India’s network of waterways extend to about 14500 km across the country and comprise rivers, lakes, canals, backwaters, and estuaries. Despite the potential of providing an alternative means of transport for passengers and freight, inland waterways are highly under-utilized in India as compared to other countries in the world. According to a study done by the Ministry of Road Transport, Highways, and Shipping, “only 3.5 % of India’s trade is done through waterways as against 47% in China, 40% in Europe, 44% in Japan, and 35% in Bangladesh.”
This year, however, the Union Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has recognized waterways as a valuable resource and have gotten the National Waterways Bill, 2015 cleared through Parliament. This bill aims to convert 106 rivers, creeks across India into National Waterways and will also look after renovation and maintenance of existing waterways.
Currently in India, six river networks have been declared as National Waterways. They are, as highlighted in the map below:
- National Waterway 1 (NW1): which uses 1620 km of the Ganges river from Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh to Haldia in West Bengal
- National Waterway 2 (NW2): which uses 891 km of the Brahmaputra river to connect Dhubri in Assam-Bangladesh Border to Sadiya in North-East Assam
- National Waterway 3 (NW3): which runs 205 km from Kollam to Kottapuram in Kerala. It consists of several canals that form the Kerala Backwaters
- National Waterway 4 (NW4): which travels 1078 km from Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh to Puducherry.
- National Waterway 5 (NW5): which comprises multiple rivers and rivulets from Talcher to Dhamra on River Brahmani, Geonkhali to Charbatia on East Coast Canal, Charbatia to Dhamra on River Matai, etc.
- National Water 6 (NW6): this waterway is proposed to cover a distance between Lakhipur and Bhaga near Bangladesh Border in Assam on Barak river.
The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), established in 1986 and headquartered in Noida, is responsible for development and regulation of inland waterways for shipping and navigation in India.
Water transportation has several advantages. Its infrastructure does not require major construction and maintenance costs, as compared to roads, and railways. It uses less power for operation and can transport heavy and bulky goods at a much lower cost. In line with this, Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari has said that it costs 30 paise to move cargo through waterways in comparison to Rs. 1.5 through road and Rs.1 through rail.
During floods and rains, when rail and road transport is disrupted, waterways become the primary means of transportation for relief operations. In fact, Mr. A.C. Kamraj, member of Expert Committee on Interlinking of Rivers, has proposed to use floodwater that would otherwise drain into the sea to connect rivers in Tamil Nadu by constructing national waterways. He says, “this way we can store water, which could be used for irrigation and drinking throughout the year…we will also have navigable waterways…whenever there is a flood, water can be transported to the other river.” This project, if executed, could potentially insulate the adopting regions from drought.
All in all, we at SHM support the government’s initiative to develop India’s waterways as they provide a more cost-effective and environment friendly mode of transportation, which at present is dominated by road and railways. Development of India’s waterways will not only boost maritime trade across states, but also develop shipping and navigation industries, and ultimately create employment in the country.