Will things be different this time?
Critics will say that they have seen such initiatives mooted for the last many decades but no real progress has ever been made. Nonetheless, media reports indicate that the promotion of the inland water transport (IWT) system in the country is once again threatening to take centre stage in the deliberations of the powers that be. The Hindu Business Line reports that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Office has identified several new river routes for development; the PMO is pushing for the private sector to invest in India's much neglected IWT system.
The government had announced a “fast-tracking” in IWT development last month, with media reports saying that IWT for passenger and freight movement would "lower operating costs and environmental pollution than for road, rail or air options. It could relieve pressure on the other modes, which face their own constraints". Indian figures for IWT are dismal. Only 0.15 percent of domestic surface transport is carried by IWT, compared to 9 percent in China and a staggering 32 percent in Bangladesh. India, with 14.500 km of inland waterways, uses just 5,700 for navigation by mechanised vessels. Critics- and a report by a 2006 Parliamentary Standing Committee- allege step motherly treatment to IWT, besides inadequate allocations and improper fund utilisation.
Analysts say that much needs to be done- and quickly- for the Indian IWT system to become a serious and viable contender for the carriage of goods and passengers in the country's rivers. Some of these routes pass through Bangladesh; particularly affected are movements of foodgrain from Kolkata to Tripura and container barges from Pandu in Gauhati to Kolkata, says the Hindu, adding that ONGC pipe movement to the North East is also critical. Bangladesh has not entertained the Indian request that a full-fledged port be developed at Ashuganj in that country so far- that location is a key point for Indian IWT movement.
India also needs to ensure, says the Business Line, that it promotes stable two-way traffic within the IWT system. "Even large cargo volumes in one direction cannot make a river service viable," the paper's analysis points out, adding that an additional issue is that sections of some rivers dry up and are usable only in the monsoons. Other experts point out that IWT should be part of the National Maritime Development Programme, and the integration of the IWT with other modes of transport is crucial. Centre-State coordination becomes very important in this scenario.
The possibility of the involvement of the private sector in IWT has been welcomed by many, although it remains to be seen if there will be substantial interest. The PM's focus on IWT is also encouraging, and so is Shipping Ministry's announcement, last month, that the Dredging Corporation of India is augmenting its fleet of dredgers keeping port and inland waterways requirements in mind.
The Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system from Allahabad to Haldia was declared National Waterway Number 1 two and a half decades ago; it has never really taken off since then. One hopes that the government- led by the Prime Minister- is serious this time round, because there is no doubt that river transport and the IWT system are critical to the Indian economy.