The aviation sector is struggling for survival, while roadways and railways are bleeding the treasury dry. Inland navigation is economical and environment-friendly. More than 25 years ago, India …
Mukhtar Islam and his crew of 21 have just completed a historic journey from Kolkata to Allahabad in 45 days. They were steering two tugboats, each pulling a barge carrying turbines. In 50 years, no big ship has sailed up the Ganga. By road it would have taken the crew two days to reach Allahabad and by train, less than 36 hours. The turbines, weighing 0.3 million tonnes, could not be transported by road or train because of their size.
After the journey, Islam is exhausted but has bigger worries. He is unsure whether he can take his fleet of vessels back to Kolkata’s Diamond Harbour. Since October 6, the tugboats, Sur and Sangam, have been stationed near Naini Bridge on the south bank of the Yamuna in Allahabad. The turbines are to be ferried to a thermal power station 40 km away.
“On August 29, we set sail from Haldia Port,” recalls Islam, standing inside his mock wood-veneered cabin. He rests his hands on the steering wheel as he further opens up about the journey: “We started through the Hooghly-Bhagirathi and then entered the Ganga at Pakur in Jharkhand. Till Farakka in West Bengal sailing was smooth. Beyond it navigation became very difficult.” Every ship requires a minimum depth to sail, which Islam and his crew were unable to find once they entered the Ganga. They had to employ the rudimentary method of poking the riverbed with a bamboo pole to find optimum depth between Bhagalpur and Munger in Bihar. There were no bamboo poles installed by the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), set up under the Ministry of Shipping, to demarcate the river channel with minimum depth. This cost the crew two extra days to pass through Munger. Sonar helps determine the depth of the navigable channel, but the device is not used in majority of the Indian vessels.
IWAI had issued a customary notice to Islam informing him about the condition of navigable channels. “In some stretches the demarcations in the navigable channels were not useful. The rivers carry so much silt that channel markers change their course the next morning. Often, rivers sweep away the markers,” says Islam. His fleet of vessels does not have night navigation facilities. The usual speed of the fleet ranges from eight to10 kilometres per hour, he informs. “We slow down where dredging work is in process, in crucial areas like river bends, or while crossing bridges.”
On October 5, when the fleet was near the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna, a kilometre away from Allahabad, the two barges got stuck in sand bars. Heavy silt deposits had reduced the depth of the river channels to 0.50 metre, while two metres was needed. The crew had to call a cutter suction dredger to loosen the hard silt by sucking the sand through a water-resistant pump.
Typically, tugboats consume 60 litres of diesel an hour while going upstream, says Sur’s engine operator. In this journey, each tugboat consumed a total of 32,400 litres. Most of the fuel was spent on navigating the barges, he says. “We have enough diesel to return to Kolkata, provided we get favourable depth to sail.” The crew considers the Brahmaputra a favourable stretch. “We look forward to sailing in the Brahmaputra even though the current is much higher than in the Ganga. The navigable depth is about three metres, while in the Ganga such a depth is possible only between Kolkata and Farakka,” says a crew member.
Sur and Sangam will have to wait another month before IWAI builds a temporary jetty to unload its cargo which will be ferried to NTPC’s Bara 1,980 MW thermal power station. Unsure of their departure, the crew members spend most of their time on the tugboats.
Islam remains troubled. He says the crew was able to complete the upstream journey because the river channels were full of monsoon water. As the rivers go dry, the channels will become narrower and sandbars prominent.
Across the country, ship crews have similar anxieties. Due to lack of government funds and policies, sailing on Indian rivers remains a challenge.
Around the first war of Independence of 1857, vigorous lobbying was under way in London for a railway network in India. The British elite enjoyed the comfort and rapidity of railways in their country and wanted the same in the subcontinent. With the railways, military could be mobilised faster to quell revolts, they believed. But setting up of a railways network was a costly affair.
During the same time, another school of thought pushed for waterways. It reasoned high returns for low investments. British General and irrigation engineer Sir Arthur Cotton saw double benefit: irrigation canals could increase agricultural productivity and facilitate trade of the produce. Cotton, known for his works like the Cauvery and Godavari canals, considered that a canal could be built wherever there was a big population, writes Romesh Chandra Dutta in his book The Economic History of India. “My great point is this, that what India wants is water carriage; the railways have completely failed; they cannot carry at the price; they cannot carry the quantities; and they cost the country three millions a year to support them,” the book quotes Cotton as saying. Steamboat canals would cost only one-eighth of the railways and provide irrigation at no additional cost, said Cotton. He had recommended four inland water courses—Kolkata to Karachi sailing up the Ganga and the Indus; from Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh to Surat going up the Godavari through the Tapi; a route through the Tungabhadra river to Karwar on the Arabian Sea; and traversing Palakkad and Coimbatore through Ponnani in Kerala.
