A watershed moment

| Updated on November 15, 2018 Published on November 15, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurates India’s first multi-modal terminal on the Ganga river in Varanasi. (File photo)   -  Twitter/ @PIB_India

India’s first multi-modal terminal at Varanasi marks a boost for inland waterways

When the Prime Minister received a Pepsico consignment from Kolkata to mark the inauguration of the ₹170-crore multi-modal terminal at Varanasi, it was not just a mere spectacle. After the passage of the National Waterways Act, 2016, under which 111 inland waterways were declared as national waterways, the Centre launched the Jal Marg Vikas (JMV) project to boost the carrying capacity of the Ganga, also called NW–1; the opening of the Varanasi ‘port’ marks a major advance in this ambitious project. The objective of the JMV project is to facilitate the movement of 1,500-2,000 tonne vessels along the Allahabad-Haldia stretch.

The potential of inland waterways to emerge as a viable alternative to road transport is immense in a country where barely 3.5 per cent of trade is done through this route, against 47 per cent in China, 40 per cent in Europe, 44 per cent in Japan and Korea and 35 per cent in Bangladesh. While its fuel efficiency is unparalleled, particularly in comparison with road transport, it will also serve to keep major waterways in serviceable condition, since a minimum flow and depth would be required to keep large vessels afloat and moving. The costs to be incurred in dredging in particular should be viewed in the context of the larger savings and economic gains. Deforestation and uncertainties associated with land acquisition are minimised — even as livelihoods of communities living off the river need to be protected. In the case of NW–1, multi-modal terminals will be constructed at Sahibganj and Haldia, at an estimated cost of ₹280 crore and ₹517 crore, respectively, within about a year. The entire exercise of making the waterway serviceable is being carried out with World Bank support at an estimated cost of ₹4,200 crore over the next four or five years. Riverine trade along the Ganga may act as a boost for the economies of the eastern region, where road transportation is inefficient. A multi-modal approach will address chronic logistics issues, inviting investment into regions considered uncongenial for business. Apart from the Ganga, the Brahmaputra, West Coast Canal (in Kerala) Mandovi, Zuari and Sunderbans are operational waterways. Some of the waterways being developed at present are the Kakinada-Puducherry canal, and the Barak, Gandhak, Kosi and Ghaghra rivers. The annual profits of the 12 major ports, estimated at ₹7,000 crore, will be channelised to develop an extensive inland waterways system. The major ports will develop special purpose vehicles to this end.

However, environmentalists have raised concerns about the impact of enormous vessels on the river bed and aquatic life. Meeting river flow concerns across seasons would call for a review of hydel projects. In undertaking this paradigm shift towards inland water transport, India should implement the sustainability practices in Europe. A consultative, inter-disciplinary approach, as opposed to a techno-centric one, would keep the negative consequences to a minimum.

Published on November 15, 2018

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