On the morning of September 27, there was more than usual activity at Cochin (Kochi’s former name) Port. The Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari and port authorities waited impatiently for the 177-metre-long MV Dresden to dock at the pier. She had left from Ennore in Tamil Nadu earlier still with a consignment of 345 cars of different brands for Kochi.
This was a first for India’s automobile industry. Up until then, car manufacturing hubs such as Gujarat, Haryana and Tamil Nadu transported products to their distributors solely by road. This has created an inconvenient delay in moving consignments from factories to car showrooms in Kerala’s port city. The eventual, long-term goal is to largely employ ships for such deliveries, thus reducing dependence on car carrier trucks.
Besides, the state’s poor infrastructure that continues into Kochi has been another snag in not only timely deliveries, but also in winning interests of foreign investors. On first look, pothole-ridden roads glare at you as soon as you drive into the city through narrow thoroughfares, unplanned junctions, pedestrians crossing at random for the lack of functional footpaths, and stout commercial and residential buildings that appear to be arranged in no particular order.
Kochi looks far from a tier-II city and more like an expanding town. Acknowledging the urgency in reviving the state’s infrastructure, in July, Kerala’s finance minister, TM Thomas Isaac, made public an anti-recession investment package of `12,000 crore exclusively for Kerala’s infrastructure projects.
ON THE ROAD
I got a sense of the magnitude of Kochi’s automobile industry while driving from the city towards its outskirts. There isn’t any dearth of auto-mechanic workshops and tyre repair huts. From what I observed, there were more than usual businesses for the automobile aftermarket, enough to be noticed as out of the ordinary.
It all comes together when on Kochi’s periphery, the workshops reduce in numbers. In their place are two-storey standalone buildings, exclusive dealers each of Maruti Suzuki, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volkswagen, Harley Davidson, Royal Enfield and so on. They pretty much were my view for most part of the drive exiting the city.
Kerala alone sells anywhere from 1,50,000 to 1,80,000 units of cars annually with Kochi at its fulcrum. Cochin Port’s authorities say, “Car handling in adequate volumes [by ship] could be a steady source of income of about `3 to `6 crore per annum to the port [Kochi] in addition to the significant contribution in environmental safety by eliminating thousands of trucks from the road and the resultant [carbon] emission savings.”
To encourage transport by sea, the Ministry of Shipping has imposed an 80 per cent discount for two years on vessel-related and cargo-related charges for coastal transportation through Ro-Ro (roll-on-roll- off) ships such as MV Dresden. This one is limited to cars though.
Other ships that dock there transport crude oil, phosphoric acid, methanol, cement, coal, river-sand, defence cargo, machinery, and iron and steel amongst others. In 2014-15 alone, Cochin Port received 1,476 vessels, about a 17 per cent rise from 2005-06; and for 2015-16, it has computed the total cargo traffic handled at 2,20,98,308 units (cargo-carrying water vessels).
In fact, the trading harbour has been a portal for the city’s and even the state’s economy much before it was formally built in 1928. Situated on the coast and due to favourable weather conditions, it naturally took the form of a port through which it traded homegrown spices with the Romans, Greeks and Arabs in the 14th century.
It was in the late 1800s when the British decided to give Cochin Port a modern uplift. At the time, the major concern was destroying the beauty, flora and fauna of the abutting Vembanad Lake. Thankfully, carefully researched engineering methods in building the port didn’t cause any irreparable damage.
Vembanad Lake is an ideal site for fishing and shrimp farming, has one of the largest populations of waterfowl in India, and is the longest in the country at 96.5km with a surface area of 2,033 square kilometres — five per cent of Kerala’s total surface area, which is of a modest size to begin with.
Tourists flock there year-round to explore its beautiful mangroves, cruise the serene waters, spot bird species, and catch a glimpse of the lifestyles of people dwelling on and around Vembanad. When on such a cruise, one can see entire villages on narrow strips of reclaimed land on its waters. The front and back windows of the one-level cement homes overlook the backwaters and the Arabian Sea in the distance. Fishermen need to simply paddle to the deeper part of the lake or into the sea (two hours at the most from their shop) to replenish their stock.
