Of all infrastructure, nothing is perhaps as important as connectivity, for this is what builds community and creates markets for goods, services and ideas. India is fast changing, with manufactures increasingly becoming the engine of growth, incomes and employment. Urban jobs are fast overtaking agriculture and rural pursuits, and the remotest regions are opening up to participate and share in the development process. The bullock cart remains a symbol of the past while modern transportation assumes its due place in the country’s growth story.
No surprise then that a National Transport Development Policy Committee has been at work to construct a suitable framework for an integrated and sustainable transportation system. Ecologically sound systems that leave a low carbon footprint are obviously preferred options. Thus restoration of inland waterways and the resuscitation of inland water carriage have begun to engage the attention of policy makers. The IWT sector today has no more than a pathetic 0.40 per cent share in the national transport pie. Countries like the US, China and Germany do far better.
The Ganga-Brahmaputra-Barak, peninsular rivers, estuaries, wet-lands and inter-connecting canals were busy highways of commerce and exchange until disrupted in part by Partition and falsely prioritised planning. Unthinking rail and road competition sought to maximise individual modal gains without thought of low-cost penetration of the hinterland by means of traditional water carriage and the loss of overall inter-modal synergy. Thus the Ganga-Brahmaputra arteries, the Orissa and Kerala waterways and the Buckingham canal were allowed to waste away, isolating large areas from traditional connectivity. Even planned developments such as the DVC canal and the Farakka lock were simply ignored and incapacitated by the monopoly given to a sick and incompetent public sector Central Inland Water Transport Corporation.
The logistic and fuel efficiency, environmentally-friendly and land saving characteristics of IWT, and its ability to handle over-dimensional cargo, have at last gained recognition and a working group has now recommended that inland water carriage be prioritised as part of an integrated multi-modal transport system. This will call for the restoration and development of fairways at three-metre depth with waterway mapping and maintenance by the Inland Waterways Authority of India, construction of vessels, jetties, warehouses and other movement and inter-modal facilitation infrastructure, night navigational aids, training and an appropriate policy framework.
The working group estimates that bulk commodities such as coal, iron and other ores, grain, fertilisers, cement, petro-products, fly ash and containers can be best carried by IWT, and that the freight so moved can rise from the current five billion tonne km (btkm) to 15 btkm by 2017, 25 btkm by 2025 and 50 btkm by 2030. This is not mere idle talk. Jindal ITF Ltd has entered into a long-term agreement with NTPC through open bidding to create facilities to carry a guaranteed 3 mt cargo of imported coal annually for seven years to feed its thermal plants at an investment cost of Rs 650 crores. Carriage will be from a buoy mooring at Sandheads to the Kahalgaon, Barh and Farakka super-thermal stations on the Ganga in a continuous merry-go-round operation.
Likewise, IWAI and Cochin Port have entered into a MoU for establishing Ro-Ro/Lo-Lo (roll-on, roll-off, lift-on, lift-off) IWT terminals at Bolghatty and Wellington Islands to connect with the new International Container Transhipment Terminal at Vallapardam. Such facilities will enable containers to move from ship to road to rail, or even air carriage, as required, thus adding great versatility to freight movements. This will however require a single combined transport document and other facilitation measures that are internationally well established.
Achieving the national targets set out will require estimated budgetary support (including viability gap funding) to the extent of almost Rs 30,000 crores and private investment of about Rs 33,800 crore during the period 2012-30.
A number of policy issues, however, need attention. Connectivity and inter-modalism not only require close coordination but concurrent action by multiple stakeholders well ahead of time so that the new facility does not fall into desuetude waiting for linked measures to fall into place as has happened time and again. The Kaladan corridor could languish, as did the very promising Moreh-Tamu-Kalewa highway in Myanmar and the Guwahati and Srinagar international airports for this very reason.
Efforts are sensibly being made to link IWT to coastal carriage by putting in place the necessary policy frame and designing vessels with trained crew to negotiate both estuarine and coastal waters. The notion of special waterfront zones also needs to be conceptualised to incentivise entrepreneurs to develop economic activity in order to generate (return) cargo and attract investments in these traditionally backward areas removed from the national railway and highway network, using mechanised country craft for feeder services.
Among the national waterways designated for development are the Ganga from Sandheads to Allahabad; the Brahmaputra from Haldia to Dibrugarh through Bangladesh — with whom we have a navigation protocol for the Barak/Meghna as well; the Kerala backwaters and West Coast Canal; the Goa waterways which even today carry 50 mt of iron ore on 3000-tonne self-propelled vessels; the Mumbai waterways and tidal creeks (14.8 mt per annum carriage, mainly of steel products); the 30 m Tapi tidal waterway to Surat; and a restored DVC Canal with 23 locks to service Burdwan and Hooghly districts. Some canals are also being sought to be revived: the Hijli tidal canal in Bengal, the Orissa coast canal, the Buckingham-Elluru-Kakinada canal network in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu; and possibly the Narmada and Rajasthan canals. The Tipaimukh dam could vastly improve navigation over a wide swathe of the lower NE region in Assam, Manipur and Mizoram.
The Calcutta docks are a fading symbol of that once busy outpost of Imperial and even post-Independence Indian commerce. As other river ports, it is fast becoming derelict as upland flows diminish and vessel sizes grow. The Farakka barrage was built (1975) to flush the port, improve drafts and reduce salinity; but cargo moved down-river to Haldia (constrained by an unspoken commitment to keep the increasingly dysfunctional Calcutta docks going through inefficient lightening and topping up operations). Haldia itself, owing to bars and bends, is facing problems and will soon yield to a new deep sea port at Sandheads with a single buoy mooring further out to sea to handle very large container vessels and tankers.
The obvious answer, still being fought by vested interests and labour, is that Kolkata should become a poly-nodal river from Haldia to Farakka port and up-river distribution centre beyond Farakka and the NE. This will decongest and de-pollute the city. Were the derelict engineering and jute properties along either river bank to be disposed of for modern development, residential, social infrastructure and industrial, the entire project could become self-financing and Kolkata given a new lease of life as the dynamo of Eastern India.
Such social and city re-engineering calls for boldness and vision, which has been singularly lacking. A great port city that was once a powerful engine of growth should not be permitted to waste away when a great future beckons. IWT could be Kolkata’s lifeline with a cargo handling of 100 mt and more.