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The Water Route

The Water Route

Coastal shipping and inland waterways transportation (IWT), the two significant modes of domestic water transportation, both provide fuel and cost savings over road and rail transport.

Water as a mode of transportation holds significant importance in an economy´s progress. An efficient water transportation system can boost economic growth, while a poor system can hinder development. In India, the growing demand for transportation in infrastructure companies in the power, steel, cement, fertilisers and mining sector cannot be solely catered by capacity enhancements of the overburdened road and rail networks.

Taking a step towards development, the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has initiated the development of an inland water transport grid covering about 4,500 km on the lines of the National Highways network. This is expected to provide much-needed impetus to the inland water transportation segment. Similarly, the focus on the interlinking of the rivers as a standalone national waterway does not have much meaning unless there are feeder waterways connecting the grid.

The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has conducted an initial assessment that earmarks an investment of Rs 24,000 crore over the next eight years for the development of waterways infrastructure. The recently announced project, titled Jal Marg Vikas, is expected to increase investor interest in the sector, which will prove critical, given that an additional Rs 60,000 crore of private investment is required for the construction of barges and terminals under the public-private partnership model.

Presently, there are five national waterways declared passing through several states including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. All have been notified by the government after carrying out feasibility studies, some stretches are operational. The IWAI is now in process of preparing detailed project reports (DRPs) and the Rs 4,200 crore Jal Marg Vikas project will be ready for implementation by March 2015.

Coastal shipping and inland waterways trans¡portation (IWT), the two significant modes of domestic water transportation both provide fuel and cost savings over road and rail transport and thus, offer several opportunities in the Indian context especially to meet the demand for bulk transportation to hinterland areas and along the coast.

Currently, water as a mode of cargo movement contributes only 8 per cent of India´s total cargo movement by volume; of this, coastal shipping accounts for approximately 7 per cent. At 0.5 per cent, IWT cargo traffic falls short with its share of the logistics market as compared to China, which is at 8.7 per cent, the US, which is at 8.3 per cent and Europe, which stands at 7 per cent. Despite water transportation being a potential, cost-effective and environment-friendly mode of transport, its share in the modal mix continues to lag behind that of developed countries. India´s low share in water transport is primarily due to the increased time spent in transportation, increased costs of end-to-end transport facility, unavailability of return cargo and operational challenges at ports, underdeveloped supporting infrastructure, and the lack of awareness of its benefits.

India is home to 14,500 km of navigable inland waterways, of which 5,200 km (36 per cent) of major rivers and 485 km (3 per cent) of canals are conducive to the movement of mechanised vessels. Among these navigable waterways, five National Waterways (NWs) NWs 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 spanning approximately 4,400 km have been outlined as potential inland waterways at the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, the West Coast Canal, the Godavari and Krishna rivers, and the East Coast Canal, respectively. NW 6, which stretches across 121 km, has been proposed at Barak River.

The key characteristics and operational aspects of NW which contribute majorly to the IWT are: 

  • NW-1: Allahabad to Haldia on the Ganges River (1,620 km)
  • River port being developed at Kolkata and Haldia, capable of handling containers, rail link under construction;
  • River port at Patna operational;
  • River ports at Varanasi and Allahabad proposed in 12th Five-Year Plan;
  • Floating terminal at other locations;
  • Night-navigation facilities available;
  • Sufficient LAD – 2.5 m up to Patna and 2.0 m up to Varanasi planned.
  • NW-2: Sadiya to Dhubri on the Brahmaputra River (891 km)
  • Pandu to emerge as multimodal transport hub, catering to the North-East, broad gauge rail link also planned;
  • Dhubri River port planned by 2014;
  • Night-navigation facilities available;
  • Sufficient LAD – 2.5 m up to Neamati and 2.0 m up to Dibrugarh;
  • NW-3: West Coast Canal from Kottapuram to Kollam, including the Champakara and Udyogamandal canals (205 km)
  • Eight river ports already commissioned, one more at Alappuzha under construction;
  • Ro-Ro jetties at Willingdon and Bolghatty operational;
  • Night-navigation facilities available;
  • Sufficient LAD – 2.5 m planned across entire stretch;
  • NWs 4 and 5, declared in 2008, will span 1,095 km and 623 km, respectively and are expected to be developed at Rs 15 billion and Rs 42 billion, respectively – such that commercially viable stretches would be developed through the PPP route with viability gap funding.
  • NH-5 will help industries in Kalinganagar and Vyas Nagar Industrial hub with evacuation of coal, iron ore and other industrial products.
  • NW-6 is under process of being legislated û Barak river in Assam at a length of 121 km.

The development of the Indian IWT landscape holds immense potential due to its characteristic advantages over other modes of transportation, especially for bulk movement.

Domestic water transportation offers significant advantages over road and rail transport in terms of fuel and cost savings. Fuel consumption for every ton-kilometre of freight shipped is only 15 per cent of that by road and 54 per cent of that by rail. Emissions are also far lower than that in rail or road transport. From a cost perspective, shipping costs 21 per cent of that by road and 42 per cent of that by rail. IWT is gradually showcasing its advantage over road and rail especially for bulk transportation (coal and cement) and project-related over dimension cargo (ODC). The following are among some flagship examples that partially or fully employ IWT as a cost-effective transport option:

  • Cement from Farakka to Nabadweep, Bhagalpur and Patna
  • Hot-rolled (HR) coils from Kolkata to Tripura via Ashuganj
  • Project cargo for planned hydel power projects in Arunachal Pradesh
  • Coal for thermal power plants on Ganga and Brahmaputra
  • Food grains from Kolkata to Tripura via Ashuganj and within Assam
  • Fertiliser movement on the Ganges
  • Iron-ore shipments in the Goa region
  • Transportation of coal for National Thermal Power Station (NTPC) – Farakka project
  • Transportation of fly ash from West Bengal to Bangladesh
  • Transportation of coal for Tata Steel´s new Rs 40,000 crore steel plant in Odisha.

India´s water transportation system remains largely untapped and underutilised despite its high growth potential. However, this is likely to change as policymakers have started focusing on developing infrastructure for this segment. For the IWT to realise its full potential, it is imperative that issues such as the development of routes, capacity additions by port operators and shipping lines, and incentives for shippers and ship owners are duly addressed.

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