Saturday, June 25th, 2022 20:03:25

Towards a viable Inland Water Transport

Updated: November 30, 2018 3:04 pm

An epoch-making event took place on November 14 in India, which the habitual naysayers in the country  would like to be relegated to insignificance. True to their nature these naysayers will discourage anybody who wants to pursue one’s goals and dreams. They will joke at you and say “It’s impossible!” when you share your grand plans for your future. In fact, they will not hesitate to sabotage your plans and keep you from achieving your highest potential.

This is exactly what happened on November 12, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi  received, in a first for the country’s inland water transport after independence,    a container vessel in Varanasi on the river Ganga; it  transported 16 containers equivalent to 16 truckloads of food and snacks from Kolkata to Varanasi. The naysayers, most of them being eleites in our national media, underplayed its significance. In fact, many of them  trolled in the social media as to how unwise the entire exercise was and how the plan will come to nought because of the lack of the  water in the Ganga.

Be that as it may, the history-making maiden container was MV RN Tagore, carrying food and beverages major PepsiCo’s  16 containers – equivalent to 16 truckloads – from Kolkata to Varanasi. It had left Kolkata inland port on October 30. MV RN Tagore will make its return journey with fertilisers belonging to IFFCO that will be procured from its Phulpur plant near Allahabad.

As pointed out, this is the first time that a container vessel travelled on inland waterways on the Ganga. This waterway has been named National Waterway-1. Modi received the vessel at the newly developed multi-modal terminal at Varanasi

and dedicated  the terminal to the nation same day.

What is of equal significance is that   the commencement of the journey on October 30 at Kolkata( MV RN Tagore was flagged off by Shipping Secretary Gopal Krishna along with Inland Water Authority of India  chairman Pravir Pandey –  had coincided with another momentous day for the inland water transport(IWT)  in the sense that it was the fructification of  IWAI’s first foray into public private partnership (PPP) model; the operation and management of its terminals in Kolkata was handed  over of to Summit Alliance Port East Gateway (India) Pvt Ltd (SAPEL) on a supply, operate and maintain (SOM) model.

“Inland waterways transport in India is set for a revolution and the massive work done on waterways has started showing impact,” according to Union road transport and highways, shipping and water resources, and Ganga rejuvenation minister Nitin Gadkari.  For prime Minister Modi,

“inland waterways are the proof of new India, new vision” and their  revival “ is a new step toward economic development as it would ease traffic pressure on roads and help cut logistic costs”. In his inaugural address on November 12, the Prime Minister said that “water-transportation system is a big boost for eastern India, which would benefit from it directly. It will  not only help Uttar Pradesh, but also West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar.” According to Gadkari, the National Democratic Alliance government aims to increase the inland waterway cargo movement from 8 million tonnes at present to 27 million tonnes in the next one-and-a-half to 2 years.

It may be noted that the full route of the National Waterway-1  is that between  Haldia in West Bengal to Prayagraj (Allahbad) in Uttar Pradesh and it is aided with differential global positioning system (DGPS), river information system (RIS), river training and conservancy works. The Haldia-Varanasi stretch of the National Waterway-1 has been developed with technical assistance and investment support from the World Bank. The total estimated cost of the project is Rs 5,369.18 crore. The cost of the project was shared between the Indian government and the World Bank on 50:50 ratio.

The project involves construction of three multi-modal terminals – at Varanasi, Sahibganj and Haldia, two inter-modal terminals and five roll-on-roll-off or Ro-Ro terminal pairs. It also has a new navigation lock at Farakka, assured depth dredging, integrated vessel repair and maintenance facility. The Varanasi inland port on Ganga river where PM Modi received the container vessel has been newly developed. It is the first multi-modal terminal on the Ganga. The terminal was developed as part of the Centre’s Jal Marg Vikas Project that aims to develop the stretch of the river between Varanasi and Haldia for navigation of large vessels weighing up to 1,500 to 2,000 tonnes.