But the 1857 war changed the argument in favour of the railways. In the absence of government support, it was mostly the private entrepreneurs who invested in inland waterway transport (IWT).
Gone with Partition
India’s modern inland water history is 170 years old. In 1842 the first fortnightly steam-powered vessels reached Kolkata from Agra through the Yamuna and the Ganga via Allahabad and Varanasi. By 1863, three similar services started between Kolkata and Assam. Services up the river Ganga extended as far as Garhmukteshwar in the present-day Hapur district of Uttar Pradesh, some 645 km from Allahabad. Feeder services from as far as Nepal borders connected the Ganga through its tributaries. In his book Waters of Hope, B G Varghese says in 1877 as many as 180,000 country cargo boats were registered at Kolkata, 124,000 at Hooghly and 62,000 at Patna.
After the Partition, the need for speed and flexibility, geological upheavals and an apathetic bureaucracy resulted in the regress of inland waterways. S Sriraman of Walchand Hirachand Professor of Transport Economics, University of Mumbai, notes in his paper Long term perspectives on Inland Water Transportation that in the decades after Independence, the importance of IWT declined considerably with the expansion of road and rail transport systems. “Diversion of river water for irrigation has also reduced the importance of IWT. The decline is also due to deforestation of hill ranges, leading to erosion, accumulation of silt in rivers and failure to modernise the fleet,” says Sriraman in his paper.
Partition also delinked the once contiguous riverine routes connecting Kolkata to the Northeast. The Indo-Pak war in 1965 stopped the trade and transport from Farraka in West Bengal through East Pakistan (now called Bangladesh) to Dhubri in Assam. Earlier, this route ferried passengers from Assam to Kolkata through the confluence of Padma and Jamuna in the present-day Bangladesh. Farraka Barrage, built in 1970 to ensure navigability on the Hooghly between Haldia port and Kolkata, dimmed the last flicker of hope of retaining the Ganga-Brahmaputra system.
It was not until the seventies that India decided to review the strategies to revive IWT. There was a short-lived attempt in 1956-57 when a Parliamentary Estimates Committee mulled over declaring important routes, but nothing happened. In 1970, a committee headed by Justice P N Bhagwati redefined the scope of executive powers over water transport held by the Centre and states. Despite water being a state subject, the states had urged the Centre to declare important riverine routes as national waterways and finance their development. Six waterways were identified—Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly; Brahmaputra; Mandovi and Zuari rivers, and Cumbarjua canal in Goa; Mahanadi; Godavari; and Narmada.
The legislative push for IWT came in the eighties. In 1980, the National Transport Development Policy Committee (NTDPC), headed by former Cabinet secretary B D Pandey, reported that the cost of developing IWT is less compared to other modes of transportation. But the fund allocation for the sector was miniscule, it added. Of the outlay of Rs 12,411 crore on transport and tourism under the Sixth Plan (1980-85), IWT received Rs 71 crore.
In 1986, the Inland Water Transport Act was implemented and the Inland Waterways Authority of India was set up. The Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly system became the first national waterway (NW). The Act granted exclusive powers to the Centre for national waterways. While shipping and navigation on other waterways with respect to mechanically propelled vessels fell under the Concurrent list, navigation by non-mechanically propelled vessels was a state subject.
No fund, no sail
Despite the implementation of the Inland Water Transport Act, the IWT sector did not take off. A 1993 report by the United Nations Development Programme expressed concern over the Centre’s failure to develop national waterways. The report points out that the Central Inland Water Transport Corporation, a PSU under the Union ministry of transport, had not succeeded in improving IWT’s performance despite modernisation of its fleet (see ‘Fall of a giant’).
At present, the IWT sector has navigable waterways of 14,500 km and 17,619 vessels—and accounts for just 0.4 per cent of the transportation sector and 0.15 per cent of cargo movement (see map).
A major reason the sector has not taken off is fund crunch. A 2012 report by a sub group of the Working Group on Ports and Shipping under NTDPC states since the inception of IWAI in 1986, Rs 886 crore has been spent on the development of NW 1, 2 and 3, and Rs 150 crore on schemes, subsidies and technical studies. Building of NW 4 and 5 is yet to begin. “This expenditure is insignificant compared to the road and rail sectors,” states the 2012 report. The US enjoys a more balanced share of traffic among its mode of transportation, adds the report: share of road freight is 34 per cent, followed by rail at 31 per cent and waterway at 8.3 per cent.
