A cargo of 16 containers carrying snacks and other food items manufactured by Pepsi is on its way to Varanasi. What makes this nine-day journey special is that instead of roads or railways, this cargo has taken the waterway — part of an effort by the government to resurrect the Ganga as a significant transportation artery.
On November 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will receive the vessel, MV R N Tagore, at the new multimodal freight terminal in Varanasi. Modi will dedicate to the nation the terminal, designed mainly for construction material, foodgrains, cement, and fertilisers.
Minister for Road Transport and Shipping Nitin Gadkari tweeted on November 3, the day after the ship departed Haldia at the mouth of the Hooghly in West Bengal: “This should have been the biggest news of the week in India. For the first time since Independence, a container is moving on inland vessel… Such a huge accomplishment!”
The push to revive the country’s waterways as viable commercial freight corridors is among the government’s less talked-about big-ticket infrastructure initiatives. Rivers and canals were traditionally used in pre-modern India to transport humans and materials, and to carry out trading activity. Inland waterways started to decline with the advent of widespread road and rail networks. Long, slow voyages began to be considered incompatible with the faster pace of doing business, and as silt deposits led to channels becoming increasingly shallow, commerce dried up in the traditional docks and ports.
India has 14,500 km of navigable waterways in rivers, canals, backwaters, creeks, etc. About 55 million tonnes of cargo moves on waterways, but the activity is largely restricted to the Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly system, the Brahmaputra, the Barak river, the rivers in Goa, the backwaters of Kerala, inland waterways in Mumbai, and the delta regions of the Godavari and Krishna. Overall, waterways account for just about 3% of all freight movement in India, and the mode remains grossly underutilised, officials say. Also, according to the calculations in various government papers, the same amount of energy can move several times more cargo (by weight) by water than it can move via rail or by road.
Authority and Act
The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) was established in 1986. Five waterways were identified, but the investment in them remained inadequate. Between 1986 and 2014, India spent only Rs 1,456 crore on its inland waterways. In comparison, China invested $15 billion (Rs 1,09,000 crore) from 2005-10, and Germany pumped in €9 billion (Rs 77,000 crore) in its waterways in 2016 alone. After the NDA government came to power, India invested Rs 1,605 crore in this sector from 2014-18. The National Waterways Act, 2016, which came into effect on April 12 that year, merged existing Acts to make a law to notify 106 National Waterways, including the existing five.
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Constraints and effort
There are multiple constraints in transporting men and materials perennially on inland waterway corridors. Periodic dredging is required to clear the silt that comes with the monsoon, so that adequate depth is maintained. Both fixed and floating terminals are needed at multiple points along the waterways. Many rivers are becoming progressively drier; many of those that retain adequate volumes are spanned by low bridges that would hinder passage of larger vessels.
The Jalmarg Vikas Project approved by the Cabinet in January this year receives financial assistance from the World Bank to upgrade navigability on National Waterway 1 from Varanasi to Haldia, a distance of 1,380 km. The project seeks to develop a fairway of 3-metre depth in phases, at an estimated cost of Rs 5,369 crore.
The project is intended to be completed by 2023.
There are plans to develop three multimodal terminals along National Waterway 1. Apart from the one in Varanasi, being built for Rs 169.59 crore, there is one planned in Sahibganj in Jharkhand, and the third in Haldia. It also involves building a Farakka navigation lock for Rs 359 crore, to be completed by June 2019.
The government has also tapped the National Clean Energy Fund and the Central Road Fund for the initiative, and has borrowed from the market by issuing government bonds.
Completing a month-long, 2,085-km voyage from Bihar to Assam, 1,233 tonnes of bagged fly ash from NTPC’s Kahalgaon plant reached Guwahati’s Pandu Inland Port, marking one of the longest hauls in waterways sector movement in India. The government called it “a critical integrated movement through three waterways — NW1 on the Ganga, the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) route, and NW2 on the Brahmaputra.
The PepsiCo cargo
Since August 2016, when Minister Gadkari flagged off a consignment of Maruti cars from Varanasi to Haldia, pilot movements have been carried out on various stretches of NW1.
More than 15 voyages have been completed, including integrated movements through multiple waterways. What the PepsiCo cargo shows is that a commercial shipment can use this as a viable, working route for transportation.