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< prev - next > Fisheries KnO 100390_Plywood boats in South India (Printable PDF)
Plywood boats
Practical Action
Just before their first monsoon, in May 1983, the kottarkats were showing signs of 'disease':
the fibreglass tape was giving way, and cracks and leaks were appearing in the hulls. A drop
in new orders was followed by a wave of cancellations. This brought panic. A crisis-
management strategy was adopted to ensure quick repairs of all the affected boats.
An assessment of the situation highlighted the cause: an unanticipated use-pattern. The
fishermen were using 7 horse power outboard1 engines with the full crew sitting at the stern.
The front of the boat was pounded on the waves, causing most of the damage. But the fact
was that quality standards had also been lacking. The initial bad reputation earned as a result
of the faulty craft was more than made up for by the repair campaign. The close interaction
between the boat owners and the BBC Muttom workers during this campaign on questions
regarding craft design, materials, and construction became an important component in the
plans for new models. The crisis was thus turned into an opportunity, which led to design
improvements which would not have materialised so quickly during 'the normal course of
The boat-builders did not realise the strong complementary role played by OHMs in the
diffusion of PWHs. Their target was to replace 20 000 kattumarams, but in actual fact it was
the number of kattumarams (and later canoes) that could be fitted with OHMs which was to
decide the ceiling. In 1983 this number was a mere 200 units. In a sense, therefore, the
diffusion of the OHMs. A single technological breakthrough rarely constitutes a complete
The introduction of new innovations also seems to result in immediate improvements in the
old technologies. As OHMs were adopted much more quickly than the PWBs, the majority of
the fishermen had to attach their new motors to their kattumarams and canoes. The vibration
from the OBM strained the rope-lashed logs of the kattumaram and the coir-stitched canoes,
so the fishermen improved the structure of their craft to reduce the vibration. These changes
spread epidemically, and in one sense reduced the demand for the PWBs. Alternatively, it
may also be seen as a process which smoothed the transition from a traditional technology to
a more modern one.
While this factor may have retarded diffusion, the expectations of profits or larger incomes as
a result of greater investment and better use of capital tended to promote it. An assessment
of the economics of the operation of the plywood boats compared to the motorised and sail-
powered kattumarams was undertaken in 1983. From the study, it was evident that both crew
and owners of PWBs, who had paid 20 to 25 per cent more for their craft, earned
substantially more than the crew and owners of the motorised kattumarams.
The commercial feasibility of using PWBs was thus established by the end of 1984, and
because of liberalised import policies and financial support from banks, OBMs were more
easily available in the market. The result was a sharp increase in the demand for PWBs:
In the first three years of commercial production of the PWBs (1983-85) the order
books showed a consistent range of 25 to 35 orders outstanding, with a waiting time
of about five months.
By mid-1985, SIFFS had established two new boat-yards to meet the growing
demand. This helped meet the local requirements and resulted in product
specialisation between BBC Muttom and SIFFS. Also by 1991, as many as 30 private
facilities were building plywood boats, to meet the runaway demand. (A significant
number of the small entrepreneurs were once workers in the BBC Muttom and SIFFS
yards.) The barriers to setting up a new boat-building venture were minimal. The
technology was simple, with minor requirements for both infrastructure and work
tools. All the raw materials were readily available in the market and did not have to
be purchased in bulk. In good weather a PWB could be built under the shade of
coconut palms on the beach.