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Developing India’s Inland Waterways: A Socio-Economic Revolution in the Making

India is a land of rivers. Its civilisation, livelihood, culture and commerce have evolved along the banks of rivers. Notwithstanding this historical fact, India’s inland waterways, in the modern era, have been largely neglected. Due to a lack of funding and infrastructural lacunae, Indian rivers — once so busy carrying goods and people – had been left unused and/or underutilised with the advent of the railways, thereby undermining their socio-economic potential. Meanwhile, the world-over, waterways — both inland and coastal — have been seen to be given importance as they significantly reduce cargo transportation costs and also the carbon footprint.

Untapped Potential

Although India has a 7,500-km-long coastline, with approximately 14,500 km of navigable waterways, coastal shipping accounts for only 6% and inland water transport for about 0.4% of trade.

In contrast, 60% of goods in India travel by congested roads and 25% via the rail network. This over-dependence on roads results in higher costs, greater emissions and slow delivery of goods.

The World Bank, which is funding a part of India’s inland waterways development effort, estimates that the cost of transport of one tonne of freight over one kilometre of road is Rs 2.28, by rail it is Rs 1.41 and by waterways, it is only Rs 1.19. Therefore, the advantages of using our waterways would appear to be self-evident.

As of now, logistics costs in India account for a high 13-14% of the country’s GDP. This is rather high compared to international standards. Although the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) was set up in 1986, not much progress had happened in this sector.
That is, until now.

A Wave of Change

But the state of things described above may be set for rapid change now. India now has a targeted policy to develop its inland waterways.

In keeping with the speed and determination with which India has set to work on its National Highways, with even the recent approval for the Bharatmala Pariyojana, it has also unveiled an exciting blueprint for rejuvenating and developing the National Waterways with the National Waterways Act, 2016.

To promote Inland Water Transport (IWT) in the country, 111 waterways have been declared National Waterways under the National Waterways Act, 2016. Of these, 5 waterways were already recognised as National Waterways while 106 were declared later. But even the earlier declared 5 waterways too were bereft of any major development.

India’s roadways and railways constitute almost 90% of total national freight transport. In other developed and emerging economies, waterways and coastal transport often make up 20-30% of the volume. Examples would be the UK, China, South Korea, Germany and France.

Let us now explore the major projects for building the National Waterways:

  • National Waterway 1: On the Haldia-Varanasi stretch of the Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly River System, the Jal Marg Vikas Project (JMVP) has been taken up for development with technical and investment support of the World Bank. The World Bank describes the project in its report thus: “Once operational, the waterway will form part of the larger multi-modal transport network being planned along the river. It will link up with the Eastern Dedicated Rail Freight Corridor, as well as with the area’s existing network of highways. This web of water, road and rail arteries will help the region’s industries and manufacturing units switch seamlessly between different modes of transport as they send their goods to markets in India and abroad. Farmers in the agriculturally rich Gangetic plain will also benefit, as the waterway opens up markets further afield.”
  • National Waterway 1 (Ganga) will be further linked to National Waterway 2 (Brahmaputra). An MoU has been signed between India and Bangladesh which is expected to facilitate this link. Dredging in the Sirajganj-Daikhowa and Ashuganj-Zakiganj stretches on the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Route will be taken up with the sharing cost of 80:20 between India and Bangladesh.
  • Roll-on, Roll-off (Ro-Ro) services have commenced between Dhubri and Hatsingimari, reducing the circuitous road route of about 220 km to Hatsingimari via Jogighopa.
  • On National Waterway 4, Phase I development of the stretch between Muktyala to Vijayawada (82 km) has commenced. This will provide an efficient logistics solution to boost the economic growth of the region and facilitate the development of Amravati, the new capital of Andhra Pradesh since substantial construction material is expected to be transported by this National Waterway.
  • Construction of the slipway at Pandu in Assam has been in progress, with December 2018 as the target date for completion. This will be the first dry dock repair facility in India’s Northeast. At present, vessels plying on NW 2 need to sail to Kolkata for dry-dock repairs and maintenance.
  • National Waterway 5 (the East Coast Canal integrated with the Brahmani river and Mahanadi delta rivers): The dredging operation in the non-tidal stretch between Erada to Padanipal has commenced. The lease agreement has been signed for 6.79 acres of land for setting up a temporary terminal facility at Erada.
  • The Lakhipur-Bhanga stretch of the river Barak (121 Km) has been declared National Waterway 16. The development of this waterway is proposed in two stages. The stretch from Silchar to Bhanga (71 km) is under Phase I and the remaining stretch from Silchar to Lakhipur (50km) under Phase II. Work orders for the development of fairway and for providing navigational aids in the stretch between Silchar and Bhanga have been awarded.
  • The detailed project report for the development of Kosi (NW 58), Gandak (NW 37), Ghaghra (NW 40), Mandovi (NW 68), Zuari (NW 111), and Cumberjua (NW 27) have been prepared as well.

