India’s water transport interests are gaining a new fillip and so is the funding in this sector. The recent awakening of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government seems to be paving the way towards exploitation of our waterways potential, by not only upgrading the existing waterways but also creating new riverine pathways, encouraging the sector to reach a reasonable share in the intermodal mix of transport.
Water transport, as opposed to other modes of transport, where infrastructure has to be laid from the start, is naturally accessible. Rivers just need to be ‘trained’, managed and upgraded as necessary. Success stories from developed countries have evinced that inland water transport is cost effective, relatively fuel efficient, environment friendly and more employment generating—all hallmarks of economic vitality and growth.
India was armoured with an established IWT since historic times. Post-independence, its importance waned as India bolstered its roadways. After 40 years, in 1986, an Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) was established to develop, maintain, and regulate the nation’s waterways. At present, India has more than 14,500 recorded km of inland waterways with rivers, canals, backwaters, creeks, etc. By and large the development of navigability of all the waterways has been slow and although more than 3,600 km are documented to be navigable by large vessels, only about 2,000 km are utilised as per the report on the performance and emerging trends in the Indian Logistics Industry by India Brand Equity Foundation published in 2013. As per the IWAI report ‘Development of National Waterways No. 4’, published in the year 2014 a total of 4,382 km have been declared as national waterways (NW), all of which is not navigable as of now.
The NW-1 that starts from Allahabad to Haldia is the longest of the five declared NWs with a total run of 1620 km. It navigates through parts of the Ganga, Bhagirathi and Hooghly river system with fixed terminals at Haldia, Farrakka and Patna. The second longest national waterway, the NW-4, running through the Godavari, the Krishna and various canals to connect Kakinada to Pondicherry. The NW-2 that navigates through the Brahmaputra between Sadia and Dhubri in Assam is the third longest route with a total distance of 891 km and is the major freight transportation waterway of north east India. The NW-3, also called the West Coast Canal, in Kerala is the oldest waterway of India and runs 205 kms through the West Coast, Champakara and Udyogmandal Canal. The NW-5 is the newest addition to the list. Declared in November 2008, the 623 km long NW-5 connects Odisha to West Bengal through the Brahmani, East Coast Canal, Matai and Mahanadi River Delta. Another proposed stretch of 121 km from Bhanga to Lakhipur on the Barak river in Assam is being tabled to be declared as the sixth national highway. Announced during the 2013-2014 budget session, this waterway aims to push cargo transport through Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh.
However, India’s waterways are increasingly being plagued by a plethora of technical challenges. The basic prerequisite for water based transport is the consistent availability of water flow. Indian rivers face rapid siltation due to deforestation and erosion of uplands resulting in insufficient depth throughout navigable waters. In addition, rivers have considerably shrunk due to the increase in uptake from habitation, industry and agriculture. Regular flow has also decreased with large dams being built on river streams. Speaking to G’nY correspondent, Vishwapati Tripathi, chairman of the National Shipping Board and former chairman, IWAI said, “Most of the major rivers of India require consistent training to provide sufficient depth for plying vessels”. He also added that, “In NW-1, the availability of water throughout the 1620 km is not consistent round the year. So there is an urgent need to maintain the depth of at least 2.5 m throughout the NW-1 for the entire waterway to be navigable,” he added.
According to S P Gaur, former chairman of IWAI, maintaining the least available depth (LAD) is the main challenge of the rivers of India, especially those in the northern region. “There are myriad technologies employed to maintain a LAD of at least 2 m. The most common is dredging. A type of low-head diversion dam-barrages are also constructed to achieve this, but it is an extremely expensive affair and is only possible in the lower reaches of big rivers”. Also pertinent to note is the unavailability of cutting edge low draft vessels and inadequate infrastructure at terminals. Re-modeling the existing infrastructure will include gargantuan tasks like achieving vertical and horizontal clearances along river courses, setting up of permanent terminals, modal links and night navigation facilities, among others.
A project feasibility report ‘Development of Waterway stretch between Pedaganjam to Ennore, South of North Buckingham Canal in National Waterway- 4’ by Wapcos for IWAI in 2014, reveals that despite a mandated minimum horizontal and vertical clearance required for structures across water bodies, many structures, mainly bridges, do not satisfy the requirement. Although not feasible, the only option is to remodel stretches in order to conform to the instructed guidelines. According to Gayad Inda, former hydrographic chief, IWAI, vessels plying on the inland waterways too have to comply with parameters set for vertical clearances by the IWAI. “There are set specifications regarding the height and breath that each vessel has to conform. These guidelines depend on the ports and stretches that the vessel plies on.”
The practicality of barge transport depends on consistency in cargo volumes; a requisite that the country is falling behind in. Even large cargo volumes in one direction cannot make a river service viable. A stable two-way traffic is a must. “The main challenge is to develop the confidence of the market for using waterways for commerce. Countries like China, Vietnam and Germany are more focused towards utilising inland waterways as a means of commerce and therefore the sector in these countries are maintained and progressive,” said Tripathi. The ITF Transport Outlook 2015 documents 3063 MT of cargo carried by the inland waterways of India in the year 2012. Compared to the global scenario this is indeed low, with China and Germany clocking 28,29,584 and 58,488 MT respectively.
