Amid growing transport needs for man, machine and goods, the waterways have turned out to be a virgin area that can be developed to cut some of the burden from clogged road and rail modes of travel and transportation, writes Amresh Srivastava
Water transport is not new for our country. Right from its mythological origins found in the Puranas to the lores from Mughal period, it was considered as the main mode of long distance transportation. After independence, the focus went to faster and more modern means of transport to match the means of communication in developed countries. Thus, waterways were badly neglected by the successive governments.
For nearly seven decades, the focus has been on irrigation, rail and road bridges and hydro-electricity which was, of course, the need of hour, relegating rivers and their potential for navigation.
The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) was, indeed, created way back in 1986 to develop the waterways in the country. But through nearly three decades since its inception nothing came up substantially due to lack of interest among policymakers.
Dogged by constrains of the capacity expansion of road and the rail networks, the present NDA Government has decided to give impetus to this since it is low cost, cheap, reliable and eco-friendly transport system.
The waterways can change the economics of the transport sector if the Government implements it with deft. And now an indication to the will to do this has come from Union Minister for Shipping and Surface Transport Nitin Gadkari. He has termed use of waterways as a “Game changer” for near future.
Inland waterways in India makes up a trivial three-and-a-half percent of the total transport, compared to China's 47 percent and European Union’s 44 percent. India has 14500 kilometres of navigable waterways which comprise of river, canals, backwater, and creeks.
India’s population is growing at a high pace and in a few years it is likely to surpass that of China. Right now, the growth in population is not matching with the growth of the railway and road networks. When the gap in the passenger movement on rail and road is not able to keep pace with the population growth, one can well imagine what is going to happen to increasing need to transport cargo.
Secondly, India is a growing economy too, and with high rate of growth, a cheap mode of transport is needed to ferry the coal for the power plants, steel, cement and other industrial products for other needs.The infrastructure cost in the waterways is quite less as compared to other existing modes of transport. There are no environmental issues as such; minimum land is required for terminals or expansion of the riverbed. The cost of infrastructure is also less in comparison to rail and road infrastructure.
The waterways can offer a far more efficient mode of transportation than either road or rail, considering, 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 has the advantage of both lowering carbon dioxide emissions and curbing the rate of accidents, where India has the dubious of distinction of being among the worst in the world. Despite these tangible advantages, developing the sector in India is something that has clearly evaded the attention of policy makers, who have continued to focus on the railway, roads and highway sectors over the years.
"National highway is very important. But waterways are most important. In Korea and Japan, 43 and 44 percent of goods and passenger traffic is on water. In European countries... 40 percent of goods and passenger traffic is on water. In India, it is only 3.5 percent," Nitin Gadkari said while emphasising the need for better network of water-based transport.
The IWAI was created before the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). Yet, the demand for waterways was not created by the Government and no major investment were made in this sector. The investment in the railway is estimated to be close to 17 billion dollar a year and 12 billion on highways whereas in water transport it is only 30 million dollar a year. Given the limitations of the further expansion of rail and road networks, which have become costly affairs, the water transport deserves to be expanded to create a cheap and environment friendly mode of transport. Hence, an additional responsibility of the Inland Waterways Authority is to create demand for the water transport.
Making Rivers Navigable
A major challenge for the Inland Waterways Authority is to make the rivers suitable for navigation especially in case of five national waterways. Water transport being a slower mode of transport was totally ignored by the various agencies. Hundreds of road and rail bridges constructed across the rivers, power and telecom lines strewn in rivers render them unworthy of serving as waterways. So all the existing structures have to be modified and this requires coordination with various departments of States and the Central governments and other stake holders to redesign and modify these structures for the proper clearances of the barges.
Though the movement of the cargo in water transport is the cheapest all over the world but it needs high investments for creating the infrastructure. In road sector a simple truck will not cost more 20 lakh but a barge of 2000 tons capacity will cost ten crore and that may not be utilised in all the waterways as the depths will not be similar everywhere. Thus, the IWAI has floated a global tender to appoint the consultants who, after studying the rivers, will be giving right design for vessels for containers cargo, for steel, for coal, for the liquid cargo and the bulk transportation of the industrial products and the vessel should be fuel efficient.
The PPP model in barge leasing will only be viable when all the water routes become fully operational at least in five waterways. One top source in the Shipping Ministry, who does not want to be named, has said that initially the Government will buy few barges and then it may be leasing out them to private operators once five water routes become operational.
Retrieve business from other modes
The IWAI is primarily looking at a public sector enterprise like NTPC for business which has a huge amount of coal to transport. They use the railways despite issues of congestion and non-availability of wagons. NTPC has provided a commitment to IWAI for transporting three million ton a year of imported coal for its Farakka thermal power station for seven years.
The IWAI and NTPC last year reached another similar deal to transport three million ton coal annually from the Bay of Bengal to the Barh power plant once the new Farakka lock gate becomes operational at a cost of 600 crore. The deal will be for 10 years.
The private sector like the Ambujas, Tatas have also shown interest in the water transport to get their cargo moved, says IWAI chairman, Amitabh Verma.
The growing interest in waterways vis-à-vis transporting heavy cargo has led the Government to think in terms of adding more waterways and turn them in National Waterways. The numbers for this have crossed 100. Yet, getting abill passed for this from Parliament, more so from Rajya Sabha, remains a challenge before the Government. And so is the task to raise funds and make suitable allocations for this in the Budget.
River Information Service (RIS)
To facilitate safe and accurate navigation on inland waterway, the Inland Waterways Authority of India will provide the River Information Service (RIS) System to its network and it is already introduced to NW1 on the Ganga River.
River Information Services is a combination of modern tracking equipment, related hardware and software designed to optimise traffic and transport processes in inland navigation. The system enhances swift data transfer between mobile vessels and base stations through advance and real time exchange of information. The vessels will be fitted with Automatic Identification System (AIS) which will enable the controllers to have all information right from the class, size, speed and cargo of vessels at base stations along the route and can ensure two way communications between ship and control station through Very High Frequency or VHF.
This system would facilitate the enhancement of inland navigational safety in ports and river. This would also reduce the risks of ship to ship collisions, ship-bridge collisions and grounding hazards. The ship, plying on the route may have advance information about congestion at port or heavy traffic or any instruction from the control station through the route.
Presently under first phase, the RIS is installed on Sagar-Farakka stretch of NW1. This is akin to the systems under operation in countries like Netherland, Belgium, Germany, China and USA.