Not Just a River Dredging Exercise

The development of India’s National Waterways is not merely about constructing pathways through the rivers just to clear the way for vessels. It is, in a way, the unfolding of a new path of development for the huge populace that lives along rivers.

The development of the inland waterways is both a vision for the future and a current infrastructure push. It is going to create large employment opportunities directly and indirectly. While the Gangetic plain seems to emerge as a big beneficiary of the project, states in the Northeast will also reap in the benefits as Brahmaputra (as NW 2) and Barak (as NW 16) are expected to immensely boost trade in the region.

A great many factors have been taken into consideration for this mega project:

  • Environmental Concerns: In the case of the Ganga, a 45-metre-wide channel has been earmarked in the river’s deepest part. The Least Available Depths (LAD) needed for navigation have been determined keeping in mind the need to reduce dredging. The channel’s depth, thus, follows the river’s natural gradient in different stretches and is sufficient to support the two-way movement of large barges.

Information about the protected aquatic habitats and other sensitive areas such as wetlands will be fed into the new River Information System (RIS) being developed under the World Bank-supported project. Many measures have been taken to ensure the safety of aquatic life, such as a ban on dredging in protected habitat areas, speed restriction and noise control of vessels, along with zero discharge standard near sanctuaries.

  • Edge of Technology: As mentioned above, developing India’s inland waterways is not just about creating pathways for vessels but also about developing modern navigational infrastructure. Eighteen ferry terminals are to be constructed in six cities — namely, Varanasi, Patna, Munger, Bhagalpur, Kolkata and Haldia on National Waterway I under the Jal Marg Vikas Project (JMVP). This is expected to generate large employment opportunities.

The project consists of the River Information System (RIS), Digital Global Positioning System (DGPS), night navigation facilities, modern methods of channel-marking, construction of a new state-of-the-art navigational lock at Farakka, etc.

The RIS will enable barge operators and cargo owners to track their vessels, locate berths in advance at terminals and better plan their logistics.

To make navigation safe both day and night, the project will help mark the central channel for boats to ply and install night navigation facilities. Besides, a detailed protocol is being laid down for dealing with emergencies, including tackling oil spillage from boats.

The Takeaway

The facts and projects cited above all deal with India’s inland waterways. There is a separate, albeit linked, story developing where ocean development and coastal shipping are concerned. To read about what is happening on that front, please read our article “Gujarat Gets the Gogha-Dahej Ro-Ro Ferry – and India, a Potential Transportation Revolution”. The other modes of transport — roads and railways – are also undergoing major reforms.

It is important to not look at any individual project in isolation from the rest. To revolutionise transportation and logistics, India could no longer afford to think of developing transport infrastructure in silos. The Bharatmala project, the coastal shipping plans as well as the project for developing the inland waterways – all show that India is no longer approaching transport infrastructure piecemeal.

To picture the socio-economic well-being the integrated system is meant to bring India, is perhaps to see how tangible the new, developed India is becoming day-by-day. And even as the future is being built, so much of the lost potential of the past is also being retrieved and rejuvenated.