Jal Marg Vikas Pioneering Navigation in India

By: Pravir Pandey
Integrating India’s vast network of perennial rivers with modern technologies and wise investments to make the most of its navigational challenges will bring prosperity through trade and employment to its people.
English Free Article Water

In the developed world, citizens are guaranteed multiple transport modes with adequate infrastructure, while in the developing regions transport infrastructure is often inadequate and incomplete. Transport infrastructure provides essential linkages to markets right through the hinterland, enhances productive capacities, bridges distances, and contributes to national integration.

In ancient times the Ganga and some of its eastern tributaries, were important transportation routes. Megasthenes, a Greek ethnographer, explorer, and author of Indika had noted that the Ganga and its main tributaries were a major mode of transport in the 4th century BCE. By the 14th Century, inland-river navigation in the Ganga basin was still flourishing and by the 19th Century, irrigation-cum-navigation canals formed the main arteries of the water-transport system. The advent of paddle steamers revolutionised inland transport, stimulating the growth of indigo production in Bihar and Bengal. Regular steamer services ran from Kolkata up the Ganga to Allahabad and far beyond, as well as to Agra on the Yamuna and up the Brahmaputra.

The decline of large scale water transport began with the construction of railways in the mid-19th century. The increasing withdrawal of water for irrigation also affected navigation.

In the present context river traffic is insignificant beyond the middle Ganga around Allahabad, and mainly comprises rural rivercraft (including motorboats, sailboats, and rafts). Thus, navigation on the Ganga has become a lost socio-economic opportunity over the years.

Fig. 1: National Waterway 1—Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system
Fig. 1: National Waterway 1—Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system

Connectivity and prosperity are interlinked. The US, China and Europe have taken great strides in developing their inland waterways; using speedy and substantial investment, they have been able to maximise the socio-economic benefits of inland waterways. It is high time that India took advantage of its vast network of perennial rivers, and decongest its road and rail traffic.

Opportunity beckoning

National Waterway 1 (NW-1) on the Allahabad-Haldia stretch of the Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hoogly river system is a waterway of national significance, passing through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. It connects Haldia, Howrah, Kolkata, Bhagalpur, Patna, Ghazipur, Varanasi and Allahabad, their industrial hinterlands and several industries located along the Ganga Basin. The rail and road corridors of this region are already saturated. Hence, the development of NW-1 would result in a viable supplementary mode of transport to move huge quantities of bulk cargo thereby helping in the economic development of this region. Development of NW-1 would result in an environment friendly, fuel efficient and cost-effective alternative mode of transportation, especially for bulk goods, hazardous goods and over-sized cargo.

However, the continuing growth in waterway traffic would create some challenges such as the demand for increasingly large vessels and the navigational challenge of maintaining the right water depth. In fact, adequate depth is the foremost requirement if a waterway has to be navigable and commercially viable. While Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has been able to maintain a least available depth (LAD) of 3 m between Haldia and Farakka, LAD of even 2 m in the upper reaches of NW-1 between Patna and Allahabad has been difficult to maintain due to very low discharge and difficult hydro-morphological characteristics. As a result, vessels of up to 750 deadweight tonnage (DWT) capacity only can navigate in the upper reaches beyond Farakka.

There is a strong demand for capacity augmentation  in NW-1 right up to Allahabad, as many potential shippers—thermal power plants, cement companies, fertiliser companies, edible oil companies, Food Corporation of India, Maruti Suzuki, flyash and stonechip companies, have evinced interest to use NW-1, provided adequate infrastructure is developed to facilitate navigation by bigger vessels of 1500-2000 DWT.

Development of infrastructure on NW-1 can enable increased cargo traffic on large vessels between Haldia and Allahabad, reduce transport cost for shippers, reduce congestion and accidents on highways, converge river transport with other modes of surface transport, and save on carbon emissions.

Jal Marg Vikas – Development of Waterways

Financial issues are an essential part of any infrastructure project. To achieve adequate navigability standards on the entire stretch of NW-1 from Allahabad to Haldia, an estimated expenditure of INR 4,200 crore (US$ 700 million) will need to be incurred. This involves strengthening of open river navigation techniques and hardware, dredging, modern river information systems (RIS), digital global positioning system (DGPS), night navigation facilities and modern methods of channel marking, besides introducing low draft vessels and other means available elsewhere in the world. Completion of the project is expected to provide a large-barge fairway of about 1,620 km.

Following the World Bank’s readiness to support the project with an initial loan of USD 50 million along with technical assistance, the ‘Jal Marg Vikas Project’ was launched between Allahabad and Haldia for commercial navigation. The Union Finance Minister during the 2014-15 budget session, declared the government’s plan to enable 1500-2000 tonne vessels ply on the waterway, once the project was completed over a period of six years. The project aims to improve navigability of NW-1 by:

  • Fairway development with the provision of an assured depth of at least 3 m throughout the corridor for at least 330 days in a year for vessels of 1,500-2000 DWT;
  • Providing civil structural, logistics and communications interventions required for this project through terminals, jetties, navigational locks, channel marking systems, automated information techniques of DGPS and RIS, night navigation aids, slipways, bunkering facilities and fairway development through river training and river conservancy works.
  • Integrating river transportation with other surface transport modes, such as road and rail networks, to improve the overall efficiency of the logistics chain. This would entail improvement of the overall water transport management through institutional strengthening, capacity building and improving the investment climate.

