Before the advent of modern transportation in the last century, Kashmir valley’s various towns and villages were connected by water transportation and Jhelum river, which snakes from south to north of the region, served as a super-highway. There is now an attempt to reverse the clock.
A bus boat service has been launched this past week on trial basis on a stretch of river Jhelum in Srinagar with an aim to revive the water transport in the Kashmir valley. A single boat has the capacity to carry 35 passengers, drivers and four rescue operators.
The revival of water transportation is aimed to ease congestion of traffic on surface roads as there has been a phenomenal increase in vehicular population. As per the traffic Police Department, around 80,000 vehicles enter Srinagar on a daily basis in addition to the city’s own vehicle population.
The bus boats have been procured by a private company, Sukhnag Enterprises, as per the instructions of the government. Imran Malik, director of the company, said that the government is taking the steps for the revival of the water transport amid the increase in the vehicular population.
“As of now, it has been launched on a trial basis and we are hopeful that it will prove to be a success,” he said. “Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development corporation (JKTDC) had issued tenders in this regard and we had procured it,” he added.
There are six stops and terminal stations will be at Pantha chowk and Veer Chattabal. Other stops include Peerzo Island, Polo View, Amira Kadal and Khanqah-e-Maula.
Jhelum River, historically, has been an important transport artery for carriage as well as passenger traffic.
“Cargo and passengers, both would use water transport because surface roads were not in place,” Malik said.
He said the water transport system is the cheapest form of transportation and is about 70-80 percent cheaper than the surface transport system.
As the surface roads have become congested, the importance of water transport systems has increased. Every year, there is macadamisation of roads but still the condition of roads is worsening. “But for the water transport system, no roads are required. So, it becomes cheaper.”
In a bid to streamline the every increasing traffic mismanagement, different governments had ordered comprehensive Traffic and Transportation Plans for Srinagar city which include the Srinagar Urban Transport Project 1992 and Comprehensive Mobility Plan (CMP), 2012 by Rail India Technical and Economic Services which included the Srinagar Metro Line, roads redevelopment, Intelligent Traffic Management System.
The officials said that the work on these projects is going on as it takes time to accomplish such big projects. They said that the water transport system is also included in CMP.
As per the Srinagar Master Plan (SMP) 2035, about 36% of urban road space is consumed by private modes (Cars) which share about 30% of the total motorised passenger trips.
On the other hand, public transport using 44% of road space caters to 71% of the total motorised passenger trips in main city areas; however, in the periphery at outer cordon stations, public transport consumes only 13% of the road space while sharing about 70% of the motorised passenger trips.
The buses and minibuses occupying just 8% of the existing road space cater to 32% of the total motorised passenger trips.
“By 2035, the city will have around 5.0 million trips per day,” the SMP 2035 reads.
The cost of maintaining the surface roads is high. To make the roads mortarable, more costs are incurred. “But in case of water, all you have to do is ply a boat onto it,” Malik said.
Malik is of the opinion that the water transport can only be made successful if people get an awareness about it. There are many people who still don’t know how it is more effective, he said. “The government needs to create an awareness program so that more and more people prefer the inland water transport system.”
A failed attempt
An earlier attempt to revive the water transportation had failed badly and there were no formal explanations given or sought to know the reasons behind the failure. That attempt was made in 2017 when Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation (JKTDC) had conducted similar trials with two motorboats and a motor-driven shikara between the Zero Bridge and Zaina Kadal.
The two terminal points had provided an alternate connectivity between the busy commercial neighbourhoods of Srinagar and the populous downtown city.
The trials had begun soon after the then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had asked officials to design steps for reviving water transport on the Jhelum and the lakes such as Dal in Srinagar and Wular in north Kashmir.
The rides did excite the passengers for some time, however, it couldn’t keep them hooked. Some had cited the high fare as the reason for it’s failure. The two boats were also very few to serve as a replacement to passenger transport.
This time, however, the government is hopeful that the water transport system will work. Nisar Ahmad, Managing Director, Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development (JKTD), said that even if it failed in 2017, does not mean that it should be tried again. He said that the facilities are better now as there are more boats this time.
“It is a means of entertainment but also an alternative for surface transport,” he said. “All we can do is try, whether it is a success or a failure, it is a different question.”