Big Step Forward

106 new national waterways announced

The inland waterways segment has received a major impetus with the passage of the National Waterways Bill, 2015, which aims to develop 106 new national waterways (NWs). This bill was passed in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha in December 2015 and March 9, 2016 respectively, and will now be sent to the President for approval.

So far, the inland waterways segment has received scant attention, despite being the most cost-effective and environment-friendly mode of transportation. The development of additional waterways will provide significant benefits by reducing road congestion, providing a cheaper mode of passenger transportation, reducing logistics costs in cargo movement and developing adjoining areas.

Current status

India has a potentially navigable river network of about 14,500 km, of which only 2,968 km or 20.4 per cent has been developed. Five waterways in India have been declared as NWs so far. These are:

  • NW-1: Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system (Allahabad to Haldia – 1,620 km)
  • NW-2: Brahmaputra river (Dhubri to Sadiya – 891 km)
  • NW-3: West Coast Canal (Kottapuram-Kollam along with the Udyogmandal and Champakara canals – 205 km)
  • NW-4: Kakinada to Puducherry Canal along with the Godavari and Krishna rivers (1,078 km)
  • NW-5: East Coast Canal integrated with the Brahmani river and the Mahanadi delta (588 km)

Operations have commenced on NW-1, NW-2 and NW-3, while NW-4 and NW-5 are still at the development stage. From 2010-11 to 2014-15, combined traffic at the three operational NWs increased at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.3 per cent from 4.92 million tonnes (mt) in 2010-11 to 5.5 mt in 2014-15.

The total cargo transported by inland waterways is less than 1 per cent of the total inland traffic in the country. This is despite the large potential that exists for cost savings by using this mode of transport. For example, the cost of moving coal via waterways is one-sixth the cost of moving it by rail, the currently preferred means of transport.

In the past year the focus on developing inland waterways as a preferred mode of transport has increased. A major ongoing project is the Jal Marg Vikas project for the further development of NW-1, with World Bank assistance. Three multimodal terminals are planned to be set up, at Varanasi, Sahebganj and Haldia. Meanwhile, the development of a river information system for NWs is also in progress. So far, the system has been made operational on the 560 km stretch between Haldia and Farakka. Moreover, to develop inland waterways, a sum of Rs 2.84 billion was provided in 2015-16 (revised estimates) and Rs 3.5 billion has been allocated in 2016-17.

Declaration of 106 new waterways

In a major development, the cabinet gave its approval in March 2016 for amendments to be made to the National Waterways Bill, 2015, and announced 106 additional inland waterways as NWs, taking the total number of NWs to 111.

According to P.K. Srivastava, hydrographic chief, Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), “The declaration of a waterway as a national waterway is very time-consuming as it requires Parliament approval. Thus, the proposal for declaration of 106 new waterways as national waterways with a single legislation was considered, instead of a separate legislation for each waterway.”

The IWAI will develop feasible stretches of NWs for shipping as well as navigation purposes. However, rights over the use of water and river beds will remain with the respective state governments.

These waterways have been divided into three categories on the basis of their economic viability and feasibility of development.

Category I has been classified as the most suitable for development, and comprises eight waterways. As of March 2016, engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) tender documents are being prepared for five waterways (Barak, Sundarbans, Mandovi, Zuari and Cumberjua), whereas tenders for the detailed survey of the other three waterways (Ghaghra, Gandak and Kosi) are under preparation. Consultancy bids for the preparation of the technical, economic and financial feasibility reports for the Sundarbans inland waterway have been invited, and the last date for bid submission is April 4, 2016.

Category II comprises 46 waterways in eight regional clusters, and two-stage detailed project reports for these are being prepared. Work has been awarded for 42 waterways and tenders have been refloated for the other four waterways.

The remaining 52 waterways in 10 regional clusters are in Category III. These are located in remote and hilly regions and are generally not economically viable. Currently, feasibility studies for these waterways to determine their viability for further development are ongoing.

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The way forward

The declaration of the additional 106 waterways as NWs is not likely to have any immediate financial implications for IWAI. According to Srivastava, “The overall impact of the declaration of additional waterways, the time frame for developing them and the issues and challenges before IWAI will only be known after the completion of feasibility studies that are in progress.” However, there are a number of issues and challenges in the development of these waterways. According to Vijay Sarma, associate director, McKinsey & Company, “Some of the technical challenges will be siltation and excessive maintenance dredging costs, the seasonal nature of many rivers, lack of adequate traffic to justify the investment and sharp curves that can make navigation challenging, especially for tugged barges.”

Going forward, it is imperative that, once the amendment is cleared by Parliament, work on these waterways starts. The timely execution of these development projects will be key to providing an additional, cheap and environment-friendly mode of transportation.


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