As Anil Sasi (Indian Express) notes: “Inland waterways are a far more efficient mode of transportation than either road or rail, considering that just a single mid-sized barge has the dry-cargo capacity equivalent to 50 trucks or over 10 railcars. As a consequence, transportation of cargo over inland waterways offers the advantage of both lowering carbon dioxide emissions and curbing the rate of road accidents, where India has the dubious distinction of being among the worst in the world”.
Since India’s inland waterways are lagging behind other modes of transport, the central government has evolved a policy for the integrated development of inland waterways. The National Waterways Bill was passed on 15th March 2016. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill states that while inland waterways are recognised as a fuel efficient, cost effective and environment friendly mode of transport, it has received far less investment than roads and railways.
- Cost of transportation by waterways is 30-50 paisa per tonne per km (PTPK), compared to Rs 1 PTPK for rail, and Rs 1.5 PTPK for road
- Time taken by road from, say, Varanasi to Kolkata is 2 days, a typical road trailer carries six cars. In comparison, a river vessel can carry 300 if it’s a double decker. So, a large vessel can replace 50 trailers on road.
111 rivers across the country have been designated as national waterways, to be developed to enable more movement of goods and passengers. Road Transport, Highways and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari regretted that the waterways had taken a backseat in India, with only 3.5% of trade being done through this mode, compared with 47% in China, 40% in Europe, 44% in Japan and Korea and 35% in Bangladesh.
Though the state-owned Inland Waterways Authority of India has been working on dredging, surveys, channel marking, river conservancy works, construction of terminals and procurement of hardware like dredgers, demonstration barges, and survey launches since 1986, neither the number of cargo vessels nor the amount of cargo moved has shown any improvement except in one case.
One problem, alongside lack of port, wharf and lock maintenance, is that most of the waterways included in the list of new waterways are freshwater rivers, many drying up completely during post monsoon period and it is agreed that the diversion of water for navigation should not be undertaken at the cost of other priorities such as drinking and irrigation, primarily carried out by India’s thirty canals.
The World Bank has noted that goods in India travel by congested road and rail networks, which slows cargo movement, adds to uncertainties, and generally increases the costs of trade logistics which account for as much as 18% of the country’s GDP. Although carrying bulk goods on waterways is cheaper, more reliable and less polluting than transporting them by road or rail, India has yet to develop this cheaper and greener mode of transportation.
Section 3 of its 322 page 2016 report: Consolidated Environmental Impact Assessment Report of National Waterways includes an assessment of inland waterway transport’s impact on climate change, concluding that this is the most efficient and environmental friendly mode of transportation, involving least CO2 generation when compared with rail & road. An estimate of the CO2 emissions from different modes of transportation for the same quantity of cargo for a similar distance is that CO2would be reduced and a net saving of 4.54 million tonnes realised over a period of 30 years (till 2045).
In April it announced a $375 million loan from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) to help the Inland Waterways Authority of India put in place the infrastructure and navigation services needed to develop National Waterway 1 as an efficient ‘logistics artery’ for northern India.
The loan will enable the design and development of a new fleet of low-draft barges capable of carrying up to 2000 tonnes of cargo in these shallower depths.
In addition, the project has introduced an innovative ‘assured depth’ contract framework to incentivise minimal dredging by agencies responsible for keeping the fairway open for navigation. These strategies have helped reduce the need for dredging in the navigation channel to only about 1.5 per cent of the river’s annual silt load. Even this limited dredging will only be done using modern, less intrusive technologies such as the water injection dredging method (see Van Oord’s video: https://vimeo.com/90107325, no subtitles). It has the additional advantage of ensuring that sediments remain within the river’s ecosystem.
National Waterway 1 will form part of a larger multi-modal transport network, linking with the Eastern Dedicated Rail Freight Corridor, as well as the area’s network of highways, allowing the region’s manufacturers and agricultural producers to use different modes of transport to reach markets in India and abroad. A successful outcome would encourage a gradual expansion of waterway freight transport in India, reducing transport costs, road accidents and urban air pollution.