The cost- effective and environmentally sound system using rivers for transportation is being revived
nitinGadkari, Union Minister of Road Transport & Highways and Shipping, had remarked, “For taking any material from Mumbai to London or Mumbai to Dubai is easy and cheaper compared to taking it from Mumbai to Delhi”. Under the layers of apparent sarcasm, there were vestiges of a resolve too, a resolve to change the situation. On August 12, when he flagged off the vessels MV VV Giri and MV Joy Basudev from Varanasi, his resolve seemed to start bearing fruits.
With a consignment of 25 Maruti cars, VV Giri was headed to Kolkata, covering a distance of 1,100 km. This was a historic journey, as this was the longest a large cargo vessel had travelled on the National Waterway-1. NW-1 stretches from Allahabad to Haldia; a distance of 1,600 km.It was notified way back in 1986 but is rarely used for cargo movement.
India is a land of rivers. But, of the existing 14,500 km of waterways, only 4,500 km (five NWs) has caught the attention of policymakers till now. Except for few pockets in West Bengal, Assam and Kerala, even these waterways were severely underutilized. In India, only 3.5 per cent of the total goods and passenger traffic uses inland waterways, while the figure is 47 per cent for China. In China, around two lakh cargo vessels use the inland waterways system, while in India, less than 1,000 vessels ply on inland waterways.
Lack of suitable infrastructure was a major impediment in the growth of waterways. Due to seasonal variation of water flow, maintaining the Least Available Depth (LAD) for the vessels to ply becomes difficult. There are very few proper inland ports in India, which are designed for efficient loading and unloading. This inflates the cost for the contractors as they had to involve manual labour. Navigation becomes an issue as the cargo routes are not properly mapped.
In 2016, the government decided to go all guns blazing to tap the potential of waterways. Under National Waterways Act, 2016, 106 new waterways were notified. Under Jal Marg Vikas project, government is holistically developing the NW-1, with assistance from World Bank. Plan outlay is Rs 4,200 crore.
Along with the infrastructural components like river terminals, bank and slope protection, channel surveys etc., government is also developing electronic maps, integrated GPS systems, river information systems ina phased manner. Government efforts have brought the spotlight on the inland waterways.
Waterways transport involves huge financial benefits. Cost of transportation by waterways is 30-50 paisa per tonne per km, while the cost for rail and road is Re 1 and Rs 1.5 respectively. Indian roads have not been very conducive for the cargo movement; incessant delays keep adding to the cost.
As the pressure shifts on the waterways, there will be direct benefits – easing the road traffic, curbing the CO2 emission, lowering the number of road accidents. As the public and private investment in waterways increase, huge employment opportunities are also on the anvil. Inland Waterways Authority of India chairman Amitabh Verma said, “The overall investment in the Jal Marg Vikas Project will lead to direct and indirect employment of more than 50,000 persons in Bihar alone.”
Development of inland waterways is going to tackle multiple problems at once. Infrastructural projects have long gestation periods. 2016 witnessed the comprehensive nudge given by government, 2017 will be the year when the real progress will be achieved which will be an indicator of the impact.
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