In a country with a wide network of rivers, inland waterways transport (IWT) should play an important part. But, despite this, IWT remains a highly unexplored sector, especially in the context of decongesting the considerably over burdened rail and road transport sectors. As in any mode of cargo transportation, some factors that affect the economics and operation of a transport are the availability of the channels, infrastructural facilities, the transport carriers, together with managerial and supporting systems to manage the flows. In IWT, these translate to availability of efficient terminal facilities, availability of barges and other vessels capable of sustainable navigation and finally the effective management component.
Inland Waterways in India
IWT was an important mode of navigation in India until the late 19th century and early part of the 20th century. Barges, power crafts and country boats played a significant role in trade and commerce. With the advent of railways and building of highways, IWT took a backseat. Presently, the share of inland water transport for cargo movement is lowest at 0.5 per cent in India. Contrast this with China, where the share of IWT is 8.7 per cent or the United States, where it is 8.3 per cent, and one realises how neglected it has been in India.
Navigable inland waterways in India comprise 500 km of river systems, canals, backwaters, creeks and tidal inlets. In addition, there are several water bodies where inland water navigation can be developed. At present, about 5200 km of major rivers and 485 km of canals are suitable for the use of mechanized craft. All of these hold immense potential for being used for both cargo and passenger transport, as also for river tourism.
National transport policy report (1980)
India has been a late starter where prioritising transport infrastructure is concerned. It was only in 1980 that the report of the National Transport Policy Committee, chaired by the late B D Pande, a former Cabinet secretary, contributed to transportation being given priority in the sixth five year plan as an important aspect of economic development.
The then Planning Commission took this Report into consideration and thereafter, acknowledged the role IWT could play in regions such as Kerala, Goa, and along the Brahmaputra and Ganga in north-eastern and eastern India.
Considering the recommendations of the Committee and the fact that IWT was important for the development of the north-eastern region, the erstwhile Planning Commission declared that “efforts will be made to give a fresh impetus to this mode during the Sixth Plan. The broad strategy will be to move in this area selectively taking up specific schemes of inter-state and national importance for development under the Central sector. Other schemes mostly of intra-state nature, will be included in the plans of the state governments”.
In keeping with the recommendations of the National Transport Policy Committee, the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) was set up in 1986 for the development and regulation of inland waterways. IWAI was also entrusted with infrastructural development and regulation of the national waterways, conduct of feasibility studies and providing of assistance to state governments for the development of IWT.
However, it was only in 2010, when the government set up a high level National Transport Development Policy Committee (NTDPC) headed by Rakesh Mohan, a former secretary with the Department of Economic Affairs and Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India that the objective to provide a long term transport policy for the country upto the year 2029-30 made a substantive beginning.
Rakesh Mohan Committee Report on National Transport Policy, 2014
Submitting its report in 2014, the Rakesh Mohan Committee, for the first time, brought in the idea of coordinated multimodal transport, and an integrated transport system with competitive pricing in the country. Taking into account new technologies and environmental concerns, it emphasised on developing transport capacity so as to decrease congestion, prevent ‘high levels of energy consumption, pollution and accidents’.
Getting past the project-centric transport policies of the past, the Rakesh Mohan Committee recommended intermodal linkage between the different transport systems, and integrated capital investment with regulatory and policy development.
Highlighting the significance of promoting connectivity within south and southeast Asian regions, through the border areas, it gave special attention to the northeast. While retaining the government in its role in infrastructure, the Committee called for ‘stepping up private investment to both fill the investment gap and also allow increased flow of public investment in perhaps commercially unviable but economically and socially important investment’. It also called for an increase in annual spending on transport infrastructure and recommended that ‘Annual investments in transport should increase from INR 2.2 trillion (45 billion USD) in 2011-12 to INR 3.8 trillion (70 billion USD) during the 12th Plan, and rise further to about Rs. 14 trillion (250 billion USD) in the 15th Plan period (2027-2032). This implies an increase in investment from about 2.7 per cent of GDP in the 11th Plan to 3.3 per cent in the 12th Plan, and further to 3.7 per cent in later Plan periods’.
The Rakesh Mohan Committee went on to recommend five significant changes with respect to India’s transport governance:
- Create a consolidated transport ministry to focus on systematic performance;
- Set up an office of transport strategy (OTS) to co-ordinate transport policies at the national level;
- Clearly decentralise policy and planning including urban transport to the constitutionally recognised urban and metropolitan governments;
- Build a comprehensive regulatory environment to govern transport flows; and,
- Build up an interdisciplinary cadre of transport experts.
With regard to IWT, the report emphasised the need to maintain the depth of rivers for round the year navigation. Focusing on improving transport infrastructure in the northeast, it called for improving cargo handling facilities and setting up terminals at strategic locations with adequate connectivity to road and rail systems.
National Inland Waterways Bill 2015
The recommendations of the Rakesh Mohan Committee are clearly reflected in the National Waterways Bill, 2015 which has emphasised the formation of a transportation grid using waterways. The Bill postulates the need for equipped terminals to connect onto other modes of transport for last mile connectivity. The Bill plans to turn 101 important Indian rivers of India into national waterways so as to form a transport grid, on lines similar to national highways. It envisages decongestion of the rail and road network, with opportunities for private equity participation in the development of waterways. Awaiting the nod in the Parliament, the National Waterways Bill 2015, when passed, will repeal the Acts related to the existing five national waterways namely:
- The National Waterway (Allahabad-Haldia stretch of the Ganga Bhagirathi-Hooghly River) Act, 1982;
- The National Waterway (Sadiya-Dhubri stretch of Brahmaputra River) Act, 1988;
- The National Waterway (Kollam-Kottapuram Stretch of West Coast Canal; and Champakara and Udyogmandal Canals) Act, 1992;
- The National Waterway (Talcher-Dhamra stretch, Geonkhali-Charbatia stretch of East Coast Canal, Charbatia-Dhamra stretch of Matai River and Mahanadi Delta Rivers) Act, 2008; and
- The National Waterway (Kakinada-Puducherry stretch of canals and the Kaluvelly Tank, Bhadrachalam-Rajahmundry stretch of River Godavari and Wazirabad-Vijayawada stretch of River Krishna) Act, 2008. The five operational national waterways, of course, will continue to function as national waterways. The Bill also includes provisions for the regulation and development of waterways as per the 1985 IWAI Act. Thus,the Bill will pave the way for integrated development of inland waterways in India, as envisaged by the Rakesh Mohan Committee.
The Bill also states that the extent of development and prioritisation of inland waterways will have to be confirmed by IWAI after carrying out the required techno-economic feasibility studies. Subsequent developments will be in keeping with the transportation needs of the respective regions.
A consortium of leading domestic and international financial institutions is being conceived to provide developmental funds for proposed projects. The services of a full time consultant will also be engaged to support the evolution of the consortium into a recognised body that would facilitate the growth and development of India’s inland waterways in the near future.
Despite being a late starter, India has come around to realise the importance of integrated multimodal transport system. Once the system is in place, trade, commerce, decongesting passenger traffic and tourism will receive a fillip. The present government’s enthusiasm in implementing the Rakesh Mohan Committee’s recommendations for inland water transport is a step in the right direction. In this regard, the National Waterways Bill, 2015 holds great promise for the future.