Talking about government initiatives to boost commerce along the waterways, Tripathi talked expansively of IWAI’s myriad steps to run successful pilot projects that attracted the confidence of both investors and operators. “The IWAI has been experimenting with various models in bringing funds through budgetary resources and through PPP models and I am confident, that in the days to come, commerce on our waterways will definitely pickup,” he added.
Nevertheless, considering the present scenario, market dependence amounting to regularity and reliability of the service to actualise a two-way traffic seems a distant dream. In fact, the lack of capacity in the sector right from research, to operation personnel and private entrepreneurship is adversely affecting the growth of inland waterways. Capacity building thus should be an integral part of NDA’s revised plan for upgradation of inland waterways. This calls for setting up of institutes and bodies in conjugation with governmental outreach programmes to bridge the gap. In a national conference ‘Inland Waterways : Issues, Options and Strategies’ held on June 2, 2015 at the FICCI headquarters in New Delhi, Amitabh Verma, Chairman, IWAI said that lack of capacity is a challenge for the sector. “There is no dearth of funds; the only pervading problem now is the lack of capacity in the country…there is very little capacity in the private sector in the context of inland water transport development,” he said. He also added that there is immense scope for the private sector right from, dredging, river information system, barge construction and operation, cruise operation, to hydrographic surveys and training of human resource.
Despite the ambitious future rouged by the GoI, some experts still believe that the viability of inland waterways seems appealing only on paper. Among other issues, the lack of existence of a driving cargo stream of significant volume has been cited the most. They argue that industrial and market locations are not always in the vicinity of water bodies. This means that cargo has to be loaded and unloaded more than while transporting by rail or roadways. These results in cost increase, delay and evens up the risk of damage.
The extent of investment in IWT is also a case in point. Tilak Mahanta, executive engineer of the State Department of Transport, told G’nY that state IWTs still remain to be the most neglected department of the government. Citing the example of Assam, he said, “the state government has not provided any fund to upgrade this sector for the last 20 years. Fund from Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS) is small and is only for pontoon construction. Moreover, IWAI has invested exorbitantly without proper planning. Is there any justification to spend money for channel maintenance and terminal facilities where no vessels operate?” He also added that the IWT sector in Assam lacks able leadership. “No technical person has been posted as director for the last five years. Moreover, we have directors posted on temporary basis. How can we hope for progress with a proper direction?”
While some still doubt the practicality of the GoI’s pollyannaish ambitions, most believe that with proper research and policy motivations, progress in the waterways sector of India can very well take a giant leap. According to S P Gaur, “The Indian government and the respective states should come together to develop the infrastructure required for IWT. The transport of goods should be left to private enterprise who would invest in transhippers if required and barges of different capacities.”
Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari’s active initiations in this field reflected in the June 2, FICCI Conference which provided insights about the government’s ambitious plans of turning 101 water bodies of India into national waterways. He also revealed the colossal investments are being made on foreign technology for upliftment of the sector and ease the pressure on road and rail transport thereby reducing logistics cost of the country. “We are in the process of developing newer forms of passenger transit and special application vehicles in collaboration with various foreign companies. We have, so far, invested 25 crores to prepare detailed project reports (DPRs) of the 101 rivers that the GoI is planning to make navigable, in collaboration with international bodies. The DPRs of 46 rivers have been successfully completed as of now,” he said.
Gadkari also highlighted the employment and tourism opportunities that the initiative is expected to engender. “The GoI envisions generating employment opportunities for around 25 lakh youth through these initiatives. The Prime Minister has shown keen interest in developing 1100 islands and 300 lighthouses across the nation to tap their huge tourism potential in a bid to bolster water infrastructure,” he stated.
The GoI envisages private sector investment will help in immediate development of the sector. It is envisioned that the public sector would aid by providing vessels for cargo and passenger movement, developing fairway and maintaining it and investing in construction and operation of terminals, river ports, and other navigational facilities. It is expected that the involvement of the public sector will facelift existing management techniques and reduce the gestation period for setting up of
A proper analysis of the problems hints that the foremost challenge is to bolster the movement on our inland waterways to a much greater extent than is being done now. Talking to our correspondent, S P Gaur, said, “large investment and incentives are required for making the national waterways worthy of navigation of goods. The existing five national waterways possess undoubtedly high potential. It requires development of basic infrastructure, maintenance of LAD and finally the initiative of private and public enterprises to utilise IWT.”
The potential of barge transportation is sufficient to justify the GoI’s interest in nurturing the sector. But its sustenance in today’s economic context in India needs to be concluded practically, keeping in mind the abundance of the impending complications. The Indian waterways sector is marred by a profusion of interdepartmental hurdles, environmental clearances and technical upgradations in its struggle to become a viable model both in isolation and in the intermodal mix. In all, this might be an onerous gig but the prize is worth it.