IWT in India works on the principle of Open River Navigation, wherein least available depth for navigation channel is maintained through dredging and bandalling (making structures on river banks to stop erosion). These processes require funds. If funds increase, the channels would remain navigable throughout the year, say IWAI officials. But the Comptroller Auditor General (CAG)’s Performance Audit report of 2008 states IWAI was unable to fully utilise the funds sanctioned in the eighth, ninth and 10th Plans. It also cited financial anomalies and underutilisation of infrastructure (see ‘CAG report 2008’).
Time of revival
Since 2002, the government has launched various schemes to attract private investments. IWAI has been authorised to raise bonds to facilitate borrowings from the market and mobilisation of funds. A scheme under the Income Tax Act allows those investing in national waterways to avail tax holiday for five years of the 15 years of investment. A scheme was introduced in 2002 to extend 30 per cent subsidy for factory costs of building a vessel on shipyards. A criterion of the Rs 500-crore Inland Vessel Building Subsidy Scheme (IVBSS) was that vessels must sail on national waterways or one of the Indo-Bangladesh protocol routes (see ‘Ghost protocol’). IVBSS was meant to encourage manufacturing of vessels so that the modal share could be improved, says the 2012 report. Under the scheme, approvals were given for the construction of 33 vessels. Of this, 28 applicants failed to initiate construction. The scheme was scrapped in 2007.
To develop the IWT sector for non-national waterways, a Central sponsored scheme (CSS) was extended to states in 2006. Under this, north-eastern states get 100 per cent grant, while the rest get 90 per cent. So far, 31 projects worth Rs 95 crore have been sanctioned in 13 states, including Sikkim, Kerala, Assam and Bihar. The projects are at various stages of implementation. A rationale behind CSS was to develop state waterways and create a fishbone like network. The fishbone network, according to IWAI, is a model ought to be adopted to develop the 21 tributaries of the Brahmaputra for navigation, and to operate vessels of smaller capacity ranging from 50 to 150 tonnes. These waterways would connect to national waterways. A similar model is being planned for the Ganga.
But activists and experts say there are technical difficulties for such a model to work. “The Ganga and the Brahmaputra tributaries carry huge amount of sediments while the rivers Mahananda, Kosi and Bagmati change their course regularly,” says Dinesh Mishra of NGO Barh Mukti Abhiyan in Patna. Attempts to train the river within the existing embankments would require extensive dredging, which means making embankments within the existing ones. Since these riverine areas are inhabited by villages, there will be a greater risk if the waterway of the river is shrunk. The river will erode newer embankments without warning, adds Mishra. Dredging and bandalling are not only capital-intensive, but can also spell disaster for the river’s navigability due to erosion, says Nayan Sharma, head of department, water resources engineering, IIT-Roorkee. Cheap and eco-friendly techniques like submerged vane (structures made of geo-textiles to protect river banks from erosion) can prove useful, he adds.
IWAI is hopeful. There is a push to connect waterways with roadway-and-railway network. “Only such an inter-model system can provide an efficient network of inland transportation,” says G Raghuram, professor (public systems group), Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad.
It is ironical that despite being cheaper and environment friendly, the inland water transport (IWT) sector remains underutilised. Studies by government agencies hammer home its clean and economical credentials. A barge can carry cargo equivalent of 15 rail wagons or 60 truckloads worth of goods, says a 2006 study by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER). Moving a tonne of cargo over a kilometre through waterways would cost Rs 0.37, while via railways and roadways it would be Rs 0.50 and Rs 0.96, respectively, says the 2012 report by a sub group of the Working Group on Ports and Shipping under the National Transport Policy Development Committee (NTPDC) of the Planning Commission. In terms of fuel consumption, a litre of diesel would carry 105 tonnes over a kilometre through waterways, 85 tonnes through railways and 24 tonnes through roadways. Comparisons have little meaning if they are not translated into monetary savings.
In 2009-10, the transportation sector carried 1,280 billion tonnes per kilometre. According to NTPDC, one horsepower can move 4 tonnes by waterways, 0.5 tonnes by railways and 0.15 tonnes by roadways. The operating cost per tonne kilometre in waterways is Rs 0.53 as against Rs 1.32 in railways and Rs 2.75 in roadways.