I, like the locals, haggled with a fisherman from my boat as he docked his vessel, filled with a fresh batch of crabs caught only minutes earlier. What amused me most were school-boats ferrying children across the lake. It made me realise that an entire settlement is supported by the lake and its banks. Their lives are built on the water — quite literally.
Vembanad supports over 1.6 million people. Their livelihoods rely on rice cultivation, fishing, prawn and shrimp farming, and irrigation. Of Kerala’s 14 districts three (Alappuzha, Kottayam, and Ernakulam) are largely dependent on Vembanad and its marine life apart from its water supply.
Kochi, part of the Ernakulam district, contributes heavily to the state’s fishing activities. Here is how: to support rice farming around Vembanad that lies below sea level, the Thannermukkom Salt Water Barrier was built in 1974. It divides the lake into two — one with brackish water from the Arabian Sea, and the other with fresh water from rivers that flow into the lake. Open for around six months a year, the barrier controls salinity of Vembanad from the Sea, and keeps water levels in check. While it helps the paddy fields that thrive on fresh water, it has disrupted the breeding cycle of fish and hence, fishing activities on the “less saline” side of the lake.
Kochi lies on the path that connects Vembanad Lake to the Arabian Sea, thus being important for the state’s fishing industry as trawling is more prolific there than on other parts of the lake. Emphasising on the state’s significance for India’s fishing industry, a spokesperson of Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation says, “Kerala’s coastline, considered as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)* comprises almost 10 per cent of the total shoreline of India. No wonder then that this state is the leading marine fish producer of the country contributing over 25 per cent of the total annual output.”
Besides, two of India’s three primary fishery research institutes lie in and near Kochi, which speaks volumes of its knowledge in the field: Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute is in Kochi, nd Central Institute of Fisheries Technology is at Willingdon Island near Kochi.
The Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) of India has reported the country’s seafood exports in 2015-16 to be 9,45,892 tonnes worth US$4.7 billion. Kochi alone accounts for one-third of this number, its port acting as a passage from Kerala to the world. Frozen shrimp, its flagship product, as per MPEDA, makes up 70 per cent of this total seafood export. This year, India’s aquaculture shrimp production has touched 5,50,000 tonnes for international and national consumption, an all-time high for the industry.
Fishery and auxiliary businesses aren’t Kochi’s strongest points though. Amongst its many industries, which make it Kerala’s commercial hub, Kochi’s shipbuilding scores the highest — trumping Cochin Port too.
Government-owned Cochin Shipyard (CSL) is the only one in India that can build up to 1,10,000 DWT of various boat types such as tankers, bulk carriers, port craft, passenger vessels and so on. It is also the only shipyard in India which can repair ships up to 1,25,000 DWT, including Air Defence Ships.
During the financial year ending on March 31, 2016, the company reported a turnover of `1,995 crore (provisional). Speaking on the future of CSL in shipbuilding and repairs, its chairman, Cmde K Subramaniam announced last year: “Ship repair is an area where there is immense potential of future growth in India. Considering the dearth of sufficient repair facilities for the growing fleet [in India], the company has taken on lease about 42 acres of land at Cochin Port Trust for 30 years in order to set up a modern ship repair facility. The facilities envisaged include a 6,000 tonne ship-lift, transfer system and allied facilities. It would be a dedicated facility for the repair of small and medium sized ships, whereas the main yard could continue to concentrate on larger vessel repairs.” CSL is also building a 310- by 75/60-metre dry dock within its premises in Kochi.
Kochi has much potential to earn Kerala a handsome income. A report by World Bank Group: Doing Business, ranks it at the 16th position amongst 17 Indian states for starting up a business, but fifth for trading across borders — thanks to its port.
Kerala’s beauty has already put Kochi on the world’s tourism map. Further development of its infrastructure promises more foreign investments. The future definitely looks bright for this blossoming metropolis, which explains its status as one of India’s smart cities that will be worked on to push the country forward economically.