The objective of the project is to promote inland waterways as a cheap and environment-friendly means of transportation, especially for cargo movement. The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) is the project implementing agency. The basic idea is to  augment institutional capacity for the development and management of India’s inland waterway transport system in an environmentally sustainable manner. The project comprises of two components. The first component, improving the navigability of NW-1 (Haldia to Varanasi) includes six sub-components: (i) retroactive financing for detailed topographic and bathymetric surveys, preparation of technical feasibility and detailed engineering studies, preparation of environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) studies, and other supporting technical assistance and studies for project preparation, most of which have been completed; (ii) improvement of river fairway through dredging and river conservancy works; (iii) construction of permanent protection works for erosion- prone banks in selected locations, totaling up to 40 km; (iv) rehabilitation of the existing Farakka ship lock and construction of a new parallel lock to allow concurrent two-way working; (v) construction of: (i) six multimodal and inter-modal freight terminals with future provision to allow evolution as market clusters, (ii) two vessel repair and maintenance facilities, and (iii) five pairs of Ro-Ro crossings; and (vi) sixth sub-component includes: (i) navigational aids in the form of night navigation facilities and channel marking; (ii) enhancement of the existing river information service (RIS) through addition of app-based systems, an improved communication platform, and expanded user reach; (iii) support for the development of a terminal management system (TMS); and (iv) provision of other support services, for example, search and rescue, distress response and casualty incident management, and upgrading vessel.

It may be noted that  through the ages, rivers have served as effective waterways, carrying people and goods over long distances.  Even today, many countries depend

heavily on inland water transport, especially for large and bulky cargo, as it is cheaper, more reliable and less polluting than transporting goods by road or rail. In fact, when the Indian government first started to seriously explore inland waterways in 2004, the share of transport travelling through on water was “a paltry 0.15%”. This compared to 20% in Germany and over 32% in Bangladesh.

India has yet to develop this cheaper and greener mode of transportation. Goods still travel by congested road and rail networks, slowing the movement of cargo, adding to uncertainties, and increasing the costs of trade. So much so that logistics costs in India are estimated to account for as much as 18 percent of the country’s GDP, according to a World Bank report. In a way, this is a pity, because until about a hundred years ago, the Ganga river was a busy waterway. But with the coming of the railways, this watercourse fell into disuse.

The waterway’s stretch between Kolkata and Delhi passes through one of India’s most densely populated areas.  The World bank report says that a  sizeable forty percent of all India’s traded goods either originate from this resource-rich region or are destined for its teeming markets.  While the region is estimated to generate about 370 million tonnes of freight annually, only a tiny fraction of this – about 5 million tonnes – currently travels by water.

Currently, cargo from the Gangetic states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh takes circuitous land routes to reach the sea ports of Mumbai in Maharashtra and Kandla in Gujarat, rather than going to the much-closer port at Kolkata.  The development of NW1 will help these states direct some of their freight to the Kolkata-Haldia complex, making the movement of freight more reliable and reducing logistics costs significantly.

The World Bank is financing the development of the Ganga waterway with a loan of $ 375 million.  The Capacity Augmentation of National Waterway 1 Project will help put in place the infrastructure and services needed to ensure that NW1 emerges as an efficient transport artery in this important economic region. Once fully operational, the waterway will form part of the larger multi-modal transport network being planned along the river.  It will link up with the Eastern Dedicated Rail Freight Corridor, as well as with the area’s existing network of highways.  This web of water, road and rail arteries will help the region’s industries and manufacturing units switch seamlessly between different modes of transport as they send their goods to markets in India and abroad. Farmers in the agriculturally-rich Gangetic plain will also benefit, as the waterway opens up markets further afield.

Since the absence of essential infrastructure such as cargo terminals and jetties has been one of the reasons for the slow development of water transport in the region, the Project will help establish six multi-modal freight terminals – at Varanasi, Ghazipur, Kalughat, Sahibgunj, Triveni and Haldia.  In addition, five new Roll On-Roll Off (RO-RO) crossings at different locations will help trucks and other vehicles transfer from road to river and vice versa. The six new cargo terminals have the potential to evolve into thriving logistics hubs, providing jobs for thousands of people in one of the poorest and most populous parts of the country. The Project will also help set up a vessel repair and maintenance facility at Doriganj.

In addition, the Project will support the modernization of the ageing Farakka lock, built some 40 years ago.  At present, vessels often have to wait for up to six hours to cross the lock; nor is two-way traffic possible through its narrow gates.  To facilitate the faster and smoother passage of boats through the passage, the lock will not only be upgraded but a new lock will also be built, allowing barges to travel both upstream and downstream simultaneously.  These improvements will dramatically reduce the time taken to cross the lock.

