Nearly ₹7,000 crore has gone towards the development of national waterways and in making them navigable, both for cargo and cruise vessels, said Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Sarbananda Sonowal. While MV Ganga Vilas is a successful example of these efforts taken by the Ministry, cargo handling across waterways have more than trebled in almost nine years to 109 million tonnes. In an interview to businessline, Sonowal talks about the investments in inland waterways, push towards setting up trans-shipment operations, Sagarmala and the looming global recessionary threats. Excerpts:


As the Ganga Vilas cruise nears it end, what are the takeaways?

India is now on the global river cruise map. Till date, the belief was that such long river cruises would fail here because of the draft and navigability issues on rivers Ganga and Brahmaputra. But now, both the rivers are very navigable and the journeys are eco-friendly. In fact, the cruise will open up new avenues for (national) waterways.


Is it just the dredging operations that led to the improved navigability in these two rivers?

Earlier, there was no infrastructure along National Waterways 1 and 2. But with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention, investments of some ₹7,000 crore have gone towards the development of the national waterways system.

Then there is the implementation of Jal Marg Vikash projects along the Ganga and Brahmaputra banks. We went for community-based development and infrastructure addition like jetties, cargo handling facilities, multi-modal terminals in Varanasi, Sahibganj, Haldia and elsewhere. Around 60-odd constructions have come up along the banks of Ganga (NW 1).

In Brahmaputra (NW 2) and Barak waterways (NW 16), too, similar infrastructure additions are happening. Cargo jetty numbers also have gone up. All this is also reflected in the cargo handling capacities going up to 109 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) in nine years — an over three-fold jump from 2014 when it was just 30 million tonnes.


Are smaller players interested in river cruises?

Some smaller players have started river cruises like Guwahati to Kaziranga and the likes. There are 2-3 on the routes in Assam now. But there was a lack of ship-repair facilities in NW 2. So in case of any repair work, the vessels had to brought all the way down to Haldia. And this was a 2-3 month process because of which there was a lack of interest. But, now ship-repair facilities have come up at Pandu (near Guwahati) and this has rekindled interest in these players.


Recessionary traits are visible world over. Does this worry you?

Right now, the Indian economy is doing well. But we have our ears to the ground. In FY22, the export target was $400 billion and it was achieved two months before the close of the fiscal. This year, too, we are confident of achieving the target. I think, our policies are in place and successful.


We do miss out on a trans-shipment cargo. Your comments?

Expression of interest (EoI) for a ₹41,000-crore container trans-shipment project at the Great Nicobar Island (Galathea Bay) already exists. The first phase will have the capacity to hand 4 million containers per year; and the ultimate capacity will be 16 million containers per annum. It is located on the international shipping/ trade route and is close to other trans-shipment hubs such as Singapore, Klang and Colombo. I am more than confident that this will be a gamechanger.

Then we are developing two other transshipment hubs — Kochi and Vizhinjam — both in Kerala. In Vizhinjam, there was some delay with the supply of equipment because of which the project slowed down a bit. But, work is back on track now. The Ministry of Finance is already providing viability gap funding for the project.

In Kochi, the container terminal exists. But, business there is not so good as of now. However, we are looking into it... planning investments there. Every port has its business plans and strategy. So if we concentrate on modernisation of infrastructure, businesses will start coming in.


Any update on asset monetisation plans?

In FY22 and FY23, our asset monetisation target was ₹4,935 crore. But, we achieved double than that at ₹10,519 crore. So, it is more than clear that the involvement of PPPs has been a success. In FY24, our target is ₹6,760 crore. And I am more than confident that we will achieve this, if not double it.


Are the Sagarmala projects on track?

Sagarmala projects are due for completion by 2035 and we are on course. It was launched in 2015 and there were 802 project worth ₹5.5-lakh crore under it. In the latest apex committee meeting, we also included another 567 projects under the holistic coastal development programme worth ₹59,000 crore. These also include ₹55,000 crore worth of PPPs in major ports, that are a part of Sagarmala. Some of these projects will end before 2035.