WHERE TO EAT
Oceanos is the restaurant that looks like a typical Cochin home in Fort Kochi. The food isn’t very different from traditional fare either. The eatery that sees more locals than tourists, also serves Indo-Portuguese, Italian, and Portuguese dishes. You mustn’t forget to order the Meen Peera Pattichathu, a dish that is often the first suggestion when asked for Keralite food. It’s a fish curry cooked with coconut and regional masalas — if you aren’t accustomed to spicy food, you may want to inform your server of that. Open 10am to 10:30pm; tel: +91 (484) 2218222; Elphinstone Residency, Beach Road, Fort Kochi
Rice N Fish believes in serving fresh, healthy food, which means no unnecessary use of oil unless required. Its tagline reads, “add fish to your dish”, but extends its menu to molluscs and other varieties of seafood too. The crab masala is a chilli preparation that is quintessential to Kerala. The shell is cracked just enough to have the seasoning penetrate the meat, but not overtake its natural flavour. Order a portion of Indian bread to eat the dried gravy and mask its spiciness. Open 10am to 11pm; tel: +91 (484) 4014111; ricenfish.com
Nawras sources its produce from local farms, fishermen and markets. Each day it buys just enough seafood to last the day. Its speciality is age-old recipes passed down by generations. The restaurant also prepares modern dishes for those who wish to experiment. Charcoal grilled prawns on the menu are exceptionally tasty — they’re priced as per their weight. A couple of these prawns accompanied by salad should be enough for a filling meal. You may even ask your server to bring the fish to your table so you have an idea of its size. Open noon to midnight; tel: +91 (484) 4044199; nawrasrestaurant.com
WHAT TO SEE
Kerala Folklore Museum
All items displayed within have been single-handedly collected by George Thaliath, the museum’s owner. The artefacts aren’t arranged in an orderly manner, which gives the rooms a cluttered appearance or even that of a thrift store. Labels say little about what you’re looking at, so if you visit, it’s only because you’re charmed by anything antique. However, the collection is an impressive one and a good example of the arts from South India. Open 9:30am-6pm; tel: +91 (484) 2665452; keralafolkloremuseum.org
It is a locality in Kochi, known for its marketplace. Locals sell affordable and cheap souvenirs, handicrafts, spices, and more. Views of the lake make it a scenic walk in the evenings. One can spend an afternoon sampling delicacies from street carts and humble restaurants, and haggling with shop owners for items unique to the region.
The first prayer in the synagogue was recited in
1567 and has since been served by the Cochin Jewish community residing there. One space is an exhibit with gold crowns received as gifts, Belgian glass chandeliers, and tenth century copper plates to name a few. The floor is fitted with 18th century, hand-painted porcelain tiles. Open 10am-1pm, 3pm-5pm; tel: +91 (484) 2350300; Synagogue Lane, Jew Town, Kappalandimukku, Mattancherry
The palace was actually built by the Portuguese in 1555. It was a gift for King Veera Kerala Varma, in a bid tostart business relations with his kingdom. The Dutch arrived there much later. They gave it their name after conducting renovation and repair work on the building. The royalty of Kochi used it to conduct ceremonies, for coronation, and to hold important meetings. The floor is covered with a hardened mixture of burnt coconut shells, lime, plant juices and egg-whites. The rooms have beautiful mural paintings and antique pieces from that period. Open 9:45am-1pm, 2pm-4:45pm; tel: +91 (484) 6068716; Mattancherry
It has the largest bird sanctuary in the state, spread across 14 acres. One can spot egrets, darters, herons, teals, waterfowl, cuckoo, wild duck and migratory birds like the Siberian stork there. Mangroves can be seen in abundance too and a boat ride on Vembanad Lake is a serene one to say the least.
Drive time from Kochi: one hour, thirty minutes
The hill station is a confluence of three mountain streams — Mudrapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala. Amongst the flora in the surrounding forests of the hills, grows neelakurinji — a blue flower that carpets the slopes once every 12 years. The next phenomenon can be witnessed in 2018. Visitors can set base in Munnar and explore the neighbouring wildlife park, Anamudi Peak for trekking, Mattupetty for boat rides, and the tea museum within a tea plantation.
Drive time from Kochi: four hours
The beach destination is still being explored for its beauty and clear waters. Varkala Beach is known for its natural springs and the medicinal properties that it holds. An entire fishermen’s colony is located there, and if you visit in the mornings, you can buy the fresh (literally) catch of the day. The coastal stretch is also home to a 2,000-year old Vishnu Temple, and an equally old Janardhanaswamy Temple.
Drive time from Kochi: four hours