Kerala is all set to launch the first water taxi service of the State Water Transport Department (SWTD), from October, giving a new direction to the state's public water transport. To test the service, the state will roll out 10-seater water taxis in the backwaters in Alappuzha district, a key region in Kerala's tourist map, next month.
After conducting feasibility studies last year, the SWTD had placed orders for four boats that can be operated as taxis for public use. This is the first time that the Kerala government is launching such a facility in the city. According to officials, this is also the first such service in India.
"Four boats with advanced safety features will be used as water taxis. Each of the boats costs ₹50 lakh and the construction of the vessels is in the final stage," Shaji V Nair, Director, State Water Transport Department, was quoted as saying by OnManorama.
Officials said that they are planning to conduct an official inauguration on September 28, post which the trips will start next month.
Like regular taxis, commuters can call the 'water taxi' on a specif number, post which the boat will arrive at the destination to transport the passenger. The passengers will be charged on an hourly basis.
"Just like taxis on roads, these boats will be available for the public. They can call on a specific phone number and the boat will pick them up and drop them at their destination. The tariff will be on a per-hour basis and will be reasonable," Shaji was quoted as saying by The Indian Express.
The taxi can carry 10 passengers at a time and has a maximum speed of 15 nautical miles or around 35 Km per hour. Each boat will also have three employees.
"It's a Catamaran diesel-powered boat with comfortable seating capacity for 10 people. It will have a speed of 15 nautical miles per hour and can therefore take commuters quickly to their destinations," the Director added.
What differentiates the 'water taxis' from the regular fleet of the SWTD, which operate on fixed routes, is that these boats will be tethered to a boat station and can be hailed anywhere by the passengers.
Shaji said that the service would take the public to their destinations quickly. He added that the services would be soon extended to the Kuttanad area. Currently, a specially-designed engine imported from Sweden is being fitted on the boats at a yard in Aroor in Alappuzha district.
"People can book the taxi through a special mobile number of the Water Transport Department. The boat will reach the place from where the call is made and take the passengers to their destination," he added.
The boats have been built by Navgathi, a Kochi-based firm, which is also behind India's first solar ferry Aditya. The ferry, that commenced operations three years ago in Kerala's Vembanad backwaters, won the prestigious Gustave Trouve Award for Excellence in Electric Boats and Boating this year.
"The Aditya, from Navalt Boats, is a sun-powered commuter ferry that is one of the great stories of the future of electric marine propulsion," the citation read.
"Every day she makes 22 trips with 75 people on board – that's 580,000 people a year – and the charging cost to top up the batteries is $2.60 – two dollars and sixty cents a day – preventing the burning of 58,000 litres of diesel and saving $ 4,612,000 – $ 65,000 a year," it added.
The awards, instituted in memory of French electrical engineer and pioneer in electric cars and boats Gustave Trouvé, is the world's only such honour given to individuals and companies building and innovating in state-of-the-art electric boats and was handed out for the first time this year.
Aditya won the world's best electric boat award in the category of ferries designed for paid passenger service.
The ferry, which belongs to the Kerala State Water Transport Department, has been plying on the Vaikkom-Thavanakkadavu route in Alappuzha district since January 2017. The main attraction of Aditya is its low operational cost.
Compared to over ₹8,000 required per day for a diesel ferry, Aditya needs just ₹180 per day as energy cost. The ferry is considered to be a game-changer in India's solar-powered boat sector. It is also fitted with ultra-modern facilities like eco-sounder, GPS, hydraulic steering, and automatic pump to remove water from the haul, among others.
Speaking on the occasion, Sandith Thandasherry, founder-CEO of Navgathi, had told The New Indian Express, "It is a proud moment for the state. Aditya was the only ferry from Asia among the 12 vessels from across the globe shortlisted for the award. It entered the finals with five other contestants in the first week of July through public voting. We are thankful to the state government for giving us the opportunity to build Aditya. We are also in the process of making five more Adityas, which will be handed over to the government by the end of this year."
When considered on a fuel perspective, Catamarans are more efficient than usual boats, said Sandith Thandasherry, founder-CEO of Navgathi. Built using fibre, the boats have an efficient design to reduce fuel consumption.
Sandith added that the boats used as 'water taxis' will burn only 30 litres per hour at high speed. Furthermore, the boats also have an advanced electric power steering system along with a solar panel powered auxiliary unit (CIPS), both of which have been developed in-house by the company's research wing.
"A Catamaran has two hulls with a platform. This model enhances safety and stability…in terms of fuel, they (SWTD) preferred diesel. It has a compact diesel outboard engine. Only a few companies produce these in the world," Sandith, a naval architect from IIT Madras said.
"Normally, such boats can be built in three months. But with the process of approval by the Indian Register of Shipping, it takes around six months. It has taken longer now, due to the pandemic," he added.