IN 1909, A DISTRICT gazetteer was authored for Howrah. This said, ‘During the period preceding British rule roads in the modern sense of the word appear to have been unknown in the district…. Nor is this to be wondered at, for, the country being intersected by rivers, creeks, and channels, the waterways then as now furnished a natural and easy means of transit. The river Hooghly formed the great highway of commerce. It was used by boats and small ships, and had on its banks several important hats or markets, to which grain, cloth and other merchandise were brought by coolies or pack-bullocks from the neighbouring villages and by small boats from the interior… Vehicular traffic was a luxury rather than a necessity.’ Arthur Cotton (1803-1899) was several things, but is often identified with the cause of irrigation and navigation works. In 1854, he authored a monograph titled, Public Works in India. In general, this argued for public investment in transport infrastructure. But it also computed costs of transport by different modes. For instance, per tonne per mile, it was 6 pence (the rupee figures were converted to shillings and pence because he was writing for an English audience); by sea, 31⁄2pence; by river, 9 pence; by good roads, 1 shilling; 6 pence by imperfect roads; and 2 shillings and 71⁄2 pence on unimproved tracks. These are 1854 estimates. Different modes of transport don’t invariably compete. Services need to be multi-modal. There are also problems in quantifying costs across modes. How does one quantify indirect costs and externalities? Are we talking about door-to-door or cargo? Aren’t per-km costs also a function of distance travelled? How important is speed, compared to costs?
These are valid questions. In 2014, there was a report by RITES on an integrated national waterways transport grid. Without dismissing these questions, as an average indication, this RITES report said a litre of fuel could move 24 tonnes by road, 95 tonnes by rail and 215 tonnes by inland waterways. Stated alternatively, freight cost was Rs 1.36 per tonne-km by rail, Rs 2.50 by highways and Rs 1.06 by waterways. The figures might be different. But the conclusion wasn’t remarkably different from what Cotton deduced in 1854. Since 1985, we have had an Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI). The IWAI’s website tells us, ‘The IWAI came into existence on 27th October 1986 for development and regulation of inland waterways for shipping and navigation. The Authority primarily undertakes projects for development and maintenance of IWT infrastructure on national waterways through grant received from Ministry of Shipping… India has about 14,500 km of navigable waterways which comprise of rivers, canals, backwaters, creeks, etc. About 55 million tonnes of cargo is being moved annually by Inland Water Transport (IWT), a fuel-efficient and environment-friendly mode. Its operations are currently restricted to a few stretches in the Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly rivers, the Brahmaputra, the Barak river, the rivers in Goa, the backwaters in Kerala, inland waters in Mumbai and the deltaic regions of the Godavari- Krishna rivers. Besides these organized operations by mechanized vessels, country boats of various capacities also operate in various rivers and canals and substantial quantum of cargo and passengers are transported in this unorganized sector as well.’ Given lower costs and environment-friendliness, obviously inland waterways should be used much more.
The IWAI was set up through a 1985 Act. Rules and assorted regulations followed. By 2008, there were five declared National Waterways (NWs): the Allahabad-Haldia stretch of Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly in 1982 (NW1); the Sadiya-Dhubri stretch of Brahmaputra in 1988 (NW2); the Kollam-Kottapuram stretch of West Coast Canal and Champakara and Udyogmandal Canals in 1992 (NW3); the Kakinada-Puducherry stretch of canals and Kaluvelly Tank, Bhadrachalam-Rajahmundry stretch of Godavari and Wazirabad-Vijayawada stretch of Krishna in 2008 (NW4); and the Talcher-Dhamra stretch, Geonkhali-Charbatia stretch of East Coast Canal, Charbatia-Dhamra stretch of Matai and Mahanadi Delta rivers in 2008 (NW5). ‘National’ here requires explanation. Under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, inland waterways are rather exceptional. They feature in all three lists: Union, State and Concurrent. Entry 24 in the Union List states, ‘Shipping and navigation on inland waterways, declared by Parliament by law to be national waterways, as regards mechanically propelled vessels; the rule of the road on such waterways.’ Entry 30 adds, ‘Carriage of passengers and goods by railway, sea or air, or by national waterways in mechanically propelled vessels.’ This explains the adjective ‘national’. It is similar to what happens with National Highways. For others, we have Entry 13 in the State List, ‘Communications, that is to say, roads, bridges, ferries, and other means of communication not specified in List I; municipal tramways; ropeways; inland waterways and traffic thereon subject to the provisions of List I and List III with regard to such waterways; vehicles other than mechanically propelled vehicles.’ Hence, we also have Entry 32 in the Concurrent List, ‘Shipping and navigation on inland waterways as regards mechanically propelled vessels, and the rule of the road on such waterways, and the carriage of passengers and goods on inland waterways subject to the provisions of List I with respect to national waterways.’