Furthermore, the Project will help set up a state-of-the-art River Information System (RIS). Among its many benefits, the RIS will enable barge-operators and cargo-owners to track their vessels, locate berths in advance in terminals and better plan their logistics.  To make navigation safe both day and night, the Project will help mark out the central channel for boats to ply in and install night navigation facilities. Besides, detailed protocols are being laid down for dealing with emergencies, including for tackling the spillage of oil from boats.

Equally important is to note that since the Ganga occupies a special place in the social, cultural and environmental landscape of the country, the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has sought to adopt the least intrusive methods of making the river navigable. It has therefore followed the principle of ‘working with nature’ while planning the Ganga waterway. Unlike many of the world’s major watercourses, the Ganga is a seasonal river that swells with the monsoon rains and recedes in the dry winters.  While small boats can indeed ply along this seasonal river, large cargo barges need a minimum depth to sail in.  Shipping on the Ganga has thus been limited by the varying depths of water found in the river. Currently, traffic is largely limited to the river’s downstream stretch between Farakka and the Haldia where the water is deep enough – 2.5 m to 3.0 m – for boats to sail in throughout the year.

Making such a river navigable therefore would call for large scale dredging of the riverbed to attain the depth needed by larger boats, especially for large barges carrying up to 2,000 tonnes of cargo. In the Ganga’s case, special care has been taken to accommodate such vessels while keeping the need for dredging to the minimum. A 45 metre-wide channel has been earmarked in the river’s deepest part, and the Least Available Depths (LAD) needed for navigation has been determined keeping in mind the need to reduce dredging.  The channel’s depth thus follows the river’s natural gradient in different stretches and is sufficient to support the two-way movement of large barges.

These measures will reduce the need for dredging to just 1.5 percent of the river’s annual silt load of 10-11 million cubic metres.  Even this limited dredging will only be done when absolutely necessary and then too using modern, less intrusive technologies. Among these technologies is the proposed water injection method that will use water pressure to liquefy silt deposits and wash them away. The dense slurry that results will then be deposited – either naturally or through induced currents – into depressions along the riverbed, ensuring that sediments remain within the river’s ecosystem.

Where large shoals and islands exist, temporary structures made of natural materials such as bamboo will be erected to channelize the water flow. These temporary structures – or ‘bandals’ as they are known – will be especially erected near aquatic sanctuaries to protect the Ganga’s diverse fauna.  Every effort is being made to ensure that water traffic does not impact the two aquatic wildlife sanctuaries that fall along this stretch of the river — the Kashi Turtle Sanctuary at Varanasi and the Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary at Bhagalpur.

As a first step, information about these protected aquatic habitats and other sensitive areas such as wetlands will be fed into the new River Information System being developed under the World Bank-supported Project.  This will ensure that vessels plying in these areas comply with the operational framework that has been put into place for minimizing impacts in sensitive zones. This framework includes:

  •  A ban on dredging in protected habitat areas
  • In other areas that are known to be the habitat of valued aquatic species, no dredging will be allowed in the breeding and spawning seasons.
  •  The speed of barges travelling along the protected areas of the sanctuaries will be restricted to 5km per hour.
  • All vessels plying on the Ganga will be fitted with noise control and animal exclusion devices so that aquatic life is not unduly disturbed.
  • All vessels will also have to comply with `zero discharge’ standards to prevent solid or liquid waste from flowing into the river and affecting its biodiversity.

The Modi government is also working on the revival of other important national waterways. now reviving the Ganga watercourse as well as the other declared important  National Waterways. These are:

NW-1: Haldia (West Bengal) to Allahabad (1620 kms) on river Ganga.

NW-2: Dibrigarh (assam) to Dhuburi (Assam, 891 km) on river Brahmaputra. It was declared National Waterway No.2 in 1988

NW-3: Kollam (Kerla) to Kottapuram (Kerla) on West Coast (168 kms) along with Champakare canal (14 km) and Udyogmandal Canal (23 kms). It was declared National Waterway No.3 in 1999.

NW-4: Kakinada (Andhra Pradesh) to Pondicherry (1078 km) on Rivers Godavari and Krishna, covering Tamil Nadu in between. It was declared National Waterway No.4 in 2008.

