Natural highways

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 passed an Act to commercially use its 14,000 kilometres of waterways to ferry people and goods. But over the years, the sector has not gained prominence. Anupam Chakravartty and Arnab Pratim Dutta look at why this sector has become a slow boat to China

By Arnab Pratim Dutta, Anupam Chakravartty
Published: Thursday 15 November 2012

Natural highways

IMAGEMukhtar 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.

Pilot Mukhtar Islam is unsure whether he and his crew will return to Kolkata from Allahabad because of lack of navigable depth

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.

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