Inland Waterways the ecofriendly network

By: Ravi Kant
The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) was established in 1986 for development and regulation of inland waterways for shipping and navigation. The Authority primarily undertakes projects for development and maintenance of Inland Water Transport (IWT) infrastructure on national waterways with the support of the Ministry of Shipping.

Great civilisations in the world have thrived on the banks of rivers as water is essential for human survival. In addition, rivers also met the requirement of transportation when other modes of communication were not developed. It was very early in history that people learnt that the rivers are nature’s path which provided the most energy efficient mode of transportation and academicians have chronicled the abundance of vessels plying the Indus at the time of the Harappan Civilisation. Unfortunately, with the growth of road, rail and airborne transportation, inland water transport (IWT) in India suffered a setback and was relegated to insignificance despite being most energy efficient and environment friendly mode of transportation. In many countries like USA, China, the Netherlands etc., where development of inland waterways was given due attention, this mode is still thriving and contributing to economic development.

Article 9 Fig 1
Fig 1. Map of India showing important waterways


The decline

India too had a thriving IWT sector well upto the early post-independence period. Records reveal that till the 19th century, steamers were regularly plying from Kolkata upto Garhmukteshwar (about 100 km from Delhi) in Ganga and upto Dibrugarh in Brahmaputra traversing through what is today known as Bangladesh. India General Steam Navigation Company, British India Steam Navigation Company, the Ganges Steam Navigation Company, the Oriental Steam Navigation Company, the Bengal River Company, James Cleghorn & Company etc. were some of the big companies operating IWT cargo fleet during the pre-independence period.

The share of IWT in cargo transportation declined significantly since independence. The IWT route from Kolkata to North East on Brahmaputra and Barak rivers operated till the Indo-Pak war of 1965 disrupted the link which proved to be a major setback to IWT trade in the Eastern India. In 1970s IWT for the north-eastern region was revived with the Inland Water Transport and Trade Protocol signed between India and Bangladesh. Till 1990s, Central Inland Water Transport Corporation (CIWTC) plied vessels on Kolkata-Guwahati and Karimganj routes. In 1989-90, CIWTC transported over 4 lakh tonnes of cargo; however, the volume of cargo has today drastically declined and the Corporation is currently engaged only in the lighterage movement between Haldia and Kolkata. As far as IWT operations are concerned the CIWTC practically does not operate its vessels.

Article 9 Fig 2
NW-1 and NW-2 are connected through the waterways of Bangladesh. An Inland Water Transit and Trade Protocol is in place between India and Bangladesh and there are 5 ‘Ports of Call’ in each country under the Protocol.

The pros and cons

The inherent advantages of IWT needs no emphasis. It is the most fuel efficient and therefore, most environment friendly mode of transportation. In fact calculations reveals that one litre of fuel can move 24 tonne-km by road, 85 tonne-km by Rail and 105 tonne-km by IWT. However, IWT is a slower mode of transport in comparison to rail and road and is therefore, best suited for transportation of bulk cargo viz. minerals, coal, food grains, fertilisers, cement, fly ash etc. as well as over-dimensional and hazardous cargo. The development and maintenance cost of IWT is also much less as compared to rail and road. Furthermore, IWT is the safest mode of transport – data points out that for each IWT fatality, there are 22.7 fatalities related to rail and 155 in respect to road. Increased use of IWT would help in de-congesting the over crowded roads and as a spin off benefit, incidence of accidents would fall substantially.

The modal share of IWT in India stands at 0.4 per cent only whereas the same is 8.7 per cent in China, over 8 per cent in USA and an astounding 42 per cent in Netherlands. European Union is also improving its share of IWT by incentivising the shift under the Marco Polo Scheme. Inland waterways can also be used for tourism and river cruises are a popular pleasure activity internationally. In recent years it is slowly picking up on Ganga, Brahmaputra and West Coast Canal. During winter, tourist vessels regularly ply between Kaziranga and Dhubri in Assam, Kolkata to Patna on Ganga, Sundarban, and in the backwaters of Kerala.


Setting up of IWAI

In order to develop and promote IWT in the country, the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) was set up in 1986. The mandate of IWAI inter-alia includes development and maintenance of National Waterways; provide or permit setting up of infrastructure facilities for national waterways; carry out conservancy measures and training works; provide for the regulation of navigation and traffic etc. At present, there are 5 National Waterways (NW) in India (see box). IWAI has been striving to develop national waterways for scientific and safe navigation. For maintaining the fairways, river conservancy works including hydrographic surveys, dredging and bandalling are carried out on a year to year basis. River notices containing latest depth in the fairway are issued on a fortnightly basis for the entire stretch of national waterways and navigation charts are available on demand. Day navigation channel marks are available on the entire stretch of NWs and night navigational facilities have been provided on high traffic stretches. Differential global positioning system (DGPS) is being installed in a phased manner covering NW-1 and 2. IWAI is also planning to provide river information system on national waterways in a phased manner.

Terminals and cargo handling facilities are provided at designated locations by the Authority and recently IWAI constructed a modern fixed terminal at Gaighat, Patna capable of handling container and general cargo on NW-1. Fixed terminals are also in place at Pakur and Farakka. Another modern fixed terminal at Garden Reach Jetty II in Kolkata is nearing completion. Floating pontoon jetties are available at Haldia, Kolkata, Shantipur, Katwa, Hazardwari, Rajmahal, Sahebganj, Bateshwarsthan, Bhagalpur, Munger, Semaria, Buxar, Gazipur, Varanasi and Allahabad. These floating pontoon jetties can be repositioned at a desired location on a short notice. On NW-2, a modern fixed terminal has been set up at Pandu, Guwahati with cranes, bunkering and warehousing facilities. The terminal is also connected with broad gauge railway link and a project for providing connectivity with highway is under implementation – making it a multimodal transport hub for Northeastern Region (NER). Floating pontoon jetties are available at Dhubri, Jogighopha, Tezpur, Silghat, Mathmara, Bogibil, Sengajan, Dibrugarh and Oriumghat. On NW-3, modern fixed terminals have been constructed at Aluva, Vaikom, Kayapulam, Kottapuram, Maradu, Thanneermukkam, Trikkunnapuzha and Kollam.

National Waterways of India

  • NW-1: Haldia–Allahabad stretch of Ganga–Hooghly river system (1620 km) accredited status in 1986.
  • NW-2: Sadiya–Dhubri stretch of the Brahmaputra river (891 km) accredited status in 1988.
  • NW-3: Kollam-Kottapuram stretch of West Coast Canal along with Champakara and Udyogmandal canals (205 km) accredited status in 1993.
  • NW-4: Kakinada–Puducherry canals with Godavari and Krishna rivers accredited status in 2008 (Total length – 1078 km). Development yet to commence.
  • NW-5: East Coast Canal with Brahmani river and Mahanadi Delta System accredited status in 2008 (Total length – 588 km). Development yet to commence.
  • India has nearly 14500 km of navigable and potentially navigable waterways. The total length of declared NWs is 4382 km. Declaration of one more National Waterway, i.e., NW- 6 in Barak river in the state of Assam (Total length – 121 km) is in the process.

NW- National Waterways


A well-integrated multi modal transport system encompassing road-rail-inland waterway network can add significant value to the logistic efficiency of the transport sector of the country. Therefore, IWT sector requires appropriate policy support in order to harness its full potential and augment public investment in order to create better infrastructure. Appropriate policy support to attract investment in creation of floating infrastructure and to extend mandatory inter modal share for cargo movement to all public limited companies – thereby creating a suitable tradable instrument to monetise the environmental advantages.

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