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Bengal floats cheap and safe mechanised steel boats


They are way different from the regular oval-shaped, round-bottom motorised country boats, retrofitted with genset engines, which dominate the passenger ferry landscape.

At the century-old Shalimar Works, on the banks of the Ganga, stand the new twin-engine vessels. Steel bodied, squarish, flat-bottomed and mechanised, each costs 25-32 lakh (for 60-80 passengers capacity). In contrast, a motorised country boat costs 10 lakh, and a river launch up to 1.5 crore.

These are, however, just prototypes to get corporates interested to the uncharted territory of boat-making for the common people, scores of whom are killed in ferry accidents every year.

According to a report in a public information portal, more than 10,000 people died in boat accidents over the last 15 years. On an average, over 500 mishaps happen every year, killing 700. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar account for half of the fatalities.

Motorised country boats are the No 1 culprit for this death toll. They do not have a reverse gear. To park at a landing, the driver switches off the engine and turns the prow against the water flow. The manoeuvre often turn s fatal, as it displaces the passenger weight to one side.

However, they are extremely popular with ferry operators due to the low cost. There is no account of their number across the country, but West Bengal has nearly 15,000.

‘Golden opportunity’ - The State government is now keen to do away with unsafe boats. Irked by a series of ferry accidents last year, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ordered a low-cost solution. The State Transport Department entrusted Shalimar Works the job. The design was ready in a year. The introductory order for 160 boats was placed with seven private manufacturers in May.

Initially, the State will procure boats and offer them on lease to operators. A parallel 1-lakh subsidy scheme is launched to encourage private ownership of such boats.

Corporates look at the initiative with great interest for many reasons. Large engineering outfits like Titagarh Group, which has just begun manufacturing specialised vehicles for the Navy, picked up orders for 40 boats.

But that’s not all. Commercial manufacturing may also open new pastures for engine and gearbox makers (like Kirloskar, Escorts, Ashok Leyland, etc).

“These boats will run at a maximum speed of six knots (11 km per hour) and necessary gears are not easily available in the market,” said Somdev Chatterjee, Managing Director, Shamilar.

‘Perfect design’ - But how suitable are these boats for the local conditions? Over the last one year, Chatterjee held numerous meetings with boatmen at various locations to understand their needs, conditions of local jetty etc, which play important role in designing.

At one such meeting, boatmen insisted on boats that can run in knee-deep water. As per the final design, the mechanised steel boat can run in barely 2.25 ft of water with full load.

Chatterjee said he doesn’t know if it is a unique solution. But there is no reference of such solutions with naval architecture department of IIT- Kharagpur. An alumnus of IIT- Kharagpur, Chatterjee roped in the services of his alma mater and IIT-Chennai to perfect the design.

He is confident that mass production will make the boats more cost-effective.