An ambitious move to develop India’s inland waterways system will see millions of tonnes of cargo being sent across the country through the cheaper mode, besides enabling tens of thousands of passengers to travel long distances by modern boats and vessels
WORDS: N.B. RAO
For a country with vast coastline and hundreds of rivers flowing into the seas, India indeed has an extensive network of inland waterways.
According to the Inland Waterways Authority of India, the country has an extensive network of inland waterways in the form of rivers, canals, backwaters and creeks.
Indeed, of the total navigable length of 20,236 km, 17,980 km of rivers and 2,256 km of canals can be used by mechanised crafts.
Unfortunately, freight transportation by waterways is highly under-utilised in India as compared to the US, European Union countries or even China.
Need for cheaper,
According to the World Bank, which is financing the development of the Ganga waterway with a $375 million loan, the country is yet to develop a cheaper and greener mode of transportation.
“Goods still travel by congested road and rail networks, slowing the movement of cargo, adding to uncertainties, and increasing the costs of trade,” says the Bank. “So much so that logistics costs in India are estimated to account for as much as 18 per cent of the country’s GDP.”
Many countries around the globe, including Europe (such as Germany and France) have over the decades utilised their rivers, which act as major transport corridors.
The European Commission notes that more than 37,000 km of waterways connect hundreds of cities and industrial regions in the continent.
“Some 21 out of 28 member states have inland waterways, 13 of which have an interconnected waterway networks,” says the commission. “The potential for increasing the modal share of inland waterway transport is significant.
Compared to other modes of transport which are often confronted with congestion and capacity problems, inland waterway transport is characterised by its reliability, energy efficiency and major capacity for increased exploitation.”
Despite the enormous progress made by inland water transport, the European Commission aims to promote and strengthen the competitive position of inland waterways in the transport system, and to facilitate its integration into the intermodal logistics chain.
Fortunately, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is working briskly to activate the inland transport network in India.
Last month, Modi inaugurated the first phase of the 31-km Ghoga-Dahej ‘roll-on, roll-off’ ferry service linking Bhavnagar and Dahej in Gujarat, describing it as “a landmark project not only for India, but also for South East Asia.”
According to him, the earlier government had not given any importance to transportation by waterways. “Before we (NDA government) came, there were six waterways. Now we have identified more than 100,” he said. “We have 21,000 km of waterways which includes 7,500 km of coastal waterways and 14,000 km of inland waterways through rivers. India is naturally blessed with it. But our earlier government did nothing about it.”
Goods can be transported through waterways at a cost of a mere 20 paise per tonne, as against Rs1 by railways and Rs1.5 a tonne for transporting by road, he said.
The Indian government is now reviving National Waterway 1 (NW-1), which will ferry cargo from Haldia to Varanasi, about 1,360 km inland.
The World Bank notes that it will traverse through one of India’s most densely populated areas. “A sizeable 40 per cent of all India’s traded goods either originate from this resource-rich region or are destined for its teeming markets,” says the Bank. “While the region is estimated to generate about 370 million tonnes of freight annually, only a tiny fraction of this – about 5 million tonnes – currently travels by water.”
The project will also result in cargo from states including Uttar Pradesh and Bihar being sent by the river to Kolkata, which will be the nearest port, instead of to Mumbai or ports in Gujarat, resulting in huge savings in time and money.
India’s inland waterway system is expected to take-off in a big way over the coming months, boosting trade, generating new jobs and creating infrastructure that will hopefully improve the livelihood of millions of people in the poorer parts of the country.