SRINAGAR: River transport in the Valley has found mention in several political speeches and official meetings, but has not moved beyond such talk. This, when only a small investment is required, people associated with river transport say.
One of the suggestions put forth is to make small investments in the already existing boats and to engage boatmen in the transport work. Ufair Aijaz Kitab, the managing director of Kashmir Motors, has been running small-scale river transport in the Jhelum since 2012. He told Kashmir Reader that the government could have engaged shikara-wallahs (boatman) by giving them subsidies for pumps that could be fitted to their boats. The scheme “could have set in motions at least 45 boats from Pantha Chowk to Aali Kadal in the downtown,” he said.
Kitab said that between these two points, five floating jetties could be constructed to be used as stations and anchoring points for boats. Besides, the government should have removed the piers in Jhelum where the river flows through the old city, he said. The piers are “very dangerous”, Kitab said, adding that there is no life support as part of standard operating procedure.
“If these three steps were taken, I believe water transport would have been a permanent feature (of city life) today,” he said. “Unfortunately, nothing has happened beyond the official meetings.”
At present, Kitab said, there are only two boats functional in a stretch of 7 kms, operating twice a day, without any floating jetties. He said the journey starts from Ram Munshi Bagh and ends at Khanqah-e-Moula. The journey could have moved beyond but the piers in the river prevent it.
The J&K government began talking of revival of river transport in the early 1990s. Since 1999, the idea was taken up seven times. A project report was made but never utilised, because the agency did not share it with the government – the government had not paid for it.
The government believes that river transport will decongest the city centre from heavy traffic, and will boost tourism. Kitab does not agree with the assessment of decongestion, but concurs with the tourism part. “It has high potential to give employment and boost the economy,” he said. In 2013, he said, he made nearly Rs 18,000 a day from the five boats he operated.
Iftikhar Drabu, a well-known civil engineer who has worked on mega infrastructural projects within and outside Jammu and Kashmir, said that the advantages of river transport are that it is fuel efficient, less expensive compared to construction of new roads, railways or metros, is environment friendly, has less likelihood of accidents, and can be promoted as water sport and tourist attraction.
However, Drabu said, there are disadvantages as well. “If the government runs it, the operation and proper maintenance of boats is at risk, along with the general lack of efficiency associated with a government-run utility. There is also a big question mark whether, after the initial excitement, it will find public acceptability, given that other modes of transport are generally needed,” he said.
Kitab suggested a mode of Public-Private Partnership for the revival of river transport, to make it efficient.
Since July 11, the Department of Tourism has started operation of water transport on the river Jhelum from the Ghat near GPO Srinagar to the Khanqah-e-Moula shrine. The move came following directions by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and Divisional Commissioner (Kashmir) Baseer Ahmed Khan. Previously, transport on this route had yielded little success.
Kitab said the fresh move would also not yield much, because the boats used by the government have high operational costs that cannot be sustained.
“Because we have been engaged in water transport for many years, the divisional commissioner’s office consulted us for its revival. I have submitted the report and am hopeful it will find the light of day,” Kitab said.