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Waterways in India

As we know now, India has an extensive inland waterways network of 14,500KMs. Through times, rivers have been efficient and effective for carrying load over long distances. Even in today’s time, many countries depend heavily on inland waterways for transport of large and bulky cargo. Talking economy, the inland waterways are much cheaper and reliable and also less polluting means of transporting goods than the rails or roads which are most commonly used in India.

Despite of all of the above, India is yet to successfully develop this cheap and ecofriendly mode of transport. Despite of congestion and higher cost, goods in India still travel by road and rail. This also adds more uncertainty and in some or most cases also takes longer in turn increasing the cost. Logistics cost in India is so much that it accounts to around 18% of the country’s GDP. It is not that we have always been dependent on roads and rails, around a hundred years ago, the Ganges was a very busy waterway. The coming of railway and development of road network in India caused the disuse of watercourse.

For all the stated reasons, the Indian government is reviving the Ganga watercourse. It is known as National Waterway 1and is going to ferry cargo from the eastern seaport of Haldia to varansi which is some 1360KM inland. It has the potential to emerge as one of the leading arteries of northern India. The stretch between Kolkata and Delhi covers India’s most densely populated areas. 40% of all India’s traded goods either originate from this area or are designated to end up here. This resource green area generates around 370 million tones of freight annually but only a small fraction – 5 million tones travels by waterways.

The world bank is financing the development with a loan of $375 Million. The Capacity Augmentation of National Waterway 1 Project plans to help put the infrastructure and services needed to ensure that NW1 emerges as an efficient transport artery in this important economic region in place. Once in place, the the waterway will form part of the larger multi-modal transport network being planned along the river. It would link up with the Eastern Dedicated Rail Freight Corridor, as well as with the area’s existing network of highways. This web of water, road and rail links will help the region’s industries and manufacturing units switch seamlessly between different modes of transport as they send their goods to markets in India and abroad. Farmers in the agriculturally-rich Gangetic plain will also benefit, as the waterway opens up markets further afield.

Since the absence of proper infrastructure such as cargo terminals and jetties has been one of the reasons for the slow development of water transport in the region, the Project will help establish six multi-modal freight terminals – at Varanasi, Ghazipur, Kalughat, Sahibgunj, Triveni and Haldia. In addition to this, five new Roll On-Roll Off (RO-RO) crossings at different locations will help trucks and other vehicles transfer from road to river and vice versa. The 6 new cargo terminals have the potential to evolve into thriving logistics hubs, providing jobs to thousands of people in one of the poorest and most populous parts of the country. The Project will also be helpful set up a vessel repair and maintenance facility at Doriganj.

In addition to the above stated, the Project will support the modernization of the ageing Farakka lock, built some 40 years ago. At present, the vessels often have to wait for up to six hours to cross the lock; nor is two-way traffic possible through its narrow gates. To facilitate the faster and smoother passage of boats through the passage, the lock will not only be upgraded but a new lock will also be built, allowing barges to travel both upstream and downstream simultaneously. These small improvements will dramatically reduce the time taken to cross the lock.

Further, the Project will help set up a state-of-the-art River Information System (RIS). Amongst the many benefits, the RIS will enable barge-operators and cargo-owners to track their vessels, locate berths in advance in terminals and better plan their logistics. To make navigation safe in both day and in the night, the Project will help mark out the central channel for boats to ply in and install night navigation facilities. Besides, detailed protocols are being laid down for dealing with emergencies, including for tackling the spillage of oil from boats.

Since the Ganga river occupies a special place in the social, cultural and environmental landscape of the country, the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has sought to adopt the least intrusive methods of making the river navigable. It therefore has followed the principle of ‘working with nature’ while planning the Ganga waterway.

Unlike many of the world’s major watercourses, the Ganga is a seasonal river that swells with the monsoon rains and recedes in the dry winters and summers. While small boats can ply along this seasonal river, large cargo barges need a minimum depth to sail in. Shipping on the Ganga has thus been limited by the varying depths of water found in the river. Currently, the traffic is largely limited to the river’s downstream stretch between Farakka and the Haldia where the water is deep enough – 2.5 m to 3.0 m – for boats to sail in throughout the year. Typically, making such a river navigable would call for large scale dredging of the riverbed to attain the depth needed by larger boats, especially for large barges carrying up to 2,000 tonnes of load. In the Ganga’s, special care has been taken to accommodate such vessels while keeping the need for dredging to the minimum.

A 45-metre-wide channel has been marked in the river’s deepest part, and the Least Available Depths (LAD) needed for navigation has been determined keeping in mind the need to reduce dredging. The channel’s depth thus follows the river’s natural gradient in different stretches and is sufficient to support the two-way movement of large vessels.

These measures will help reduce the need for dredging to just 1.5 percent of the river’s annual silt load of 10-11 million cubic metres. Even this limited dredging will be done only when absolutely necessary and then too using modern, less intrusive technologies. Among these technologies is the proposed water injection method that will use the water pressure to liquefy silt deposits and wash them away. dense slurry that results will then be deposited – either naturally or through induced currents – into depressions along the riverbed, ensuring that sediments remain within the river’s ecosystem.

Where large shoals and islands exist, temporary structures made of natural materials like bamboo will be erected to channelize the water flow. These temporary structures – or ‘bandals’ as they are known – will be specially erected near aquatic sanctuaries to protect the Ganga’s diverse fauna. Contracts shall also be tailored to reduce the need for dredging. IWAI is also ensuring that water traffic does not impact the two aquatic wildlife sanctuaries that fall alongside this stretch of the river – the Kashi Turtle Sanctuary at Varanasi and the Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary at Bhagalpur.

As a first step, information about these protected aquatic habitats and other sensitive areas such as wetlands will be fed into the new River Information System being developed under the World Bank supported Project. This will ensure that vessels plying in these areas comply with the operational framework that has been put into place for minimizing impacts in sensitive zones. This framework here includes:

  • A ban on dredging in protected habitat area
  • In other areas that are known to be the habitat of valued aquatic species, no dredging will be allowed in the breeding seasons
  • The speed of barges travelling in the protected areas of the sanctuaries will be restricted to 5km per hour
  • All vessels plying on the Ganga will be fitted with noise control system and animal exclusion devices so that aquatic life is not unduly disturbed
  • All vessels will also have to comply with ‘zero discharge’ standards to prevent solid or liquid waste from flowing into the river and affecting its biodiversity
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