Untapped Potential: IWT offers environment-friendly, cost-effective alternative

IWT offers environment-friendly, cost-effective alternative

India has a potentially navigable river network of about 14,500 km, of which about 2,968 km or 20.4 per cent is operational. The central government has declared five waterways as national waterways (NWs). Of these, operations have commenced on NWs 1, 2 and 3, while NWs 4 and 5 are still at the development stage. During the period 2011-12 to 2015-16, the combined traffic on the three operational NWs declined from 7.1 million tonnes (mt) to 5.6 mt, as a result of the ban on iron ore exports.

The increased use of inland water transport (IWT) can go a long way in reducing India’s logistics costs from the existing 14-15 per cent to 9-10 per cent. However, this mode of transport remains underdeveloped. To increase IWT’s share in the multimodal mix and in a bid to promote this cost-effective alternative, the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) is undertaking a number of projects.

Ongoing and upcoming projects

Jal Marg Vikas

One of the major ongoing projects in the sector is the Jal Marg Vikas project for the development of NW-1. The project involves the development of the stretch between Allahabad and Haldia on the Ganga river, with a minumum depth of 3 metres enabling commercial navigation of at least 1,500 tonne vessels. The project, involving an investment of Rs 42 billion, is being undertaken through World Bank assistance. Three multimodal terminals are planned to be set up, at Varanasi, Sahibganj and Haldia. The letters of intent for the Varanasi and Sahibganj terminals have been issued to Afcons Infrastructure Limited and Larsen & Toubro respectively. For the Haldia terminal, the World Bank approved the tender document and gave the no-objection certificate to IWAI in March 2016. Post-approval, IWAI floated tenders for the development of the terminal. The bids have been evaluated and the evaluation results been sent to the World Bank for the no-objection clearance.

The Jal Marg Vikas project also involves the construction of a new navigational lock at Farakka at an estimated cost of Rs 3.8 billion. The tender for this was approved by the World Bank in April 2016, post which bids were invited. As of October 2016, the bids are under evaluation.

River Information System

Another project being implemented by IWAI is the deployment of the River Information System (RIS) on NW-1. In January 2016, Phase I of the RIS was inaugurated to facilitate safe and accurate navigation on the waterway. The new information system is a combination of modern tracking equipment-related hardware and software designed to optimise traffic and transport processes in inland navigation. So far, the system has been made operational on a 545 km stretch between Haldia and Farakka, at an estimated cost of Rs 263 million, while work on the remaining two phases, from Farakka to Patna and Patna to Varanasi, is in progress.

Development of NWs 3, 4 and 5

On NW-3, the construction of the terminal at Alappuzha is nearing completion. In addition, there are other terminals which have already been completed. To develop the navigational channel, dredging of 4.03 million cubic metres (cum) was envisaged over a shoal length of 87 km. As of September 30, 2016, IWAI has completed 3.8 million cum over a length of 83.75 km. Further, Feedback Infra Private Limited has submitted the draft report for the development of selected stretches on NWs 4 and 5 on a public-private partnership basis.

Declaration of 106 NWs

A quantum leap for this sector came with the passage of the National Waterways Act, 2016, which aims at developing 106 additional NWs. The act has been passed in both the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. After the inclusion of these 106 additional waterways, the total number of NWs has risen to 111.

While IWAI will develop the feasible stretch of the NWs for shipping and navigation purposes, the rights over the use of the water and the river bed will remain with the state government. These waterways have been divided into three categories on the basis of their economic viability and feasibility of development.

Category I has been classified as the most suitable for development and comprises eight waterways. The waterways will be developed on seven rivers and a canal – Barak in Assam, Ghaghara in Uttar Pradesh, Gandak and Kosi in Bihar, Sundarbans in West Bengal, and Mandovi, Zuari and the Cumberjua canal in Goa. Contracts for these waterways are targeted to be awarded by 2016-17. Tenders for the development of the Barak river have already been issued and those for the Ghaghara, Gandak and Kosi rivers are planned to be issued by end-2016. Subsequently, bids will be invited for the Mandovi and Zuari rivers.

Category II comprises 46 waterways in eight regional clusters, and two-stage detailed project report studies for these are under way for all the waterways. The Stage I draft feasibility report has been prepared and is currently under evaluation. Contracts for the viable waterways are targeted to be awarded by 2017-18.

The remaining 52 waterways in 10 regional clusters are in Category III. These are located in remote and hilly regions which are not economically viable. At present, the feasibility studies for these waterways are ongoing and will determine the techno-commercial feasibility for further development.

Kaladan Multimodal Transit Project

The Kaladan Multimodal Transit Project was jointly identified by India and Myanmar to create a multimodal mode of transport for cargo shipment from the eastern ports of India to Myanmar. The project, which will connect Sittwe port in Myanmar to the India-Myanmar border, is expected to contribute to the economic development of India’s north-eastern states. IWAI signed an MoU with India Ports Global Private Limited on June 1, 2016 for the implementation of works worth Rs 4.76 billion under the project. These works include the development of container handling facilities at Sittwe and Paletwa, operations and maintenance of the completed works and removal of wrecks in the Sittwe port basin area.

Issues and challenges

As compared to deepwater ports, IWT is more complicated and challenging mainly on account of the varied characteristics and features of waterways, leading to inefficient operations. One of the key challenges faced by IWAI is maintaining draught levels of the waterways. The seasonal variation in draught levels due to high siltation rates further adds to the woes. Further, many stretches on NW-3 are characterised by multiple bridges with low vertical clearance obstructing the passage of big vessels. Several navigable canals in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh cannot be utilised for cargo movement due to air draught restrictions.

Moreover, the lack of intermodal connectivity of IWT terminals with roads and railways fails to establish an efficient logistics chain. Waterways in the country also suffer due to lack of infrastructure facilities. For example, the waterways do not offer night navigational facilities on some stretches, thus limiting the movement of vessels to daytime only.


There is a huge potential offered by IWT waiting to be exploited. The target is to increase the share of IWT in total transport to 1-1.5 per cent, from less than 0.5 per cent currently. Consequently, IWAI has initiated various measures which could pave the way for enhanced private sector participation in IWT and shift some of the cargo from roads and railways to this mode of transport. The timely execution of its development projects will be key to promoting the environment-friendly and cost-effective mode of transportation. However, there are still some issues that require immediate government attention. These include inadequate depth, financial constraints, high siltation rates, lack of river training measures and inadequate intermodal connectivity. Only once these are addressed can we hope for a shift in cargo from road and rail to inland waterways.

P.K. Srivastava, Hydrographic Chief, Inland Waterways Authority of India