The mysterious death of India’s coastal and inland shipping

September 15, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (6)



In the late 18th and early 19th centuries opium was transported from Ghazipur to Calcutta by large and heavily fortified fleets of vessels (the progress of one such fleet is described at some length in Sea of Poppies).

The image above is a representation of one such fleet. It is shrunken version of an enormous and dramatic lithograph that can be viewed in the British Library. J.W.S. Macarthur, who superintended the Ghazipore opium factory in the 1860s reproduced the picture, in miniature, in his book Notes On An Opium Factory (Thacker, Spink, Calcutta, 1865). The above image, which is a scan from Macarthur’s book, provides but a poor impression of the original lithograph – yet it will be evident at a glance that many of the vessels in the opium fleet were of great size, fully the equal of  ocean-going sailships.

As it made its way downriver, the opium fleet would stop every night at a river-port. Each of these ports was equipped with the infrastructure to deal with a substantial volume of shipping. Some of these ports, like Chhapra, attracted immigrants from far away (my own family moved from East Bengal to Chhapra in 1856).

Today it is impossible to travel by boat on the Ganga for any distance. Several travel writers, including Eric Newby and Ilija Trojanov have tried and foundered. Trojanov’s Along the Ganges (translated by Ranjit Hoskote and published by Penguin in 2005) is a terrific book, one of the best travelogues of recent times: it leaves no doubt that river traffic on the Ganga has dwindled to a trickle.

In the twelfth century, when Abraham Ben Yiju came to India (as described in In An Antique Land), the towns and villages of the Indian coast were all connected by boat. Ferries and ‘coasters’ would hop along the shoreline, pulling into a new port every night. Such journeys were possible even within living memory. In my childhood there was a ferry that linked Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka. In 1976, when I first traveled to Goa, the Bombay-Goa ferry was still running. I cannot remember why I took a bus instead of the boat but I will forever regret that decision – for in contemporary India ferries are almost as rare as dreadnoughts. Only in the Sundarbans and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands do networks of ferries still exist.

How has this happened? How did it come about that India, with its long coastline and extensive river networks, has so grossly neglected coastal and riverine shipping? Other Asian nations – Indonesia and China for example – have not been so neglectful: both countries possess extensive internal shipping networks. Why has India been so unmindful of what should be a major national asset? Why are Indians unmindful even of their unmindfulness on this score? Why do historians and economists never address this issue?

These questions have perplexed me for a long time, and I had never imagined that my website might one day provide some answers. But so it has: Veeresh Malik, a sailor by profession, has become a regular correspondent of mine through the site’s mailbox. He recently sent me a link to an article of his: How coastal and inland shipping has been allowed to die and what needs to change quickly. Published in an online journal called ‘Moneylife’, it is the best analysis of this issue that I have yet read.

Like many sailors before him, Malik is a fine writer. Here are two paragraphs from the article: “Bimal Roy’s 1963 classic “Bandhini” was just one among many movies of that era that portrayed how river transport, especially paddle wheel steamers (some of them were capable of transporting whole trains across rivers), was an intrinsic part of life in the lower reaches of the Ganges. Bhupen Hazarika’s songs can still be heard-ballads about commerce and trade, as well as human emotions, from river to sea. The Bombay-to-Goa steamers were an important link along the Konkan Coast, and in the 1970s, we could set our clocks by their arrival and departure at Ferry Wharf. Before independence, of course, coastal shipping on routes like Karachi-Saurashtra/Cambay ports-Bombay and further south, all the way to the Malabar coast were well developed. They just don’t exist today.

“It is easy to blame the way the British drew lines on maps, across centuries-old trade routes, and destroyed these, especially water-borne trade. But even with the post-1947 coastline and rivers providing ample opportunity for sea and river cargo by ship, the powers-that-be simply let things die. Road transport, since it does provide better opportunities to earn, prevailed at the cost of what was good for society. The death knell was well and truly sounded when all training and certification moved into English, condemning generations of natural seafarers, as the regulatory and statutory authorities literally killed this form of transport.”

The article is available here.



6 Responses to “The mysterious death of India’s coastal and inland shipping”

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  1. Comment by Rudolph.A.FurtadoSeptember 16, 2011 at 12:27 am   Reply

    As a Sea-farer myself, having sailed both on coastal Indian waters as well as the World’s “Seven seas”, i really found your article extremely informative, addressing a very serious matter. Its really glaringly obvious that India having one of the world’s largest coast-line has a minuscule “Passenger coastal traffic” unlike most coastal country’s.

  2. Comment by suresh — September 16, 2011 at 2:24 pm   Reply

    I am from Chennai and all my life, the Buckingham canal has been a smelly sewer mostly black in colour but occasionally coming up with unexpected colours like dirty pink. I was quite surprised to learn from my aunt that in the 1930s, it was actually green. Even more surprising, I came across an old government newsreel from the early 1950s which showed boats unloading cargo on the Buckingham canal. This was in the context of plans to develop the canal further. Somewhere, for reasons unknown, those plans got shelved. It is sad to see the state of the canal now. The stupid — I would say criminal — “flying rail” project has finished it off, I am afraid.

    A side note: The Films Division of the Government of India has put many of the newsreels titled “Indian News Review” online. You can find it here. I have only browsed a few of them. I found it amusing that some of the early ones has the narrator adopting a BBC accent. May be it was a Britisher. (Since the BBC accent itself has changed, I should mention that this is the accent that you hear when hearing BBC programs from the 1940s or 1950s.)

    • Comment by Amitav Ghosh — September 16, 2011 at 4:19 pm   Reply

      Thanks very much for this. I am reminded of Tolly’s Nullah in Kolkata which functioned as major transportation artery for centuries. Now it is like the canal of your description.

  3. Comment by veeresh malikSeptember 18, 2011 at 8:23 am   Reply

    We spend thousands of crores of public money re-vitalising existing ports while the huge amount of land they own continues to be rented out for a pittance to the high and mighty (ever wondered how much rent the Taj Mahal Hotel in South Bombay as well as the whorehouse in Central Bombay pay and to whom? Or any of the old school old tie old money sirdars pay for sitting on properties in any of the major port cities of India?) and despite this, there is absolutely no attention given to coastal passenger and cargo shipping.

    Some days I try to gather the experiences I have had, and am able to place exactly which super minority community or sub-group in which major old timer port city of India was given the keys to the kingdom by the departing British – and then I manage to go to their homes, their palaces, and see the British lions resting there. Still. Waiting.

    Karachi, Bombay, Cochin, Madras, Calcutta and maybe Chittagong – each of them had their dominant non-local ancestry communities and post 1947, I would say that those in Karachi, Bombay and Cochin have managed to retain control while the baton has passed on to others in the other three – though they are loyal to Westminster even today.

    Fits with my other theory – the natives have to be kept insecure and with restricted movements.

    • Comment by Amitav Ghosh — September 19, 2011 at 12:48 pm   Reply

      very interesting! Indian ports are surrounded by such high walls (as in Mumbai) and such secrecy that they are literally black holes to most of us. Hope you will write more about this.

  4. Comment by Veeresh Malik — February 4, 2014 at 6:06 am   Reply

    I’ve quoted this blog, and then therefore my article within this blog, in this article for Indiatimes/Times of India here. Please comment, opine and help imrpove? Many thanks/Veeresh

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