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Slowly down the Ganges

India aims to breathe new life into its extensive inland waterways as cost-effective arteries for the transport of bulk cargo.

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New Delhi has placed the reinvigoration of its vast network of inland waterways at the centre of its drive to modernise and update the nation’s port infrastructure for the 21st century. Although India had a long history of using waterways, this was supplanted in the 19th century as the ruling British built its railway system. Now much of its existing shipping channels, canals and navigation assets are in a state of disuse or disrepair. The government wants to make more use of India’s rivers with their proximity to industrial production and demand centres.

The National Perspective Plan (NPP), drawn up for the government’s Sagar Mala initiative last year, has identified freight transport by waterways as underutilised, compared with the US, China and Europe. The NPP cites the Yangtze River, which generates a fifth of China’s GDP, with its 13 waterways and 92 ports, as an example to be emulated. Sagar Mala aims to coordinate inland and coastal waterways with road and rail and the development of ports, industrial clusters and hinterlands. The government wants 60-70 Mt of cargo moved by inland waterways by 2025, with the cost per tonne-km 60- 80% less than road or rail.

The National Waterways Act, 2016, came into force last April, with 37 stretches of water identified for development over the next three years. Earlier, New Delhi’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2012-17) targeted inland waterways as key to unlocking the nation’s economy. The Twelfth Plan estimates that the total external cost of inland navigation could be one-seventh of those of road transport. It targets a 10- fold increase in the share of freight transported by inland waterways, and seeks a shift of bulk, heavy and hazardous goods onto these waterways.

The National Waterways legislation aims to increase designated waterways by nearly 4,400 km to over 18,000 km, transferring power from the 29 states to the Government of India to develop river systems for commercial shipping. Nitin Gadkari, the minister of shipping, says that by 2018, India will transport at least 7% of goods traffic by inland waterways, with 6% moved presently. The initial work is focused on National Waterway 1 (NW1), the longest designated waterway in India, linking the seaport at Kolkata and the deepwater dock at Haldia to Allahabad, via the HooghlyBhagirathi and Ganga rivers.

Work has already started on NW-1, with the construction of terminals at Varanasi and Sahibganj and a navigational lock at Farakka. The inland waterway from Varanasi to Haldia, near Kolkata, opened last summer, with work on a string of multimodal terminals underway along the 1,620 km waterway. The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), with the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India, has focused on developing Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh as a logistical hub, offering a point of convergence of inland waterways, railways and roadways.

Waterway hub

Plans are afoot also to set up a water transport hub at Haldia at the entrance to the waterway that moves upstream to Allahabad. However, IWAI has lacked the financial muscle to develop the NW-1. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development has stepped in with US$375M for the massive US$800M project to improve navigability and upgrade vessels and infrastructure. Work on all six of the terminals at Varanasi, Haldia, Sahibganj, Ghazipur, Kalughat and Triveni will be underway this year, along with a second, parallel ship-lock, and upgrade of the existing facility, at Farakka.

Unlocked riches

The NW-1 upgrade offers big economic rewards for the resource-rich but impoverished states of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It has the potential to serve Odisha’s expanding ports of Paradip and Dhamra, and connect Bangladesh and North-Eastern India.

NW-1, together with the proposed Eastern Dedicated Rail Freight Corridor, from Kolkata and Ludhiana, and the National Highway 2, linking Kolkata and Delhi, constitute the Eastern Transport Corridor of India. Annual freight flows through this corridor link with India’s capital is an estimated 370 Mt, or 40% of the overall flow in India.

Presently, NW-1 carries only 5 Mtpa of cargo, although this is a rise of three quarters since 2010. Consequently, the hinterland states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh look to the west coast ports of Mumbai and Kandla, despite the distances, rather than Kolkata. Jharkhand uses both coasts.

The westward bias reflects limited transport choices, poor hinterland connectivity and Kolkata’s inefficient and ageing facilities. But New Delhi has a grand vision for the NW-1 as a gateway to the East, with its links to the North East, along the Brahmaputra, Bangladesh, via the neighbouring countries’ Protocol Route, and Myanmar, Thailand and the wider region. Bulk commodities will be the main cargo from Haldia and Varanasi. NW-1’s four littoral states generate inbound cargoes of fertiliser and animal feed, as well as gricultural machinery, and outbound agribulk, including wheat, rice and sugar. The regions produce high volumes of bulk construction materials, such as aggregates, limestone, sand and cement, as well as commodities such as coal, iron ore and fly ash (and heavy-lift and project cargo for mining and construction). “These are all commodities for which inland water transport has proven most successful in China, Europe, the USA and elsewhere,” the World Bank notes.

Constraints

However, the waterway poses major challenges for developers including big navigation constraints. Depths range from 3m between Tribeni and Farakka to just 1.5m between Ghazipur and Allahabad. Year round navigation upstream is not assured from Farakka, which is served by an ageing ship-lock system. The waterway lacks modern and safe navigation aids and environmentally up-to-date, modern cargo handling facilities to cater for larger vessels too. Developers are required to preserve the Ganga’s iconic status, including combining minimal dredging with lowdraught vessels (the lowest depth is 2.2m for 110 km from Ghazipur to Varanasi).

Authorities have looked to develop low-draught, fuel efficient vessels. The channel width of 45m will support two-way movement of barges carrying cargoes of around 2,000t. The estimated annual dredging quantity would be 10-11M m3 , which is less than 1% of the sediment load carried by the river. Non-permanent bamboo structures will channel water flow to reduce the need for dredging. Protocols have been put into place to minimise the impact on dolphins and turtles, whose habitats are nogo areas for dredging. Barge speeds in these stretches will be restricted to 5 km/h.

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