Inland Waterways – Tapping the potential..

Maruti Suzuki has signed an agreement to transport cars from Varanasi to Kolkata, lapping up the opportunity to utilise inland waterways within the country. The development, seemingly small but one with a huge potential and like many other initiatives of the government, has the potential to change the landscape of goods transportation within the country. In fact, the ease of transportation and huge benefits arising out of it leaves one wondering why Waterways have not been developed so far..

Inland waterways is very simple in concept and is nothing but transportation of goods through rivers, subject to certain technical requirements. It is not a new concept and its feasibility was established more than 150 years ago, yet its potential is grossly utilized. As per Wikipedia, the total cargo moved  by the inland waterway is just 0.1% of the total inland traffic in India compared to 21% in US.

The most important benefit of waterways is its cost effectiveness and ease of use. As per a 2014 RITES report, it is nearly 60% cheaper than road and nearly 25% cheaper than railways. Other than the operating cost, the investment required for development of waterway is also significantly lower than road or rail network. Other than that, it doesn’t require land acquisition and associated displacement, the biggest cause of projects stuck in the country. That is not all. The most outstanding benefit is significant reduction in vehicular pollution, an issue being debated hotly but little concrete measures to mitigate in place, yet.

While country does have a few operating waterways, the passage of National Waterways Act, 2016 in April this year has truly recognized its potential. The act has notified a total of 111 waterways as National Waterway (five of them already operating), totaling nearly 20,000 km of length enabling the government to facilitate their development and commercialization. Among the longest of these is the waterway on River Ganga (NW 1) from Allahabad to Kolkata totaling 1,620 km, on River Godavari (NW 4) covering the states of AP, Telangana and TN and on River Yamuna (NW 110) covering UP, Delhi and Haryana, both stretching over 1,000 km. Of special mention is NW 6 in the North-East region which is only 121 km long but covers a hilly terrain, otherwise difficult to navigate through roads.

The most important parameter for navigation through water channels is least available depth (LAD) which should be a minimum of 3 meters for navigation of vessels with carrying capacity of 1,500 ton. (In contrast, Ports have draft going beyond 12 meters, loosely equivalent to LAD, allowing them to handle ships with capacity of 100,000 tons also). It may be noted that NW 1 is constrained by low LAD of 1.2 meters limiting its potential. Government has taken up a project, aided by World Bank, to increase it to 3 meter providing boost to export bound goods from North/ Eastern region to the port city of Kolkata.

While the government efforts are laudable, the nation is still at least a decade away from realizing the potential of waterways. Let’s hope, the environmental adjustments required for developing these waterways do not come in the way of reaping its huge economic benefits.

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

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