India boasts an extensive network of inland waterways, encompassing rivers, canals, backwaters, and creeks. Despite the potential benefits of water-based freight transportation, it remains underutilized compared to other developed nations. The majority of hinterland connectivity in India relies on road and rail, with coastal shipping and inland waterways playing a minor role in domestic transportation.
Recognizing the cost-effectiveness and eco-friendliness of waterways, Inland Water Transport (IWT) has the opportunity to complement railways and alleviate road congestion in India.
The Indian government took a significant step in 2016 by designating 111 inland waterways as National Waterways under the National Waterways Act. Among them, 13 National Waterways are operational for shipping and navigation, serving cargo and passenger vessels.
The Inland Waterways Authority of India, operating under the Ministry of Shipping, is actively developing these National Waterways for commercial navigation, often receiving support from international bodies like the World Bank.
Challenges for Inland Water Transportation in India:
Diminished Water Flow:
Industrial and agricultural waste, as well as urbanization, have contributed to the reduction of adequate water flow in many waterways.
Example: The Ganges, one of India’s major rivers, faces reduced water flow due to pollution and over-extraction, affecting its suitability for smooth inland navigation.
Deforestation and erosion lead to silt accumulation, narrowing water channels and hindering vessel movement.
Example: The Brahmaputra River experiences significant siltation, posing challenges for large cargo vessels to navigate through its shallower stretches.
Shortage of IWT Vehicles:
Insufficient availability of specialized inland water transport vehicles limits the capacity and efficiency of water-based cargo movement.
Example: Lack of enough cargo barges or vessels tailored for inland water transport hampers the full utilization of India’s vast waterway network.
Technology and Skill Gaps:
The adoption of modern technology in inland water transportation is lacking, and a skilled workforce for managing and operating water vessels is scarce.
Example: Inadequate training facilities for boatmen and navigators contribute to the shortage of skilled personnel in the inland water transport sector.
Inadequate Water Depth and Low Vertical Clearance:
In some waterways, the depth may be insufficient to accommodate larger vessels, limiting the size and capacity of cargo that can be transported.
Low vertical clearance of bridges over waterways poses an additional obstacle to navigation for taller cargo vessels.
Project Implementation Challenges:
Land acquisition delays, difficulties in the disposal of dredged material, prolonged project execution timelines, and inefficient fund utilization have hampered the development of inland water transport.
Example: The Barak River in Northeast India faced considerable challenges during the implementation of inland water transport projects due to land acquisition disputes.
Inland Water Transport (IWT) holds immense promise as a cost-effective mode for transporting bulk cargo such as coal, iron ore, cement, food grains, and fertilizer.
To capitalize on this potential, efficient planning of waterway channels, terminals, intermodal connectivity, and appropriately sized vessels, along with navigational aids, are essential to enhance the competitiveness of IWT.
Gujarat’s success in handling significant cargo through waterways exemplifies the positive impact that well-developed inland water transportation can have on India’s overall transportation infrastructure.