to be discussed in the council and a solution sorted,” he said.
'Shut boat service to recover loss'
Some pointed out that the single boat service, which runs parallel to RoRo, is currently running on loss. The income and expenditure of both the RoRo vessels for the last 10 months (from April 2018 to January 2019) show that the ferry service is only running on a slight profit of Rs 48.51 lakh. Meanwhile, the boat, Fort Queen, plying on the Fort Kochi-Vypin route parallel to the RoRo service, is running at a loss of about Rs 16.38 lakh.
"It was initially decided that boat service will eventually be shut down as RoRo services become fully functional. However, both have not happened. If both the RoRo vessels run full time, the boat service, which is any way at a loss, can be cancelled, and KSINC can recover any losses" says Majnu.