Views of Dr Amita Prasad

“Significant initiatives have been taken to develop the IWT segment”

Waterways, the cheapest mode of transport for moving goods in comparison to rail and roads, has started garnering the much-required attention from the government in recent times. With an increase in the traffic handled by the national waterways (NWs), maintaining and deepening navigational channels have become even more important. Further, there have been some major developments in the inland water transport (IWT) segment over the past few years and these are expected to have a positive long-term impact.

At a recent conference on Modernisation and Digitalisation of Ports, Terminals and Logistics organised by India Infrastructure, Dr Amita Prasad, chairperson, Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), spoke about the traffic handled on waterways, the key initiatives undertaken by the IWAI with regard to the modernisation and digitalisation of operations and its future plans. Excerpts…

Current status and traffic analysis

At present, the IWAI is regulating 111 navigable NWs spanning a length of around 5,000 km. Of these, 16 waterways are operational and 22 are expected to be operational by 2030.

In light of the various initiatives taken by the government, the traffic handled at NWs has increased by about 1.4 times since 2015. From 2015-16 to 2019-20, cargo volumes transported through waterways increased from 30.4 million tonnes (mt) to 72.3 mt, a compound annual growth rate of about 24 per cent. Considering the cargo movement by inland waterways (including national routes), the busiest routes are in the western states – and one of the most industrialised parts of the country – of Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat. With regard to the NWs, NW-1 handled the maximum cargo traffic (6.8 mt) during 2019-20.

The Indo-Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) route between India and Bangladesh was developed to allow inland vessels of one country to transit through specified routes of the other. So far, 12 ports of call have been made on the route.

A string of initiatives

The past few years have been quite eventful for the IWT segment with the government taking a number of measures to develop it. The IWAI has taken a gamut of initiatives not only to propel growth in the segment but also to increase its share in the total inland traffic handled in the country.

Financial push

In the absence of long-term financing options from lenders, attracting private investment in inland vessels has been challenging. With a view to attracting private investment, benefits under the Tonnage Tax Scheme have been extended to inland vessels. A tax benefit under Section 33 of the Income Tax Act to deduct up to 100 per cent from the profit and loss account and utilise it for ship acquisition within a period of eight years has been allowed. The benefit is currently available for vessels registered under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958, and will be extended to vessels registered under the Inland Vessels Act, 1917, as well.

With respect to vessel financing, Indian vessel owners are able to avail of loans for a period of six-eight years, while foreign vessel owners are able to get loans for 15 years. In order to put Indian vessel owners on an equal footing, the IWAI is exploring the possibility of developing a riverine development fund to provide longer-tenor funds at a low borrowing cost.

Further, to promote the building of a greater number of barges, a separate shipbuilding financial assistance policy is also being considered. Such a policy can be exclusively for new barges/vessels proposed to be deployed on NWs for cargo and passenger movement.

Digital push

The IWAI has been taking a number of digitalisation initiatives to increase the attractiveness of the waterways segment. In order to ensure the optimum use of waterways, the authority has launched the Least Available Depth Information System (LADIS) to provide real-time data on the least available depth (LAD) of waterways to cargo owners and shippers. Another portal launched by the IWAI is the Forum of Cargo-Owners and Logistics-Operators (FOCAL). An aggregator of vessel operators, logistics intermediaries and cargo owners, FOCAL provides live information on the availability of vessels. Besides, Phase I and Phase II of the river information system for real-time vessel tracking and routing were launched in January 2016 and March 2018 respectively. Phase III is likely to be launched by August 2020.

Other technological solutions that have been adopted by the IWAI include undertaking bathymetric surveys using the digital echo sounder and global positioning system (GPS); topographic surveys using differential GPS; and bottom scanning using side scan sonar; and developing charts for navigation and morphological changes in waterways; shoal analysis reports for river training works; and the bottom panelling technique for river training.

In a major technological push to the segment, the IWAI is expected to launch the Portal for Asset and Navigational Information (PANI) to provide detailed information on various waterways, such as fairway, LAD and current infrastructural facilities by 2021. PANI is expected to ensure a better understanding of the key features of waterways that is essential for decision-making on the use of waterways as a mode of transportation. The key features of the portal are, among others, easy mobile- and web-based access for viewing, uploading and disseminating information; easy to access and manage map-based visualisation of information; and facility of uploading bulk data. Another portal for collection and compilation, analysis and dissemination of all cargo and cruise movement data, CarD, is likely to be launched by 2021. The portal will provide a year-wise and month-wise comparison of traffic on all NWs, jetty-wise traffic, top origin-destination pairs with the maximum traffic, share of major commodities in the total traffic handled, shipper and operator-wise commodity share, etc.

Other technological initiatives proposed by the IWAI include sailing permission portal for digitalising the procedure for providing permissions, and agent and vessel registration on the IBP route; JalVahan, a vessel and crew registration system, as a central repository for all vessel and crew details; and a freight management system (FMS) to enable terminal operators, vessel operators, cargo owners and the IWAI to manage cargo movement on NWs. Meanwhile, the FMS will be integrated with the port community system to allow seamless collection of data at source and generation of insights from this data.

Other initiatives

The IWAI has planned to strengthen a number of areas including terminals, multimodal connectivity, digital integration, customs clearance process on the IBP route, etc., for the development of the overall IWT ecosystem. The authority also plans to integrate various platforms to disseminate information, revalidate detailed project reports that are more than 10 years old, revive/operationalise obsolete jetties to attract private sector participation, monetise smaller floating jetties, and consider waterways for transporting goods over shorter distances as well. With a view to attracting greater private investment, the IWAI has invited bids from private players for operations, management and further development of terminals at Varanasi, Haldia and Sahibganj. Upon successful implementation, the model can be replicated for jetties as well.

Enhancing regional connectivity

The IWAI is assisting the Airports Authority of India (AAI) in carrying out hydrographic surveys for the development of five water aerodromes. Funds to the tune of Rs 118.4 million for the aerodromes have been sanctioned under AAI’s Regional Connectivity Scheme. The proposed locations for aerodrome development are the Shatrunjay dam, Gujarat; SardarSarovar dam-Statue of Unity, Gujarat; Sabarmati riverfront, Gujarat; Guwahati riverfront, Assam; and Umrangso reservoir, Assam.

IWAI’s five-year vision

The IWAI has envisioned a five-year plan to develop a self-sustainable, economical, safe and environment-friendly supplementary mode of transport for the overall economic growth of the country. The plan includes:

  • Increasing the modal share of IWT from the current level of 2 per cent to 2.5 per cent
  • Developing 5,000 km of IWT routes
  • Enhancing regional connectivity with the Northeast and neighbouring countries (Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar) through the Eastern Waterway Connectivity Transport Grid project
  • Integrating IWT with coastal shipping.

Further, the IWAI has set an ambitious target of increasing traffic movement through waterways from the current level of 72 mt to 77 mt by 2022 and further to 123-125 mt by 2030. Meanwhile, the authority is also in the process of making some amendments in the Vessels Act, 1917 so as to increase the share of waterways in the total traffic handled.

In sum

Despite an extensive network of waterways of around 20,000 km, the potential of this relatively cheap and environment-friendly mode of transport is yet to be fully tapped. However, with renewed interest and the recent plans to develop it, the segment has started witnessing a lot of activity. While the government has provided the much-needed push, increasing private participation and the effective execution of the ambitious plans will decide the fate of the IWT segment.

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