The inland waterways project will destroy India’s rivers
On December 15, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) gave the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEF&CC) time until January 31 to clarify its position on the need for prior environment clearances for inland waterway transport (IWT) projects, including the marquee Jal Marg Vikas Project (JMVP) along the river Ganga on National Waterway 1 between Haldia and Allahabad. On January 1, 50 experts and environmental activists wrote a letter to Union environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, urging him to make prior environmental clearances mandatory for IWT projects. Currently, clearances are issued on a case-to-case basis and are not mandatory. The National Waterways Act, 2016, identified 111 rivers or stretches as national waterways for commercial navigation.
The Centre is very optimistic about the project because it claims IWT is “fuel efficient, cost effective and environment friendly mode of transport …” (National Waterways Bill, 2015). Such claims are neither unqualified nor universal. These 111 waterways will pass through 24 states and two Union Territories (20,274 km) and involve 138 river systems, creeks, estuaries and canal systems, and also cut through at least 20 wildlife protected areas.
The plan does not take into account the monsoonal hydrology of India’s rivers when they are either too full or too low. So how will the Centre ensure that there is enough water round the year in the rivers for large ships to navigate them? This would then obviously need physical interventions (dredging and dams). The Centre also needs to take into account two other factors: fuel consumption and vehicle speed will vary depending upon the direction of travel (downstream or upstream). A 2016 sector study into Waterway 1 (Ganga) (IWT sector development strategy and Business development study for capacity augmentation of National Waterway 1 from Haldia to Allahabad” Vol 1, Report Part A, by HPC Hamburg Port Consulting GMbh, Germany and UNICONSULT, Germany) found that “among the most visible weaknesses of IWT are the low transport speed and its limited area of operation, depending on the infrastructural premises and depth of the waterways, disruptions due to weather are other possible threats”.
The IWT will also need associated infrastructure such as jetties, river ports, terminals and access roads. For example, Waterway 1 (Ganga) from Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) till Haldia (West Bengal) will have terminals at Allahabad, Varanasi, Gazipur (UP), Sahibganj (Jharkhand) and Katwa (West Bengal). According to a study by RITES, an engineering consultancy company: “Corresponding advantage of IWT over rail and road transport in terms of vehicle operating costs goes adverse when terminal costs involved in the case of IWT also forms part of comparison.” Facts such as the distance between Allahabad and Haldia through Waterway is 1,600 km compared to 900 km by road cannot be ignored. Clearly, the financials of IWT are not as healthy as they have been made out to be.
On the environment front, extensive and regular dredging of rivers will destroy their morphological integrity, flora and fauna and river-dependent livelihoods. A scientific study by Bangalore-based ATREE said that noise from large ships could adversely affect river dolphins.
Manoj Misra is convener, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan
The views expressed are personal