Prime Minister Narendra Modi Sunday virtually inaugurated the Ghogha-Hazira Ro-Pax ferry service in Gujarat. This will be the second such ferry service to be launched by the PM after the Ghogha-Dahej route three years ago, which is now dysfunctional.
What is different about the Ghogha-Hazira RoPax ferry service?
Both the services were launched to bridge the Gulf of Khambhat by providing a sea route to large number of passengers travelling to and fro between Bhavnagar located on the western side of the Gulf and South Gujarat on the east. The sea route would be shorter compared to the road.
The ferry between Ghogha — a fishing hamlet and an old port — and Hazira — a commercial greenfield port — which will be virtually inaugurated by PM Modi, is about 60 km-long and provides easier access to the city of Surat. Via land, the route is about 400 km. In comparison, the first ferry route inaugurated by PM Modi in October 2017, connects Ghogha to Dahej which lies near the mouth of Narmada river, north to Hazira. This route is about 32 kilometers and connects the Dahej PCPIR and Bharuch town.
Over Rs 650 crore has been spent in building the connectivity for RoPax ferry between Ghogha and Dahej. For the second route, the terminal at Hazira has been given on lease for 11 months by Adani Hazira Port Pvt Ltd for Re 1 per month.
The Ghogha-Dahej ferry service
While the Ghogha-Dahej ferry service has been on the drawing boards since 1995, the CRZ or the Costal Regulation Zone clearance for construction and operation of the RO-RO ferry service terminals at Ghogha and Dahej were received on June 14, 2010. The project began in 2012, when the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi performed the “Bhoomi Pujan” of the project at Ghogha in Bhavnagar district. The project was awarded to Essar Projects Ltd and it was to be completed in 15 months. The project was, however, commissioned only in October 2017 when Prime Minister Modi rode the “Island Jade” ferry which could carry only passengers between the two destinations. PM Modi, in his speech, pointed out how the sea route would benefit 12,000 people — most of whom are connected with the diamond business in Surat — who travel daily between Saurashtra and South Gujarat and the 5000 vehicles that ply between the two regions. Currently this passenger ferry is beached at the Dahej terminal in a state of decay after the Surat-based ferry operator Indigo Seaways Pvt Ltd put it up for sale in November last year but failed to find buyers.
In October 2018, meanwhile, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani inaugurated a new Ro-Pax vessel “Voyage Symphony” that was procured from South Korea by the Surat-based ferry operator. This ferry replaced Island Jade on the Ghogha-Dahej route.
Between October 2018 and September 2019 —-when the ferry operations were suspended —- it had transported 2.8 lakh passengers, 45000 cars, 12500 trucks and 26000 two wheelers between Ghogha and Dahej. Within this one year, the vessel had also broken down three times. The ferry operator tried restarting operations in a curtailed manner in February 2020, but it came to a complete standstill after the Covid-19 lockdown was announced.
What went wrong for Voyage Symphony
The problems of navigating at low depths in the Gulf of Khambhat was evident early on when on November 21, 2018 — just a month after CM Rupani launched the new ferry— the RoPax vessel carrying over 400 passengers got stuck mid-sea for two hours, after the engines overheated and alarms were sounded.
The ferry had to be tugged to the nearest Ghogha terminal. Two more breakdowns happened the following year in 2019 which the operator said was due to inadequate depth in the navigational channel and turning circle at Dahej. The vessel operator said they were promised a draft of five meters at chart datum (lowest of low level) for operating the vessel by the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) which was the agency spearheading the project and was in charge of dredging or deepening the sea floor for operating the vessel. However, the drafts that were available was just a little over three meters which was inadequate as per the service operators as the propeller blades ran too close to the seabed and the resulting vibrations damaged the parts of the vessel.
Why was the Ghogha-Dahej service suspended in September 2019?
Announcing the suspension of ferry service on September 24, 2019, GMB issued a statement that four to six lakh cusecs of water discharged from the Narmada dam had “resulted in heavy and unexpected siltation in the navigation channel at Dahej Ro-Ro terminal. ”The water level at this terminal has decreased to just one metre which was “not safe for ferry operations,” the statement added. GMB also invoked the force majeure clause (unforeseeable circumstances that prevent fulfilment of contract). 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
Studies carried out for the project in the past had forewarned that the Gulf of Khambhat (where rivers Mahisagar, Sabarmati and Narmada drain) have a high degree of siltation that last for a fairly long period of three months from June to mid-September. The same study also cautioned that if GMB took the onus of dredging operations in the project, then “there could be a situation in the future where ferry operations come to a standstill due to GMB being unable to maintain the required draft in the channel.”
What transpired after the ferry services were suspended?
Earlier in January 2020, Gujarat Maritime Board wrote to the Centre giving up the project saying the dredging costs had increased four times and was making the project bleed and it wanted the Centre to take over the project. GMB had spent close to Rs 250 crore in capital dredging and four maintenance dredging campaigns on the Ghogha-Dahej route.
Meanwhile, hit by losses due to suspension of services the ferry operator had filed for a Rs 200 crore arbitration against GMB. The first hearing on the matter is expected to be held later this month.
In February 2020, a high level meeting chaired by Union Shipping Minister Mansukh Mandaviya decided to form an empowered committee for restarting the ROPAX ferry service on the Ghogha-Dahej route. After the Union government’s intervention, the ferry operator decided to restart operations in high-tide and curtailed it to just one round trip a day instead of the usual two trips. However, after running 46 single trips for 25 days, the ferry service came to a standstill after the Covid lockdown was announced.
It was at this time that the Deendayal Port Trust (formerly Kandla Port Trust) under the Centre, floated a tender to start a new Ghogha-Hazira RoPax ferry route. The terminal was taken on lease from the Adani Hazira Port Pvt Ltd. The Hazira terminal has a draft of 5.5 meters and the onus of dredging is now with the terminal operator.
Will the Ghogha-Dahej route continue to function after the launch of the Ghogha-Hazira route?
Earlier this month, while replying to a question on the fate of Ghogha-Dahej route, Union Shipping Minister Mandaviya said at a press conference that “the draft was not enough to operate a Ro-Ro at Dahej” adding that the government would run a “small ferry”. Sources, however, say the state government will continue to keep the route alive even at a loss.
Indigo Seaways — an arm of Surat-based Detox Group — which was the firm providing the ferry connectivity on Ghogha-Dahej route has been roped in for the Ghogha-Hazira route. On November 5, Voyage Symphony, the same vessel that operated last on the Ghogha-Dahej route, arrived at Hazira for the launch on November 8. A tripartite agreement involving the ferry operator, Deendayal Port Trust and Gujarat Maritime Board has been signed for the ferry operations on the new route.
(With inputs from Parimal Dabhi)
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