Friday, December 14, 2007

Sailing on choppy waters

The boats of the island ferry, off Marine Drive, break down frequently. The passengers are angry over the shoddy service. But driver P. Bhargavan carries on gamely

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night in June, 2003, it was raining heavily. Because of the low visibility, P. Bhargavan, 52, was carefully steering the boat from Poothotta to Panavally. Suddenly, he saw a canoe, with two fishermen, in the path of the boat. The brakes were applied, but it was too late. “The boat rammed into the canoe and hit one man on the chest,” says Bhargavan. “He fell into the water and got entangled in the propeller. He was cut into half.” The body was discovered at Aroor three days later, while his companion managed to swim to safety.

Thereafter, Bhargavan was suspended and it was only after six months that he was reinstated. “I can never forget that incident,” he says. “I have bad dreams often. Sometimes, I wake up with a jerk in the night and remember the scene.”

It is on a sunny Monday morning that Bhargavan is recounting the incident. He is gently steering the boat from Ernakulam towards the Willingdon Island. In his glass-paned cubicle, on top, he sits behind the steering wheel, one hand holding a white thread, which is connected to a bell below. “The other driver sits next to the passengers, and handles the gears and the accelerator.” So, every now and then, Bhargavan rings the bell to tell the driver what to do.

All around, the water looks still, although a closer look reveals tiny waves. At a distance, on the left, you can see the familiar landmarks of the Port Trust office and the Taj Malabar hotel. On the right is the Goshree Bridge, while on the water, there is a dredger, a tourist liner, a container ship, a couple of tourist boats, with the familiar red plastic chairs on the upper deck, and canoes with bare-bodied fishermen. “On other days, you can see tankers, warships, speed boats, and vessels of the Coast Guard and Navy,” says Bhargavan. “It is quite crowded.”

But it is not so crowded that one cannot enjoy the cool breeze that is blowing. On asked which is the most difficult season to work in, Bhargavan says it is during the monsoon. “There are strong waves that hit the boat,” he says. “I have to concentrate very hard to ensure that the boat cuts through the waves cleanly.” When it rains, the glass panes in the cubicle are kept open, because there are no wipers. So, poor Bhargavan gets wet all the time.

Soon, the boat reaches the Willingdon Island Embarkation Jetty. A few people get down and some get on. “The passengers consist of labourers, students, vendors, women, children and people in white collar jobs,” he says. Soon, the boat moves off, on the final run to Vypeen Island.

Bhargavan has been doing this job for 24 years. His shift starts at 3.30 p.m. and ends at 10.15 p.m. Then he spends the night in a rest-room on the jetty and, on the next morning, he starts work at 6.30 a.m. This shift finishes at 1.45 p.m. Then, he has to only join duty the next day at 3.30 p.m. “So, we work for 24 hours, and then get a day off,” he says. In the two shifts, he does a total of 26 trips.

It seems like a comfortable job, far away from the noise and chaos of the city traffic, but Bhargavan has a different take. “I am tired,” he says. “To see water all the time can be depressing.”

What also depresses him and the other drivers is the constant abuse that they get from passengers. “Sometimes, because of mechanical problems, the boat does not work, but the people get angry when this happens,” says P.M. Renjan, 50, the traffic superintendent in charge of the regional office, Ernakulam, of the State Water Transport Department, which runs the ferry service.

G. Vinod, 29, a passenger, says the people get furious because the boats suffer from frequent breakdowns. “To a certain extent, this is true,” says Renjan. The problem is too much bureaucracy. To replace a bolt, which costs Rs 5, a driver has to submit a requisition form, which has to be signed by three officers. “Repair works get delayed because of this,” says Renjan.

There are other frustrations, too. Sometimes, the boat has a mechanical failure in the middle of the backwaters. “There are no walkie talkies to communicate to the authorities that we are stranded,” says Bhargavan. It is only when another boat goes past, that the message is passed that help is needed.

P.V. Prakash, 50, a regular commuter from Fort Kochi, says the department runs the service in a shoddy manner. “They rarely follow a fixed daily schedule,” he says. “If the boat to Mattancherry is not working, the authorities will put the passengers on the Vypeen boat and ask the driver to go to Mattancherry.” The passengers to Vypeen, naturally, will get angry. “This happens almost every day,” says Prakash.

So, what is the solution? “Privatisation is the only way out,” says Prakash. “Unfortunately, I don’t think the department wants to give up its monopoly.” So, the woes of the passengers will continue. As for Bhargavan, just three years away from retirement, he may be beyond caring.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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