The major part of the investments is expected to be along the Ganga and its hinterland. The proposed project will adopt a framework approach for infrastructure investment selection and implementation, making it cost effective and immune to adverse impacts. The investment framework will be developed during the project preparation period, and will be agreed and finalised in the Project Appraisal Document to be approved by the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors.

An essential component of the Jal Marg Vikas Project will be strategic communication campaigns targeted at citizen participation, particularly communities living along the project corridor. Extensive public consultation with families and communities likely to be affected by the project will be carried out prior to ground level implementation of the project.

The project also aims at improving the investment climate and institutional development. This component will be implemented through setting up of multimodal logistic hubs with integration with other surface modes of road and rail transport. The critically important attributes would be
origin and destination of various trades; types of and volume of potential cargoes; identification; and, mapping of potential cluster industries. A combination of project supported interventions would aim at capacity development of IWAI for research; search and rescue; vessel and river monitoring arrangements; and, aids to safe navigation.

Risks and mitigation

Transportation can define a society. Trade corridors develop and civilization prospers, but the costs of infrastructure development have to be carefully evaluated. Risks associated with such development projects need to be identified early, and the risk mitigation mechanism quickly set in place. This project presents unique and difficult engineering, environmental and business development challenges, with a high price tag.

An agreement for advancing a Project Preparation Fund Advance (PPFA) of 3.5 million USD has been signed between the World Bank and Indian government’s Department of Economic Affairs, on 6 June 2015. A robust and functional management structure for the Jal Marg Vikas Project has been constituted to ensure timely and quality execution of the Project. A Project Management Unit (PMU) with Member (Finance & Traffic) as Project Director was set up in June, 2014 in IWAI for immediately going ahead with the preparatory work relating to the Project. Other functionally essential consultants/specialists for project administration, engineering, procurement, environmental and social impact assessment, business development strategy, communication and finance have been engaged in the PMU. A Project Oversight Committee (POC) under Chairman, IWAI was set up in September 2014 to provide critical guidance and evaluation of the Project. The POC comprises of senior officers of IWAI, representatives of the stake holding state governments of UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal and Central Water Commission (CWC). Ministry of Shipping, vide Gazette Notification dated 15 October 2014, has designated the IWAI as the Project Implementing Agency for the Jal Marg Vikas Project. Project Implementing Units are proposed to be set up at Varanasi, Patna and Kolkata to have on site supervision and monitoring of work related to the Project.

Riding the waves

At present, there are 20 floating and two fixed terminals on NW-1. These are ill-equipped to handle the huge quantity of cargo expected to move on NW-1, especially after its capacity augmentation. The scoping and project preparation missions of World Bank had identified Ramnagar in Varanasi, Haldia, and Sahibganj for construction of multi-modal terminals with rail and road connectivity. An MoU has been signed in March 2015 with Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India (DFCCIL) for technical support for the rail connectivity at Varanasi and developing additional hubs in future on NW-1.

Studies by IWAI and World Bank have concluded that Haldia has the potential to serve the demands of a large Kolkata-Haldia industrial area. After site surveys, land mapping, cargo studies and environmental impact assessment (EIA), 61 acres of land on lease has been taken over from Kolkata Port Trust.

IWAI is also contemplating design and construction of low draft vessels with high cargo carrying capacity. Introduction of such vessels in the waterways would provide useful logistics solutions. In addition, it would provide a cheaper and cost- effective alternative to heavy capital expenditure envisaged for civil and structural interventions for ensuring adequate depths in the waterways.  The other major works envisaged at this stage are construction of a multimodal terminal at Sahibgunj, Jharkhand and a new navigational lock at Farakka. The technical feasibility studies, environmental and social impact assessment and cargo projection studies for these works are in an advanced stage.

IWAI is also setting up the RIS system on NW-1, a first for India. The system involves equipment, hardware and software information technology related services designed to optimise traffic and transport processes in inland navigation. The system enhances swift electronic data transfer between mobile vessels and shore (through base stations) using advanced and real time exchange of information. RIS aims to streamline the exchange of information to facilitate inland navigation safety by enabling information exchange between vessels, locks and bridges, terminals and ports,  and  fairways, and hence avert all calamities.

The way ahead

Jal Marg Vikas is a non-water consumptive transportation project conceived with minimal resource depletion in mind. It will reduce rail and road congestion, reduce emissions from vehicles and railway engines on non-electrified routes, thereby reducing carbon emission and hence, the carbon footprint. Use of modern inland water vessels, with liquefied/compressed natural gas as fuel will reduce emission of SOx, NOx by 70 per cent, carbon dioxide by 25 per cent, and particulate emission by 95 per cent.

Land acquisition is a major hurdle for all infrastructure projects viz. highways, railways and urban transportation projects. However, for the building of infrastructure for waterways, except for a few places where terminals are proposed to be constructed, land requirement in comparison to other infrastructure projects, is almost negligible. This ensures that there is very little impact on ecology, biodiversity and agriculture as well as people’s livelihoods. Improved river flow due to improvement and augmentation of navigation facilities on NW-1 can, in fact, benefit aquatic flora and fauna.

Since this project will provide logistical access to communities on both sides of the river, it is bound to benefit local, regional and international business, and encourage tourism. As per the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), transport is one of the key sectors to play a crucial role in poverty eradication and sustainable development, and helps countries attain all eight millennium development goals. Thus once the Indian government invests in the basics—the minimum needed to make the project work, the private investors can do the rest, so that the project proves a success for all.

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