Kolkata: Let go fore and aft,” bellows Surender Singh, the helmsman of P.T. Shibsagar—a pusher tug, or a vessel used to tow barges—to the deckhands as they struggle to shift a barge from the pier to make way for a Bangladeshi vessel carrying fly ash to set sail.
Singh, who hails from Gopalganj district of Bihar, has been working with Central Inland Water Transport Corp. Ltd, or CIWTC, for the past 36 years, steering tugs and self-propelled carriers from the Chambal, where, he says, the famed dacoits of the area often hitched ride in his vessel, to Assam and West Bengal. But now he spends most of his time at the tea transit shed moorings of the corporation at the Kidderpore docks of Kolkata.
“We want to work, but there’s hardly any work apart from the occasional shunting and shifting of barges or short runs nearby,” says Singh. Many of his colleagues have voluntarily left the company under a separation scheme, but Singh, who lives on the Shibsagar and even has a basil (tulsi) tree planted on the rear deck for his daily prayer, plans to stay on till the end.
Dying out? CIWTC vessels at the corporation’s tea transit shed on the Hoogly river. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Like Singh, the fate of his tug is shrouded in uncertainty. The Yokohama Yacht Co.-built towing vessel, which once muscled its way upstream against the powerful currents of the swollen, rain-fed Brahmaputra, is among 51 of the CIWTC’s 101-strong fleet that the corporation is looking to lease out.
“We had invited proposals from private parties to take these vessels on lease, carry out necessary repairs, renew the requisite documents such as survey certificates and run them with their own crew,” says Commander Praful Tayal, chairman and managing director of CIWTC, sitting in his office on the top floor of a crumbling British Raj-era building in Kolkata’s central business district.
“But unfortunately, we haven’t got any decent proposal and will have to readvertise after revising the reserve price downwards,” says the former navy officer.
Shibsagar, which has lost one of its two massive diesel engines, is symbolic of the condition of the corporation that owns it. The pusher tug cannot undertake regular voyages because it has lost one half of its strength. Its two engines together churned out a 950 horsepower ground but one of them has fallen silent. “We can’t run a vessel of this size on regular voyages with one engine,” says J. Paul, the officer-in-charge, marine operations of CIWTC. “And we can’t repair it because our repair facility was sold off to Garden Reach Shipbuilders (and Engineers Ltd) in 2006 as part of CIWTC’s disinvestment process,” says Paul.
Garden Reach Shipbuilders is a company controlled by the defence ministry. The National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre (led by the Bharatiya Janata Party—India’s government between 1999 and 2004) had initiated the process of CIWTC’s privatization in 2003, but the sale of the ship repair facility was completed during the rule of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, which came to power in 2004.
Yet, Shibsagar’s fate is better than that of other vessels from Yokohama Yacht Co.—P. T. Sarnath and P.T. Saptagram—which aren’t functional anymore and lie anchored somewhere on the Hooghly, their once-in-four-years visit to the dry dock long overdue and the water corroding away their hull. “Some 35 of our vessels are anchored in Triveni (in North 24 Parganas district) with some guards looking over them as most of the crew have retired or left and no replacements recruited,” says Paul. “If something isn’t done fast, some of them may start going to the bottom.”
It’s a sad state of affairs for a company that began its life as the India General Steam Navigation Co. and the River Steam Navigation and Co. in 1844 and 1873, respectively. The two came together to form the Joint Steamer Cos, one of the largest ventures of its kind in the world. “The paddle steamers such as Frere and Nagpore opened up the United Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh) and Assam long before the first train lines were laid,” says Tayal.
The 1965 war between India and Pakistan dealt a body blow to the Joint Steamer Cos, which had been stuttering even before that, with passenger and goods traffic falling, weaned away by the steadily improving road and rail network. “When war broke out scores of vessels were stranded in East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) and the crew, who were mostly from East Pakistan, deserted,” says Tayal. These vessels could not be recovered.
In 1967, CIWTC was founded as a public sector undertaking, but things were already going out of hand. Not only had it lost a huge chunk of its fleet, but till 1971, the hostile situation in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) meant that it could not use the waterways there—primarily the Padma and Meghna rivers—to sail to ports in the North-East, both along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries and in the Barak Valley.
CIWTC played a key role in 1971 India-Pakistan war, which led to the independence of Bangladesh. “We took Indian troops, arms and ammunition to Bangladesh during the 1971 war,” says veteran master Mukti Sadhan Barua, who recalls how the Indian Army fitted light anti-aircraft guns on many of the vessels. “On our way back, we often came loaded with prisoners of war,” remembers Barua, who joined the erstwhile River Steam Navigation and Co. in 1966 and retired from CIWTC 33 years later.
“After the war, the next blow was the construction of the Farakka Barrage on the Ganga,” says Tayal. The barrage not only made navigation to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh difficult, it also opened up the North-East further to road and rail traffic. “Naturally, freight movers started opting for faster means,” says Tayal, “Our vessels would take 20 days to reach Pandu (near Guwahati) and even then we couldn’t give the consignor a guaranteed ETA (arrival time) because the vessels would often run aground in the shallow waters.” Progressive silting of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers, which resulted in reduction of draught, also took a heavy toll on the company. “Earlier we didn’t have so much problem in finding a channel but towards the end of my career, vessels would often run aground,” says Barua.
Even as CIWTC waits for takers for its 51 vessels, there’s a sinking realization that its days are coming to and end.
The firm that had accumulated losses of Rs400 crore written off on 31 March 2006 and which saw a conversion of loan into equity to the tune of Rs120.45 crore, now has accumulated losses of around Rs140 crore. “Our salary bills, amounting to Rs9.32 crore per year, are subsidized by the government while whatever other expenses we incur we try to recoup through our operations, stunted as they are,” says Tayal, who is yet unwilling to give up without a fight.