NCAER’s report adds that avoidance of accidents as a result of cargo movement on national waterways saved Rs 36 crore in 2004-05. In the road sector, yearly losses due to accidents and congestions amount to Rs 150,000 crore. “These losses will come down considerably with the growth of inland water transport (IWT),” says S S Mishra, member of Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI).
The cost of developing a kilometre of waterway is also less when compared to roadways. “It is five to 10 per cent than that of roadways,” says S Sriraman of Walchand Hirachand Professor of Transport Economics, University of Mumbai. S Dandapat, chief engineer, IWAI, adds there is very little cost in terms of land acquisition. Land cost accounts for 60 per cent of the total cost of building a road or a railway line.
In the IWT sector, fuel consumption is also less, which means low levels of carbon emissions. An IWT vessel emits less than 50 per cent of carbon a lorry emits, states the 2012 report by a sub group of the Working Group on Ports and Shipping under NTDPC. The Indian Network on Climate Change Assessment (INCCA) estimates that in 2007 the transport sector emitted 142 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. Of this, 87 per cent emissions were from the road sector, seven per cent from the aviation sector, five per cent from the railways and one per cent from navigation. At present, no study has been conducted in the country to estimate the emission level of IWT, although it is negligible. Between 2005 and 2035, emissions from the roadways will increase sixfold, estimates INCCA.
A limiting factor for IWT could be speed. IWAI says it would be acquiring faster vessels in the coming years. However, faster boats could solve only part of the problem. The toughest challenge faced by the sector is the nature of Indian rivers. Major rivers like the Ganga and the Brahmaputra carry large amounts of silt; water diversion also hampers navigability.
At Allahabad, for practical purposes, the navigability of the Ganga has been restricted to 140 days for large vessels, even though it is 330 days, according to IWAI, with the least available depth of 1.5 metres. Fewer days of navigability limits the transportation potential of the river, informs S Dandapat, chief engineer, IWAI. Further downstream on the Hooghly near Kolkata, navigability is linked to lunar cycles. “While high tides of the Bay of Bengal improve navigable depth, big vessels find it difficult to pass under the bridges. River traffic is seldom considered while building bridges,” says Dandapat. IWAI has identified 200 such bridges along the National Waterway 1 (Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly).
“We have requested Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, along with the Union Ministry of Road Transport and National Highway Authority of India, to look into these issues and suggest measures,” says Dandapat. During the monsoon, the depth increases in the Brahmaputra. Despite this, ships find it difficult to navigate because of the river’s velocity, according to a World Bank-funded study. “Even large cargo vessels and tugboats stop movement for 15 to 20 days during the peak flood,” adds the 2007 report, Perspective on Inland Navigation. Pandu port in Guwahati on National Waterway 2 registers a velocity of 1.79 metres per second (6.4 kilometres per hour). According to IWAI, such speed prevents heavy vessels from going upstream and causes steering difficulties for vessels going downstream.
There’s another sticky point. Floods bring a large amount of silt, which gets deposited at wider stretches, lowering the velocity of river in October, November and December. “As a result, formation of shoals and islands starts, the river becomes increasingly braided and the navigable channels between islands become shallower,” says the World Bank-funded study.
IWT can be beneficial only when big vessels are used for transportation, says G Raghuram, professor of public systems group, Indian Institute of Management- Ahmedabad. Large vessels require more water depth for navigation but have lower operating costs. “Small barges cause congestion,” adds Raghuram. To make big vessels work, there has to be sufficient quantity of cargo, says I V Solanki, fleet captain, IWAI. Many clients want vessels exclusively for their own cargo. This leads to higher demand for small barges.
At present, the concern is more about procuring infrastructure than the maintenance of waterways. “Movement of at least 10 vessels a day in a national waterway, especially towards Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, will ensure that a navigable depth of 2.5 metres is maintained,” says Dandapat. The World Bank-funded study states that to attain the expected cargo movement of 20 billion tonnes per kilometre (two per cent of the modal share), 2,000 vessels are required. A 1,000-tonne vessel costs Rs 5 crore. “At present, IWAI has more than 17,000 vessels registered across the country. But not all of them are in use,” say IWAI officials.
Maintenance of IWT is not as capital-intensive as that of roads or railways. With proper utilisation of the funds, IWT can be better integrated with other modes, thereby cutting cost of transport, says Sriraman. “The traditional approach has left a legacy of distortions that have created modal biases. The most commonly cited example is overuse and excessive investment in road transport,” he adds. “This needs to change.”
With inputs from Sayantan Bera and Alok Gupta