Inland water transport (IWT) can reduce congestion and accidents on highways. The systematic development of IWT can open up untapped economic and transport opportunities in the country. However, this sector has lagged behind road and rail transport, and hitherto, investment made in this sector has been most negligible. There are several factors responsible for this.
Immediately after Independence, the focus was on developing faster and modern means of transport. For 63 years, the focus was on irrigation, rail and road bridges, hydro-electric power and so on. Even as we focused on power generation, irrigation, road and rail connectivity, we neglected navigation. It was only in 1986 that waterways were looked upon as an alternative means of transport, and the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) was set up. However, only five waterways were developed and declared as national waterways in the past 30 years, owing to enormous delays in conducting pre-feasibility and techno-economic feasibility status, difficulties in land acquisition and coordination with state governments. To overcome these delays and to accelerate the development of inland water transport, a decision was taken by the government to accord the status of national waterways to navigable water bodies. Depending on the outcome of the studies, a suitable development module was to be worked out for the development of fairways, navigation aids and terminal facilities.
Cargo movement on National Waterway-1 (NW-1) is around three million tonnes (MT), followed by NW-2 with two million mt and NW-3 with one million MT. There is thus a huge potential to be tapped. Unlike the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), which is entrusted with only creating infrastructure, IWAI needs to not only put infrastructure in place but also provide a fillip to the usage of waterways.
So far, the large network of feeder roads, state highways, district and village roads has contributed to the potential of national highways being fully exploited. However, the absence of such an interlinked network has resulted in the gross underutilisation of waterways. State governments have neglected the development and maintenance of inland waterways due to insufficient financial outlays and lack of expertise.
The present government intends to declare 101 water bodies with a minimum length of 25 km as national waterways. Twelve of these waterways have good potential for navigation; and the IWAI has invited tenders for the development of eight, along with the necessary terminals and fairways. Consultants have been invited to conduct feasibility studies and engineering designs for proposed waterways.
The government is exploring the possibilities of acquiring enhanced budgetary support and funding from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for this ambitious programme, besides public-private partnerships for developing the basic facilities for IWT.