The Minister of Shipping and Transport has recently declared more than 100 rivers are to be developed as national waterways. At the moment, the existing five national waterways are used most marginally, despite considerable infrastructural development in terms of river ports, dredging and other support by the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI).
The world over, inland water transport (IWT) is acknowledged as cost effective and pollution free. IWT is further relevant for India owing to its huge network of big and small rivers. In the past, our rivers played a major role in the transport of cargoes and passengers in the absence of roads and railways. However, in later years, the construction of irrigation projects, silting of rivers like the Ganga, besides other factors, posed challenges to maintaining the necessary least available depth (LAD)required for river navigation.
Nevertheless, there have been a few bright spots on the firmament that are worth recounting:
- Transportation of imported coal from Haldia to Farakka commenced in the first week of November, 2013 from Haldia port on the Bay of Bengal to the Farakka Power Station of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC). The imported coal is moved from ships to barges by a transhipper located on the sand heads in the Bay of Bengal. The operators along this stretch have invested in transhipper, barges, jetty and other infrastructure at Farakka. By the end of October 2015, more than 3 MT of coal was transported on National Waterway 1 (the Ganga) from Haldia to Farakka. This is a major first in the history of Indian IWT. The target is to supplement the coal supplied by Indian Railways, so as to improve the otherwise low plant load factor (PLF) at Farakka.
- IWAI is currently working on the Kaladan multi modal transit transport project in Myanmar. It involves the construction of a modern river port at Sittwe in Myanmar and development of a river stretch upstream right up to 35 km short of the Mizoram border in India. This collaborative project will open up a major river for Myanmar for carrying goods to the hinterland up and across the Indian border. The merchandise will move from Kolkata to Sittwe by sea, upstream along the Kaladan river and then will cover the last 35 km by highway to enter India. This shortens the route to reach NE India via Mizoram and Manipur. Near completion, the project is a shining example of cooperation in infrastructural development between India and
- Movement of over dimensional cargo (ODC) using inland waters has a distinct advantage of bypassing the lack of capacity and surface transport hurdles inherent in moving huge cargos. ODCs of 600 MT belonging to the JP power project and another for a NTPC plant were moved successfully up the Ganga upto Allahabad in October 2013.
- River tourism on the Ganga in barges RV Bengal Ganga (belonging to Heritage River Cruise Ltd.) and ABN Sukhapa (of the Assam Bengal Navigation Ltd) have been ferrying tourists on the Ganga between Kolkata-Patna-Kolkata and Kolkata-Simaria-Kolkata for several years now.
- River tourism on the Brahmaputra accessing the wildlife sanctuaries at Kaziranga and other tourist attractions such as Shibsagar are engaging many tourists as the provisioning of necessary depth on the Pandu-Neamati stretch on the Brahmaputra has given river tourism a fillip. With heavy bookings coming the way of river tourist operators all through the year, three tourist vessels are perpetually pressed into service.
Potential of IWT
We ought to admit the drastic changes that have come in the character of major rivers of northern India. With the construction of roads, dams and other structures in the Himalaya, the rivers today are carrying massive amounts of silt. Irrigation projects, urban and industrial effluents are affecting the quantum and quality of river flows downstream. The Ganga and Yamuna are reduced to a trickle in summer at places. So then what is the potential of water transport in the rivers of north India? How do we maintain an LAD to facilitate round the year transport of cargo in rivers? As such, it is a pity that despite being blessed with an elaborate river network, India makes little use of its rivers for transport purposes.
Many riverine countries have tried different methods to make the most of their rivers. The common thread lies in the construction of barrages over the rivers—big and small. In India, barrages are built essentially for irrigation. We need to consider building these for river navigation too, though at a different scale. This will have to be ably supported with the development of river ports and building of barges. River transport should be opted for the movement of goods like coal, iron ore and food grains, since it is convenient, viable and environment friendly.
There is a demand for multiplying transloading zones, and making the blue economy multi- dimensional using added features, as V Trivedi has pointed out in his July 18, 2015 article in the Indian Express, ‘Blue economy, green gain’. To achieve this, we need to frame a National Policy to make inland water transport a public-private venture with a multidisciplinary approach. With the present government’s focus on infrastructure, there can’t be a more opportune time for a thrust on IWT. When billions are being invested on railways and roadways, it is time that a farsighted government and an enthusiastic minister of shipping root for IWT.