National waterways is an unexplored and heavily underutilized resource of India. Prime Minister Modi seems determined to bring out the hidden potential of India in all ways possible. Transport and communication are the lifelines of any nation’s economy. The present government seems to have realized this. Be it unfolding a new era of railways, modernizing roadways, or utilizing the vastly unused waterways, no stone is left unturned. The government has proposed to build 111 waterways for shipping and navigation in 2016 itself. 13 of these are already operational. Besides this, the Sagarmala project aims at the development of inland waterways to cater to the feeder network for India’s coasts.
At present, coastal shipping accounts for only 2% of the total freight movement. Waterways are aiming for a 5% share of the transport sector in near future and about 10% by the end of the decade.
Waterways: India’s underutilized resource
India has nearly 14,500 km of navigable waterways which includes a network of rivers, canals, backwaters, and creeks. This can change the way India transports and travels. It is far cheaper than any other mode of transport, far less polluting and quite reliable. National waterways can become logistics arteries for India’s trade and commerce.
If we look at the cost, the development, the operation, and the maintenance of National waterways is the least among all modes of transport. If we look at the freight charges of cargo movement through waterways, that also comes out to be the least.
With far fewer greenhouse emissions from container vessels as compared to road transport, the effect on the environment cannot be understated. Even the energy consumption is the least if we consider the fuel efficiency of container vessels. The same one liter of fuel moves 24 tonne-km on-road, 95 tonne-km on the rail and 215 tonne-km on waterways as per PIB.
The huge capacity to carry bulk cargo, coal, etc cannot be matched even by road, leave alone air transport mode aside.
Why have National waterways been underutilized despite their enormous benefits?
The waterways have not been developed enough to be able to cater to India’s freight movement all round the year. There is a seasonal fall in water level in most rivers and water-bodies, especially in peninsular India. Siltation and water diversion for irrigation also reduces the water level greatly. This translates to reduced navigability. Even at night, navigation becomes challenging. Lack of adequate navigation system leads to an unsafe passage and high travel time. The infrastructure is also not developed enough to allow terminal loading and unloading smoothly.
The solution to deal with reduced water-level is dredging. It however damages the river bed and aquatic life. In saline waters, dredging the floor might lead to a seepage of excess saline water disturbing the aquatic balance altogether. Dams also would have to be constructed at a number of places to control the water flow and the environmental impact of dam construction is an open secret. The oil spillage is another environmental concern. To deal with the loading infrastructure, the building of river ports and jetties would require initial capital investment and removal of mangrove cover at a lot of places. All these cost concerns be it financial or environmental have left this resource neglected for long.
If we compare the returns that would be generated if the full potential of waterways is utilized, the costs incurred would be quite negligible. The starting of any infrastructural project requires a huge upfront investment at first. Be it the laying of railway network or development of motorable roads, a section of people lose out in the beginning. The social cost has to be borne. The environmental concerns can be offset with the help of technology. Once the 14,500 km of waterways become the arteries and veins of India’s economy, these initial concerns would seem like a trifle. Once the network is built, it will only reap benefits without any further capital infusion.