In 2001, an IWT Policy talked about the potential and had ambitious goals. The Comptroller and Auditor General reports can be harsh, and so was a 2008 performance report. ‘Inland Waterways Authority of India (Authority) was not able to fully utilize the funds sanctioned by the Government for development of National waterway. It did not prepare a time bound and an integrated plan for development of each National waterway so that performance against targets could be monitored at each stage…. The Authority could not dredge the assessed quantities in the three National waterways (meaning NW1, NW2, NW3) which was crucial to the development of navigational channels. As a result the least available depth of two metre could not be consistently and contiguously maintained on all the stretches in the three National waterways…. Despite the Inland Water Transport Policy of Government of India, the Authority failed to identify projects for public private participation in development of waterways, water based recreational facilities, or tourism related activities.’ Though far short of potential, whatever moved by inland waterways was on NW1, NW2 and NW3. There was little on NW4 or NW5.
That started to change with the 2016 National Waterways Act. As I mentioned, before this, there were five NWs, each with its own specific legislation. The 2016 Act brought all NWs under a single Act and declared a total of 111 stretches as NWs. Taken together, these cover more than 20,000 km. It isn’t immediately obvious why some of these were chosen. As with the declaration of National Highways, the temptation seems to be to make more and more waterways NWs, as if declaration alone solves all problems. As a corollary, some NWs will take off before others. The IWAI says that in addition to the five mentioned, the initial ones that will be developed are probably going to be NW16 (Barak), NW37 (Gandak), NW97 (Sunderbans), NW27 (Cumberjua), NW68 (Mandovi), NW111 (Zuari), NW9 (Alappuzha-Kottayam-Athirampuzha) and NW86 (Rupnarayan). ‘Some of the major constraints which IWT sector in India is currently facing includes—inadequate discharges in the rivers during lean season resulting in inadequate fairway with depth and width required for round the year operation of IWT vessels of reasonable size; drifting of navigable channel after every flood season due to bank erosion, lack of terminal infrastructure for loading and unloading of cargo and their first and last mile connectivity with road/rail infrastructure; navigational aids for safe and unhindered navigation during day and night and shortage of IWT vessels. To achieve substantial IWT traffic, major thrust is therefore on creation of infrastructure (mainly through public funding) and at the same time, augmentation of IWT fleet primarily through private sector participation.’ This is from the IWAI’s 2016-17 annual report.
Did you read the recent news of a cargo load equivalent to that of 16 trucks moving from Kolkata (Haldia) to Varanasi in containers carried on MV Rabindranath Tagore (India’s first inland vessel)? This is along NW1 and should be the shape of things to come. This waterway is ahead of others as it is World Bank-funded. ‘There is an urgent demand for operationalization of the entire NW-1 right up to Allahabad as many potential shippers (thermal power plants, cement companies, fertilizer companies, edible oil companies, Food Corporation of India) have evinced interest to use NW1, if it is developed with adequate infrastructure to facilitate navigation by bigger vessels of 1200-1500 Dead Weight Tonnage (DWT). To achieve adequate navigability standards on NW- 1, a substantial capital expenditure would be involved. [This] would cover strengthening of openriver navigation techniques, river training and conservancy, structural improvement and hardware which includes, dredging, modern river information system (RIS), Digital Global Positioning System (DGPS), night navigation facilities and modern methods of channel marking.’ Explains the World Bank loan.