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Inland waterways: Dreaming Big

New Delhi, June 4 (G’nY News Service): Lately, in its efforts to resuscitate the inland waterways, the government envisages to turn India’s 101 rivers into waterways. The plan also encompasses building river ports integrated with smart cities and the introduction of special application vehicles. But, the dream seems to be ridden with infrastructural and capacity challenges.

Have we ever considered water as the primary means of transport? What might come across as an antediluvian idea to many is actually one of the most fuel efficient and environment friendly transit systems known to mankind. Especially in developing countries like India, where resources are scarce and industrial growth and urbanization goes hand in hand with increasing levels of pollution, inland waterways may prove to be a vitally necessary alternative. 

To propagate the potentials of barge transportation and make it a reasonable share in the intermodal mix of inland transport, the IWAI, Ministry of Shipping and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) organised the “National Conference on Inland Waterways : Issues, Options and Strategies” on 2nd June, 2015. Hosted in the FICCI headquarters, New Delhi, the Conference was not only embellished by the presence of a long list of eminent luminaries but was marked with the presence of Nitin Gadkari, the Indian Minister for Shipping.

The symposium envisioned to discuss measures that would significantly improve the sustainability of inland water transport and explore technology options and best practices. Although, the interactive session did provide a solid platform for industry experts to analyse trends in the sector and share latest developments, it did little to highlight the complexity of the obstacles that pose in the way.

The host of challenges that could potentially threaten the entirety of this aspiring design could be divided in three major divisions; building of new infrastructure, remodelling the existing and engaging in capacity building.

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The initiative would provide employment opportunities to 25 lakh youth – Indian Minister for Shipping, Nitin Gadkari.

The proposed infrastructure is futuristic and may need more than just political will to be moved into action. A water body requires a minimum depth of 3 meters for navigation of vessels. But, most Indian rivers are plagued by excessive siltation due to deforestation and erosion of uplands and insufficient depth throughout the navigable waters. Water flow of our rivers has declined substantially with increased usage from habitation, industry and agriculture. Regular flow has also decreased with large dams being built on river streams. Most of the major rivers require consistent training to provide sufficient depth for plying vessels.

The unavailability of cutting edge low draft vessels and terminals with adequate infrastructure will also place considerable strain on the government’s ambitious plans. Re-modelling the existing infrastructure and achieving vertical and horizontal clearance along river courses is a gargantuan task. There are technicalities involved in almost all the 12 major ports in India which are about 50 year old.

Despite these obvious issues, the Conference propagated the GoI’s confidence in the initiative. “The main aim of this seminar is to discuss about the possibilities of exploiting our inland waterways to its full potential. India was armoured with an established IWT since historic times. Its evolution waned post-independence, when in our zeal to stride along our developed seers we almost tuned it out to concentrate more on roadways. But now, the government’s positive and proactive approach will ensure that all our major waterways will be navigation worthy very soon,” said Amitabh Verma, Chairman, Waterways Authority of India.

He also provided insights about the government’s avant-garde river information system, which is indigenously developed and is ready for commissioning between the Haldia and Farakka stretch.

Nitin Gadkari, Indian Minster of Transport, emphasised that the GoI is relying on a gamut of technology imported from developed nations to develop cutting edge passenger transit vessels. He said, “We are in the process of developing newer forms of passenger transit and special application vehicles in collaboration with various foreign companies. An Australian company is assisting us in commercializing passenger hovercrafts that we plan to introduce soon. Besides, we also have plans to try seaplanes in India.” An estimated 5 crore have been allotted for the development of a hovercraft prototype.

Emphasizing the involvement of foreign knowhow, the minister added that the GoI has invested 25 crore to prepare detailed project report (DPR) of the 101 rivers that the GoI is planning to make navigable, in collaboration with international bodies. The DPRs of 46 rivers have been completed till now.

The minister’s optimistic statements also highlighted the employment and tourism opportunities that the initiative is expected to garmer. “The GoI envisions to generate employment opportunities for around 25 lakh youths through these initiatives. The Prime Minister has shown keen interest in developing 300 islands and 1100 light houses across the nation to tap their huge tourism potential in a bid to bolster water infrastructure.” he stated.

He also publicised the GoI’s future plans to develop smart cities around all the major ports to boost inland waterways connectivity. The ports will also have international benchmarking, ship-breaking and ship-building centres, besides other ancillary thing. Also, ship-building yards and repair hubs are expected to come up in Assam, Andaman and Nicobar and Kandla in Gujarat.

At present, the government is seeking Parliament’s nod to a 50,000 crore for converting the 101 rivers into waterways, which it aims to complete in 2-3 years. The development of these waterways would ease the pressure on road and rail transport and reduce logistics cost to one-fifth when compared to other modes of transport. But, analysed from the perspectives of technology, physical viability, capacity building and mindset change the scale of operations envisaged for inland waterways seems well ahead of its time.

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