The Union Ministry of Shipping will host a crucial meeting in Delhi on Thursday to decide the fate of the Ghoga-Dahej Ro-Ro ferry service that was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October 2017. The ferry operations across the Gulf of Khambhat are yet to begin after it was suspended four months ago.
A four-fold rise in dredging costs and “unforeseen” amount of siltation caused by the river Narmada in the Gulf of Khambhat are cited as reasons by the Gujarat government, which wants the Centre to take charge of the project where issues surrounding dredging have caused the Ro-Ro ferry to break down four times within a period of 12 months.
The ambitious service was meant to opitimise use of the sea route and cut down an eight-hour road trip between the ports of Ghogha in Bhavnagar district and Dahej in Bharuch district to nearly an hour. The ferry was meant to provide an easy and cheaper option to businessmen and workers travelling between Bhavnagar and Surat for livelihoods.
“The Centre has called for a meeting on February 13… We have told the Government of India that this project is creating a lot of difficulties for us in terms of dredging and other issues. We have asked them to take over all the assets. We are bleeding and so is the (ferry) operator,” said Mukesh Kumar, vice-chairman and CEO of Gujarat Maritime Board, a maritime board of the state government that is managing the project and carries the onus of dredging the navigational channels for the ferry at both Ghogha terminal in Bhavnagar district and Dahej in Bharuch.
The ferry operator, Indigo Seaways Pvt Ltd, has two ferries — Island Jade and Voyage Symphony — which is being used by the operator to bridge the 31 kilometres between Ghogha and Dahej through the sea. The land route between the two destinations takes about 8 hours to cover 360 kilometres. While Island Jade, which was brought from Singapore to launch the Ro-Ro service in October 2017 ahead of the Gujarat assembly elections, has been put out for sale, Voyage Symphony, which began operations in October 2018, is idling at the Ghoga terminal. The ferry operator is incurring a loss of Rs 17 lakh per day.
In January, the state government wrote to the Centre asking it to take over the project that came to a standstill since September 24, 2019. “The meeting is happening at the highest level. There will be experts around and we have contemplated a couple of options that are not mature enough right now,” said Kumar, without revealing the state’s options.
When asked why the state government wants to give up the project, Kumar said, “Because we are not able to handle the situation. Things are changing dramatically out there (in the Gulf). This kind of maritime dynamics was not forecast earlier. That is why force majeure clause was invoked (a fortnight after the suspension of ferry service). We did not expect this kind of siltation to happen in the navigational channels,” he added. The problem of siltation is the highest at the Dahej terminal, which is sitting on the mouth of the Narmada river.
“The Narmada dam had overflown after six years (last monsoon). The quantum of silt it will bring was not forecasted. The overflow to the tune of 9-10 lakh cusecs (cubic meter per second) and siltation changed the maritime conditions. The currents (in the Gulf of Khambhat) have changed course in the last three months and the siltation patterns have also changed,” said Kumar.
Rising cost of dredging is cited as one of the major reasons causing the project to bleed. “We had estimated almost Rs 20 crore of maintenance dredging to happen in a year. This year alone, we have spent more than Rs 90 crore and we are still spending,” Kumar said. GMB had employed dredgers of the Adani Port and Special Economic Zone Ltd (APSEZ) for many of the dredging campaigns.
Indigo Seaways, which will be participating in the meeting in Delhi on Thursday, pointed out that the dredging needs to be done on a daily basis as there was a siltation to the tune of 15-20 thousand cubic metre at Dahej and Ghogha.
“After GMB ended its last dredging campaign, they gave us sounding charts on January 16, 2020, which showed a draft of five metres and less in the turning circle at Dahej. Our survey carried just a couple of days later showed that the draft at the turning circle at Dahej was just around three metres. There were also shallow patches of 3.5 metres in the navigational channels. Did so much of siltation happen so quickly?,” an official from the Surat-based firm said requesting anonymity.
When asked if a lack of “deep-sea disposal” of dredged material, as suggested by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), had added to the dredging woes of the GMB, Kumar said, “I am yet to get a complaint stating that deep sea disposal was not happening as per the EC.” The CRZ clearance for the construction and operation of Ro-Ro ferry service terminals at Ghogha and Dahej were received on June 14, 2010. In an amendment to the CRZ clearance issued to Gujarat Maritime Board on September 6, 2013, the MoEF decided to dispose the dredged material in to deep sea at three locations.
The ministry stated that the disposal should be carried out at depths of 25 metres or more and it should be carried out in ebb tides ensuring that the water quality of Narmada estuary mouth is not affected.
GMB officials said on condition of anonymity that studies had forewarned that the Gulf of Khambat covering Gogha and Dahej has high degree of siltation that lasts for fairly long periods from June to mid-September. The same study also stated that if GMB retained dredging operations in the project, then “there could be a situation in the future where ferry operation comes to a standstill due to GMB being unable to maintain the required draft in the channel”.
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