Growing Network: Government boosts inland waterways transport

Government boosts inland waterways transport

Despite India’s expansive inland waterways network, the potential of this cheaper and greener mode of transport is yet to be fully harnessed. Cargo carried by inland waterways has seen an increase of around 75 per cent, from 30.06 million tonnes (mt) in 2014-15 to 52.9 mt in 2016-17 (provisional figures), indicative of a steady growth. However, the total cargo moved by inland waterways transport (IWT) is still less than 1 per cent of the total traffic in the country.

Nonetheless, the government is making concerted efforts for IWT development. Various projects such as the Jal Marg Vikas Project, the declaration of 111 NWs, etc., are set to change the face of this mode of transport in the country. Further, in a major development, in May 2017, the Union cabinet, allocated 2.5 per cent of the proceeds of the Central Road Fund for the development and maintenance of NWs, via an amendment in the Central Road Fund Act, 2000.

National Waterways Act, 2016 –

From plan to action

In 2016, the government declared 106 new NWs, in addition to the five existing NWs, under the National Waterways Act, 2016. The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has started the preparatory works on converting 106 rivers into NWs by making them navigable.

These waterways have been divided into three categories on the basis of their economic viability and feasibility of development. Category I involves the development of eight waterways and has been classified as the most suitable for development. The detailed project report (DPR) for these waterways is ready and the tender process for fairway development of two NWs – the Barak river in Assam and the Ghaghra river in Uttar Pradesh – has been initiated. Further, under Category II, the development of 46 waterways in eight regional clusters will be taken up. The two-stage DPR studies have been initiated for these and the reports are in the final stage of preparation. Meanwhile, the remaining 52 waterways are spread across 10 inaccessible and hilly regional clusters and fall under Category III. Field surveys for 44 NWs have been completed and are in progress for another four. Draft feasibility reports for 36 NWs have been received and are currently under evaluation.

Jal Marg Vikas Project – Moving forward

The project entails the development of a fairway with a depth of 3 metres between Varanasi and Haldia (Phase I) covering a distance of 1,380 km at an estimated cost of Rs 54 billion. The project, funded by the World Bank, has picked up pace recently. In April 2017, the World Bank approved a $375 million loan for the capacity augmentation under the project.

Meanwhile, in May 2016, the contract for the construction of a multimodal terminal (MMT) at Varanasi was awarded to Afcons Infrastructure Limited, while in August 2016, trial runs started on the Varanasi stretch wherein cargo roll-on, roll-off vessels were flagged off from Varanasi. Contracts for the construction of the MMT at Sahibganj and the EPC contract worth Rs 3.59 billion for a new navigational lock at Farakka have been awarded to Larsen & Toubro, and the contract for the construction of an MMT at Haldia has been awarded to ITD Cementation.

Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project – Waterways component progresses

Another key project on the anvil is the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project. This includes the development of container handling facilities at Sittwe and Paletwa ports, the operation and maintenance of the completed works and wreck removal in the Sittwe port basin area, by April 2019. The IWAI entered into a pact for the Rs 4.76 billion project with India Ports Global Private Limited in June 2016.

Under the waterways component of the project, the port and IWT terminal at Sittwe and the related infrastructure/back-up facilities; IWT/trans-shipment terminal and related facilities at Paletwa; a navigational channel along the Kaladan river from Sittwe to Paletwa has been completed and six self-propelled IWT vessels have been acquired.

Indo-Bangladesh protocol – Expanding horizons

In April 2015, India and Bangladesh agreed to extend the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade signed in 1972. Under the protocol,  inland vessels of one country can transit through specified routes of the other. The two countries have commenced transshipment operations under the protocol and the maiden vessel reached Ashuganj port on July 16, 2016.

India has also agreed to finance 80 per cent of the estimated Rs 2.2 billion needed for dredging to maintain navigability along Sirajganj-Daikhawa on the Jamuna Ashugunj-Karimgunj stretch of the Kushiyara river in Bangladesh. Accordingly, the tender for dredging is expected to be floated by the Bangladesh Inland Waterway Transport Authority in which only Indian and Bangladeshi companies can take part. In February 2017, the first container vessel ship from Kolkata arrived at Dhaka’s Panagon river port, paving the way for direct cargo vessel movement between the two countries.


While renewed interest and recent plans to develop IWT in the country are encouraging, it remains to be seen if the IWAI is able to ensure timely execution of projects, as this will hold the key to success. In this regard, challenges such as inadequate depth of rivers prohibiting the navigability of large vessels, lack of maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities, complexity of NW-1 and NW-2, etc., need to be dealt with.