Much before the BJP government came to power, Narendra Modi talked about his vision for the railways. Then came the stress on expanding the highway network quickly. Now, with inland waterways becoming a focus area, its a truly multi-modal transportation effort. Union minister for road transport, highways and shipping Nitin Gadkari, introduced a bill to declare 101 rivers as national waterways. That’s a twenty-fold jump from the current five national waterways that account for just 4,382 kilometres of navigable waterways out of the country’s total riverine network of 14,500 kilometres. Today, inland water transport (IWT) accounts for a minuscule 0.3% of the country’s overall internal cargo transport against 7% in the US, 16% in China and 40% in the Netherlands. That number should rise quickly as India is looking to adopt IWT as a fuel-efficient, cost-effective and environment-friendly means to transport bulk and hazardous goods.
The push for national waterways is driven by multiple factors. First, it is by far the cheapest mode of transport. It also supplements existing road and rail networks, while creating space on the clogged road and rail networks. But the biggest advantage it offers is much lower costs: the per tonne transportation costs on the national highways is R2.6, while it is R1.4 by rail and only R1.1 by IWT. One litre of fuel moves 24 tonne-kilometres on the road, 85 on railways and 105 on water. That’s the benefit that large cargo operators can leverage as they move traffic to the rivers. Apart from immediate cost benefits, leveraging the riverine network will result in creating an entirely new business eco-system in the country. As inland waterways expand, expect new investment coming into buying—and later, building—barges, new storage facilities along the rivers and ship-building activity. Over the next five to six years, there will be close to 1,000 barges that will provide direct employment to at least 20,000 people, and lead to less polluted roads. In the longer-term, it is expected to lead to an investment of R1 lakh crore and direct emloyment to 1 lakh people. That will result in a need for more trained people, which the Patna-based
National Inland Navigational Institute will provide initially.
Gadkari’s IWT initiative should give the necessary boost to domestic industry and transportation.