Thousands of pilgrims and tourists were stranded at Okha port in Devbhoomi Dwarka district as operators of ferry service between Okha and Beyt Dwarka island went on an indefinite strike in protest of an increase in berth hire charges and licence fees by Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) on Friday. However, the ferry services resumed hours later after local authorities assured them of conveying their grievance to the higher levels of the government and exempted them from the higher levies till GMB takes a decision.
Operators of around 160 ferry boats went on an indefinite strike on Thursday, demanding the GMB take back hike in berth hire charges and licence fees notified in March this year. The GMB, a statutory body of the Gujarat government which manages, controls and administers 44 ports along the 1600 km long coastline, had increased berth hire charges from Rs4 per registered gross tonnage (GRT) to Rs94 per GRT, ferry operators associations say. They say that stark increase was not viable against their earning from service and had been therefore protesting against the hike for the last 40 days.
As the ferry operators refused to lift the anchors from either Okha port or from jetties at Beyt Dwarka, thousands of pilgrims, tourists and locals were left stranded at Okha port. Eventually, Dwarka mamlatdar Prashant Muguda and GMB port officer for Okha, Captain Raman held meeting with office-bearers of the three associations of ferry service operators. After the mamlatdar gave the ferry operators a written assurance to look into their demands, the ferry service resumed at around noon. “The ferry boat association and owners of ferry boats have gone on a strike on June 7, 2019 in protest of berth hire charges. The prospect of an impending strike was conveyed to the higher office on June, 6, 2019 via an e-mail and the ferry boat association was intimated that their grievnaces will be reported to the higher levels of government. Nonetheless, they went on a strike on June 7, 2019 and ferry services were suspended, leading to assembly of thousands of pilgrims and locals on the jetty,” mamlatdar Muguda recorded in a note prepared after the meeting..
The mamlatdar further noted that ferry boat service was the only means of travel between Okha and Beyt Dwarka and that locals present on the spot also made oral representations about the need of ferrying water, medicines, milk and other items of daily usage.
After the meeting, the mamlatdar gave a written assurance to the ferry operators that a detailed propsal will be sent to the GMB headquarters over their demand of withdrawing the increased berth hire charges as well as to collect berth hire charges at one landing point only. “Additionally, the association office-bearers and ferry boat owners have agreed to resume ferry boats service after an assurance that they would not pay the existing charges till the time the GMB headquarters takes a decision on the proposal (to revise charges),” the mamlatdar further recorded in the note called rojkam.
A GMB officer in Okha also confirmed that they had assured the ferry boat operators that their complaints would be forwarded to the GMB headquarters in Gandhinagar. “The government, though a gazette notification, had notified hike in berth hire charges and licence fees. But the ferry operators protested saying the hike was too steep and went on strike. We assured them that we shall report whatever their grievance to our headquarters. After that they withdrew the strike and resumed the service,” said the officer.
Fakira Thaim, president of Okha-Beyt Ferry Service Association said the hike was just too sharp. “At Rs4 per GRT, ferry boat owners used to pay around Rs3000 towards berth hire charges per year and around Rs4000 licence fee annually. But the increased charges would shoot these figures up to around Rs1.2 lakh and Rs6000 respectively. This is not justifiable. This increased charges are at par with those for cruise ships and ferry boat operators like us cannot afford. Therefore, we had started protesting against the hike soon after it was notified. We had made even two written representations also. The local officers of GMB were responsive and they asked us to pay charges for a month till the time the issue was sorted out. Boat owners paid Rs6000 to Rs10,000 as berth hire charges for a month but the issue kept on meandering. Therefore, we had no way but to go on strike,” Thaim said.
Thaim further said that the higher port charges were beyond their reach. “Till four months ago, the GMB approved fare for one-way trip was Rs8 only. Now, they have increased the fare to Rs20. However, traffic for ferry service does not remain high barring vacation periods. Therefore, we cannot afford port charges which are as high as for cruise-liners,” he added.
Beyt Dwarka is around 1.6 nautical mile off Okha coast and has population of more than 1500. But it is a major place of religious tourims as it home to the famous temple of Lord Krishna.