Integrating the Brahmaputra’s innumerable ferries into Assam’s wider transport network
Anyone who has visited Assam cannot help but be struck by the mighty Brahmaputra. The river straddles the state like a colossus, coursing through its heart, and severing it two - the northern and southern banks. During the monsoon, so vast is the river’s expanse - almost 20 km in parts - that you cannot see the other side. So fearsome are its waters that the Brahmaputra is India’s only river with a masculine name; all the others have feminine appellations. Yet, just four bridges, including India’s longest bridge that was recently inaugurated on its tributary the Lohit - and one more under construction - span the state’s entire 900 km stretch of river.
Given this formidable natural barrier, most of Assam’s towns have developed on the river’s southern flank, where the plains are wider. With little connectivity, the northern side remains cut off from the mainstream, and is largely underdeveloped.
What’s more, the small communities living on the river’s hundred or so inhabited islands remain isolated. It can be quite frustrating to see a school or a medical center on the other side and not be able to access it! Only Majuli, the world’s largest riverine island and an administrative district by itself, supports schools and some form of medical facilities for its more than 100,000 residents.
But human ingenuity knows no bounds. Given Assam’s unique lie of land, local communities have found their own solutions to their watery environs. They have crisscrossed the river with innumerable small ferry services that are run by 2,000 odd private operators, often auctioned out by village panchayats.
These ferry services are a veritable lifeline for a large section of Assam’s urban and rural population, transporting men and women, carts and bicycles, paddy and livestock. People use them to travel to work, children to go to school, the sick and ailing to hospital, and farmers to ferry produce to market.
Having become expert navigators, the ferry operators steer through the river’s braided and often raging waters on simple country boats. But once darkness falls, the waters turn silent. It becomes unsafe to cross, not even in a medical emergency; and if you are late in reaching the last ferry, you have to spend the night on the other side. Day to day life becomes tedious, stymying growth and development, and mishaps are common.
So, what is the solution? Can the waters that divide also be used to unite? Can’t Assam’s almost 2,000 km of navigable waterways – the largest in any Indian state – be put to use, providing a cheaper and greener option as an adjunct to roads and bridges? Remember that the Brahmaputra in India’s second largest waterway, being declared as National Waterway Number 2 way back in 1988.
Think about it. What huge potential exists for upgrading these local solutions that have developed indigenously over decades? Imagine reaching Assam’s famous game parks by boat, staying the night on board a floating hotel, and taking the early morning elephant ride to see the famous one-horned rhino.
Imagine too how well-designed water taxis can bypass the perennial traffic jams on Guwahati’s main bridge, completely altering the pattern of urban growth in Assam’s congested state capital. Cities around the world – Istanbul, Hong Kong, and Bangkok to name a few – have shown that enormous benefits can be reaped by integrating water taxis and ferries into a modern transport network. Just think how similar water taxis can enable commuters from Guwahati’s northern bank to cut straight into the heart of the city’s downtown area, opening untold possibilities for city residents and for the regions beyond.
This is precisely what the World Bank-supported Assam Inland Waterways project now seeks to do. The project plans to build on the inherent strengths of Assam’s indigenous ferry systems by modernizing the fleet, improving safety, installing GPS and night navigation facilities, building modern well-lit ferry terminals - with restaurants, shops, toilets, and banking facilities - and promoting last mile connectivity. The overarching idea is to work with nature rather than against it, using local materials and technology.
In this way, the project aims to mainstream water transport in the state and integrate it into the region’s wider transport network. Not least, it will open up a host of new opportunities for Assam’s people, who remain among the poorest in India.