NW-5: Talchar (Odisha) to Dhamra (Odisha) (623 km) on Brahmani River and Mahanadi delta rivers, integrated with East Coast Canal in the states of West Bengal and Odisha. It was declared National Waterway No.5 in 2008.

Under the National Waterways Act, 2016 declared in March 2016, as many as 106 additional National Waterways have been notified with the objective of augmenting the average effective networks of Inland Water Transport  over   24 states in addition to the existing five NWs. These have been divided into three categories for carrying out studies on 106 NWs. The Category -1 consists of eight viable waterways on which development activities have been initiated. Category- II consists of 46 NWs. Out of these, 24 NWs have been shortlisted for Detailed Project Report (DPR) preparation after feasibility study. Further, on four NWs, more information is sought from the two stage DPR consultants. The rest of the 18 NWs are not viable technically and due to traffic issues identified during feasibility studies. For balance 52 NWs, reports are being assessed and final decision regarding their viability has to be taken. It is expected that many of these waterways would act as feeder routes to the main bigger waterways and help in evacuation of deep hinterland cargo through smaller vessel, thus adding to the economic development of the hinterland, besides acting as an aggregator of cargo for main bigger waterways.

At the same time, it may be kept in mind the ultimate yardstick of success for any waterway is its commercial viability. So there must be basic infrastructures and other facilities that make waterways commercially viable mode of transportation. And these include : a) Development of fairway or navigation channel with targeted depth and width for the passage of optimum size of cargo vessels(It is generally considered that if an inland waterway is capable of plying 1000 DWT vessels, it is commercially viable. For this, normally a depth of 2.5 meters in the fairway is essential under the present circumstances. For movement of 1000 to 2000 DWT cargo vessels, the navigational channel should have at least 45-meter width and 3-meter depth),  b) Providing navigation aids for round-the-clock safe navigation, c) Construction of terminals/ports/jetties for berthing of vessels, loading/unloading of cargo, warehouses/storage places, boarding and lodging facilities, etc. d) Providing connectivity to the terminals with rail and road networks,  e) A robust marketing strategy to ensure both upstream and downstream movement of cargo. National waterways should be  ideally suited for transportation of bulk goods, such as coal, cement, food grains, fertilizers, stone chips, jute, steel, POL, LPG, Tea, containers, water, liquids, etc.; hazardous goods, such as chemicals, acids, etc.; and over-dimensional cargo.

What is the potential of inland water transport in the country? It is huge, considering the absolutely negligible record of the country compared to others.  China, USA, European Union have consistently maintained and upgraded their river system on core routes that can support large modern vessel fleets up to 40,000 tons of cargo in single voyage. In contrast, and this has been already pointed out, IWT in India has only 0.5% modal share; China 8.7%; USA 8.3% and Europe 7%. China invested USD 15 billion in 2005-2010; Germany invested 12 billion Euros in 2012 alone; India on the other hand spent USD 250 million between 1986 -2014 (28 years). Country Tonnage Vessels USA 615 MT 31,000 European Union 565 MT 11,000 China 1.1 BT 200,000.

In other words, if  the IWT mode in India is not so much developed compared with other countries, the major reason for this is  very low level of investment: The level of investment on preservation and development of IWT mode in India has been abysmally low compared to road and rail modes. As a result, this mode of transportation remained underdeveloped and its share in overall internal cargo transport remained very low (less than 1 % in terms of ton-kilometer). This is a great economic opportunity loss to the country. A comparison of the investment in IWT in India with that in other countries shows that the expenditure by China in IWT between 2005- 2010 (five years) was US$ 15 billion; and the budget for IWT development in Germany for the year 2012 alone was 15 billion Euros. As against this, the expenditure on IWT in India between 1986 and 2010 (25 years) was just Rs. 1117 crore, i.e., US$ 200 million. This is considerably very low for India, which has, as per data available from various studies, a total length of 14,500 kms of navigable inland waterways.

Many experts have argued that if the development on the IWT front has been very slow in the country despite the announcement of a policy framework as early as 2002, it is because of the lackadaisical approach on the part of the central government as well as the IWAI. But the Modi government must be given credit for its pro-active thrusts towards the implementation of the  policy, naysayers notwithstanding.  After all, water based transport  or the waterways are naturally available , operate on cheaper infrastructures and lesser fuel , and do the least damage to the environment with much lower pollution  than the  corresponding volumes of movement by road, rail or air.


By Prakash Nanda


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