India is a land of rivers. So it is but natural that all those who ruled this country have used the waterways for trade. During the Mughal rule, inland trade flourished, which in turn gave rise to many economic hotspots. There were various sea ports too and so it could have overseas trading relations with the Arab countries, Persia and Egypt. Besides they traded with various countries of South-East Asia and China. They mainly imported horses from West Asia, silver from Japan and gold from East Indies. There had been increasing demands for European toys and luxury items in India. But over the centuries inland water trade collapsed as rail and road trade improved. But history always comes to a full circle and now that the road and rail lines are congested, there is an express demand to reopen the waterways. In March, Parliament passed the National Waterways Act, 2016, paving the way for the Union government to turn 111 rivers across India into national waterways. Taking that decision forward, the Centre has signed a deal with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for developing ferry services at 18 locations in Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna Munghyr, Kolkata and Haldia.
Though India has a 7,500 km long coastline with approximately 14,500 km of navigable waterways, it has not been able to harness the potential to the fullest. A minuscule 3.5 % of trade is done through waterways in India as against 47% in China, 40% in Europe and 35% in neighbouring Bangladesh. The logic behind the decision is simple: Transport by shipping is far more cost-efficient than that by road or railways. But the decision to develop waterways is not without controversies because to make a river navigable requires constant and steady water flow at a set minimal limit depending on the tonnage of weight to be shipped.
This has to be managed artificially. The river has to operate like a canal. Nachiket Kelkar, an expert in river and water ecologies, in an article for environment advocacy group South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, puts it this way: “This will involve the construction of locking barrages to hold water for vessel movement, concretisation and building of embankments to create port terminals, and regular (high-intensity) capital dredging of river sediment deposition along channel bottoms and margins.” Also, the riverbed must be dredged to maintain minimum depth, and it must have state-of-the-art inland ports, a modern river information system and Digital Global Positioning System for night navigation. The project can also potentially create interstate rancour say campaigners. River linkages and water sharing arrangements will have to be worked out between states.
As the National Waterways Bill notifying the new waterways was passed in Parliament, minister of road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari had said, “Inland Waterways is a much cheaper and environment-friendly mode of transportation”. While this is correct, the ambitious plans to develop 101 rivers into an integrated Inland Water Transport (IWT) system also has the potential to run into trouble at a future date.