Despite huge potential of inland waterways, they had remained a perennially ignored part of the country’s infrastructure largely because water remains a state subject in India and right over usage of water and ownership of adjacent land remain with state government.
Since Independence, only five water bodies have been declared as National Waterways as the process is cumbersome and to declare a NW, the government needs approval from Parliament unlike the case of highways (where it just requires a notification in the official gazette).
All identified water bodies to be declared as National Waterways
The shipping ministry has prepared a draft Cabinet note proposing to declare all the identified water bodies (read 101 National Waterways) as National Waterways through a single legislation.
In this regard, the Union Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari has proposed to amend the Constitution to preclude the requirement of parliamentary approval for declaration of NWs. Understandably, there is much legality involved and the law ministry has sought more details on the new NWs, seeking among other details, the exact location of the water bodies and the stretches to be developed.
Legalities apart, it may be mentioned that the world over, inland waterways are considered an economical mode of transportation.
A detailed project report prepared by the Inland Waterways Authority of India suggests that there is already an urgent demand to facilitate navigation by bigger vessels of 1,500 tonnage as many potential shippers (thermal power plants, cement companies, fertilizer companies, edible oil companies, Food Corporation of India) have shown interest.
The government has identified five inland water lanes – Ganga, Mahanadi, Bhahmaputra, Buckingham Canal, and one in Kerala – to be developed on a Public Private Participation (PPP) basis. To make it economically viable, it plans to provide facilities and concessions to the investors by building terminals, and ports. It proposes to inaugurate the first inland waterways port in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency on the banks of river Ganga, Varanasi to be modelled on the pattern of Ahmedabad and Mumbai airport with shopping complex with cafeteria, shops of handlooms and traditional handicrafts.
A viable source of transportation
The ambitious government plan also aims at increasing tourism and “transform Indian rivers into ports”.
Government figures suggest that if road transport cost Rs 1.50, inland waterways would cost just 50 paise in comparison. This is half of what the railway would cost under the same situation.
At present, inland waterways handle just 0.5 per cent of the total traffic in the country. Compare this with China where waterways contribute 20 per cent.
In China, transportation of goods through waterways constitutes about 44 per cent at about 1,200,000,000,000 ton /year. (In fact Yangtze in China was the first waterway in the world for the transport of goods).
Gadkari has acknowledged that the “huge proportion of cargo moved by water in China, Europe and the United States has been achieved because of conducive governmental initiatives and intervention”.
The benefits of waterways are immense. Take for example the Rs. 4,200 crore “Jal Marg Vikas”, a World Bank aided project underway to develop River Ganga between Haldia in West Bengal and Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh so as to make it navigable for ships with a depth of at least 3 meters. The development of waterways in this stretch would not just create an alternative and cheap mode of transport, but would also bring relief to transporters in view of the fact that the rail and road corridors of this region are already saturated. Not to mention that it would benefit industries and boost manufacturing activities in cities falling in the stretch such as Haldia, Howrah, Kolkata, Bhagalpur, Patna, Ghazipur, Varanasi and Allahabad.
Indeed the government initiative to develop inland waterways is a welcome move. Yet, it also needs to care for the sensibilities of concerned states at the same time.