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Inland water transportation — Set to emerge from the depths

Amit Mitra

The Inland Waterways Authority of India plans to open more National Waterways and address the problems hampering the realisation of the sector's enormous potential.

INLAND water transportation (IWT), which has trailed other modes of transportation all these years, seems set to emerge as an important mode of inland cargo movement.

Declaration of three more waterways as National Waterways, developing the existing three waterways and sanctioning 30 projects for setting up related infrastructure have been proposed. In the long run, the Government's objective is to make IWT a part of the multi-modal chain so that it has a share of about 20-billion-tonne km of cargo transportation.

"A shift of just one billion-tonne-km of cargo transportation from roads to IWT will mean a saving of Rs 80 crore on account of fuel savings alone. And the cost of developing a waterway, on an average, is Rs 0.5 crore per km, while that for rail and road is Rs 4-6 crore," points out Mr K. Shankar Narayanan, chairman, Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI).

At present, the inland traffic is estimated at about 1,000-billion-tonne km. Despite the potential, IWT accounts for barely 1.7 billion tonne km, or about 0.17 per cent. Lack of infrastructure, absence of fixed scheduled services, poor navigational aids, lack of connectivity, longer river distances, multiple handling and thin flow of private investments have been identified as the major factors that have stifled development of this mode of transportation.

India has three national waterways — the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the West Coast Canal. The IWAI now proposes to declare three more waterways as the National Waterways — the canal system from Kakinada (AP) to Pondicherry integrated with the Krishna and Godavari rivers; the Barak river; and the East Coast Canal integrated with the Brahmani river.

While the first of the three proposed waterways passes through Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the second is entirely in Assam but connected with the Haldia and Kolkata ports through the waterways in Bangladesh, and the third is in Orissa and West Bengal. Thus the new waterways would cover three new States, which will join Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, that are covered under the three existing national waterways.

"The IWAI is also conducting techno-economic feasibility studies on development of the Narmada and, if the study proves that this river has the potential, we may at the appropriate stage considering its declaration also. This will cover the important States of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat," Mr Narayanan said.

The IWAI has initiated a string of developments for the existing three national waterways. On National Waterway 1, a two-metre depth in the fairway is being provided between Haldia and Patna for over 1,000 km, apart from a chain of floating terminals at several locations such as Haldia, Bhagalpur, Patna, Varanasi and Allahabad.

Further night navigation facilities, which have been provided between Tribeni and Farakka (400 km), are being extended up to another 400 km to cover up to Patna. "In addition, the entire river is surveyed every fortnight and river notices are issued to help the navigator to move smoothly on the waterway," says the IWAI chairman.

On NW-2, a depth of two metres has been provided for 630 km between Dhubri and Neamathi. A permanent terminal capable of handling containers is under construction at Pandu, Guwahati, which is expected to be completed by the year-end.

The West Coast Canal, NW-3, is different from the other two waterways in that it is a tidal canal and not in the category of the big alluvial rivers with typical characteristics of meandering, water level fluctuations and heavy sediment loads. On this waterway, which is only 205 km long, capital dredging is completed in about 105 km. The IWAI expects to complete the remaining dredging work and provide night navigational aids within a few months.

The other initiatives of the IWAI include procurement of some pontoons with cranes to facilitate mechanical handling at floating terminals, while a container handling crane for the Patna terminal and another for the Pandu terminal are expected to be deployed soon.

The Centre's scheme providing 100 per cent grant to the North-Eastern States and 90 per cent to all other States for development of IWT infrastructure under the Centrally-sponsored scheme has been of late evoking good response from different States. "In 2003-04, the Centre had sanctioned 15 projects costing Rs 50 crore. In 2004-05, the IWAI had recommended 30 more projects for nine States costing Rs 65 crore," Mr Narayanan said.

However, the real development in this sector will begin to unfold when private investments flow in. The IWAI will be considering raising bonds from market, forming joint ventures and inviting equity participation in BOT (build-operate-transfer) projects.

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