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Govt plans to convert 101 rivers into national waterways: Amitabh Verma

Interview with Chairman, Inland Waterways Authority of India

Vijay C Roy & Jyoti Mukul  |  New Delhi 

Chroniclers of the infrastructure sector believe rail and road transport support came at the cost of inland water transportation in India. This government has renewed attention on this segment. Amitabh Verma, chairman, Inland Waterways Authority of India, talks to Vijay C Roy & Jyoti Mukul, on what’s ahead. Edited excerpts:

How do you plan to develop 101 waterways when even the five declared so far are yet to be fully developed?

Only five waterways were declared as national waterways in the past 30 years, owing to enormous delays in conducting pre-feasibility and techno-economic feasibility status, difficulties in land acquisition and coordination with state government. To overcome these delays and to accelerate the development of inland water transport, a decision was taken by the government to accord the status of national waterways to navigable water bodies and thereafter take up techno-eco feasibility studies on each. Depending on the outcome of the studies, a suitable development module will be worked out for development of fairways, navigation aids and terminal facilities, etc.

Based on the data available on navigable waterways, compiled by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation, 101 water bodies with a minimum length of 25 km are proposed to be declared as national waterways. Twelve of these have good potential and we’ve invited tenders for eight, to create terminals and a fairway. For 44 waterways, we are inviting consultants for a feasibility study and engineering design. For the remaining 45, we are exploring a feasibility study.

Has the sector got enough focus?

After independence, the focus was on a faster and more modern mode of transport. Waterways were largely neglected. For 63 years, our focus was on agriculture, rail and road bridges, hydro electricity and so on. We obtained power generation and irrigation, agriculture production, road and rail connectivity but damaged the potential of navigation. It was in 1986 when we started looking at waterways and this organisation was set up. Even after that, till 2010, we spent only Rs 1,117 crore on inland waterways, too small an amount.

Isn’t it difficult and expensive to make waterways navigable and maintain the draft?

To develop waterways without sufficient vertical and horizontal clearance makes navigation difficult. We have to modify structures, demolish these in some cases. State governments have to be on board. We are looking at a water draft of 2.5-3 metres. We are also looking at the best design and combination of vessels, which can carry a larger load in lesser draft. We have electronic navigation charts in waterways. We also have differential global positioning systems (GPS) installed at national waterways 1 and 2.

There has been a fall in cargo movement through waterways. Do you see potential for growth in volume?

Cargo movement on national waterway 1 is around three million tonnes, followed by NW-2 with two mt and NW-3 with one mt. We see a huge potential to be tapped but the need of the hour is promotion. Unlike the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), which creates infrastructure, here we have to create the infrastructure and promote waterways. A barge costs Rs 8-10 crore. Investing without commitment doesn’t make business sense.

Are contracts annual or committed? How do you see the potential in the near future?

Yes, they are committed. Initially, we looked at a public sector enterprise like NTPC, which has a huge amount of coal to transport. They use the railways but there are issues of congestion and non-availability of wagons. NTPC provided a commitment of transportation of three mt a year of imported coal for its Farakka thermal power station for seven years. So, we floated the tenders and gave a commitment to build and maintain the infrastructure by roping in private players.

Based on the success, IWAI and NTPC last year developed another such project for transportation of three mt coal annually from the Bay of Bengal to the Barh power plant, over 100 km, for at least 10 years. But, upward of Farakka, we are having different issues. We have floated the tender but nobody bid for it, as there were issues related to wharfage, Kolkata port and the Farakka lockgate, which was not modernised. We have to provide a new lockgate. Obviously, the market has its own concerns. Even NTPC wanted a guarantee that the content would be the same as was loaded at the Bay of Bengal but this condition was not there in the Farakka power plant. We are soon going to re-bid the tender for movement of coal before Patna.

There are 11 more power plants on the Ganga and 10 are at different stages of commissioning. We have 21 power plants, so their imported coal requirement can be handled by the waterways. Once these two experiments become successful, others will come on board. Some might be a bit difficult to handle but cargo for five to six power plants is easy.

Is there enough cargo for a project to become viable, especially as the cost of maintaining the draft will be high?

Draft will be maintained by the government. Nowhere in the world has a fairway been developed by a private party. It’s public funding. Besides, there are external benefits. It an environment-friendly mode of transport and the running cost is cheaper than road and rail, except for NW-1 and NW-2 as these are alluvial rivers and need dredging. In NW-3, only minuscule dredging is required. Besides, there are no social costs attached, since the land required is small. More, whatever capacity is being created for rail and road can be used for passenger movement, while the waterways can be used for cargo.

Where will the funding come from?

We are looking at enhanced budgetary support and funding from the likes of the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). We are also exploring public-private partnerships.

How far has the proposal moved for special purpose vehicles with state governments?

About 20 states have shown interest in setting up inland waterways corporations, where the central government would have a stake of 74 per cent and the rest would be with the state government.

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First Published: Wed, July 29 2015. 00:43 IST