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Maritime News Service

Hurdles to cargo movement on inland waterways - 2012-04-03

Recent reports suggest that the Prime Minister's Office has identified several new river routes for private investments. The purpose is to promote the inland water transport in the country. But mere identification of the routes does not mean anything. The Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system from Allahabad to Haldia (1620 km) was declared National Waterway Number 1 (NW1) more than quarter of a century ago. And the state of NW1 is there for all to see. The story of other National Waterways too is no different.

More important, the identified routes are supposed to attract private sector investment for development. Which private firm would care to put in money unless convinced of a fair return on investment? Will the proposed routes guarantee such return? According to some experts, the NW1 did not take off because of the lack of large-scale committed traffic. The situation, it is pointed out, has vastly changed in past two decades or so, during which the capacity constraints of road and rail transport have also become so critical that river transportation now holds out promise.

Still, several other issues deserve careful consideration in this context. For example, some of the identified routes will be through Bangladesh, and these include corridors for the transportation of food-grains from Kolkata to Tripura via Ashuganj (Bangladesh), transportation of containers from Pandu (Guwahati) to Kolkata via Bangladesh, shipment of pipes for ONGC from Kolkata to North-East via Bangladesh, etc. But barge movement through Bangladesh waters has its own problems, some officially recognised, others not.

Despite India's good relations with Bangladesh, the renewal of the Protocol on Inland Water Transport and Trade, which governs river transportation of goods through Bangladesh, not only for bilateral trade but also for the benefit of India's North Eastern region, has been an intractable issue. The last protocol expired recently but no consensus has been reached as yet on its renewal. In fact, India's request for developing Ashuganj into a full-fledged port to facilitate transit trade has been turned down by Bangladesh. There are several other irritants, some major, others not so major, but all require deft handling before one can hope to promote goods transportation through the Bangladesh river system.

At Pandu (Guwahati), the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has built a modern jetty, complete with facilities but grossly underutilised. Even large cargo volumes in one direction cannot make a river service viable. There has to be stable two-way traffic. But two-way traffic takes time to materialise, depending on so many factors, such as market and the regularity and reliability of the service. In eastern and north-eastern regions, where most of the proposed routes will be located, the rivers come to life only during the monsoon. Between October and March, most rivers in the region remain dry, and river-beds flat, rendering barge movement difficult.

Fuel cost is another important factor. The barges run on high-speed diesel, the same fuel used by trucks. This, vis-à-vis coal, has cost disadvantages which will multiply if the diesel price is hiked. The plan to transport fertilisers along NW 1 between Allahabad and Kolkata, though interesting, is not without problems. The problems being encountered north of the Farakka Barrage are very different from those south of the barrage. In fact, the barrage is a key issue.

Transport economics presupposes that moving large volumes in big vessels can achieve cost-efficiency. One wonders if the lock gates at Farakka are wide enough to allow ingress and egress of large vessels. There is a proposal to transport coal along the NW1 for NTPC's 3300-MW super-critical thermal power plant being set up at Barh, near Patna and the annual requirement of the plant, when fully operational, is estimated at 16 million tonnes. Various alternatives are now being examined as to how to bypass Farakka lockgates to transport coal, even if it means additional cost. The falling river draft north of Farakka is also a matter of concern.

The rivers identified for the proposed routes, being deltaic, meander a lot and, therefore, their flow is sluggish. The river route kilometre is more than the land route kilometre, rendering the system cost higher. This poses a major challenge to river transportation. The assessment of proper river draft becomes difficult unless the survey mechanism is changed from the present bottom-scanning to side-scanning, according to some river transport operators. The IWAI goes by LAD (least available depth) determined by the survey vessel, whose requirements are different from those of a cargo-carrying barge.

Navigation problems

There is another point. The scheme which, at present, is being actively pursued is unloading of imported coal at a place closer to the sea from a huge bulk carrier into a large ocean-going barge for transportation along the NW 1 to meet the requirement of NTPC's Farakka plant immediately, and of Kaholgaon plant gradually. Can a large ocean-going barge really navigate along a meandering river? It will be like a huge, overloaded truck trying to make its way through a narrow lane. 

To overcome the hurdle, coal has again to be unloaded from a large barge into a smaller barge, entailing multiple handling and, therefore, additional cost. More than the limited draft, it is the wide variations in the draft, particularly between Haldia and Farakka, along the NW1, which cause concern. There are stretches in the NW1 where the draft is as high as six metres but there are also stretches where it is as low as 1.8 metres or so. Low draft, even over a very small stretch, can stall a barge. Other problems, such as non-availability of navigational aids and absence of buoys and lights and channel markings, though important, are not insurmountable.

Finally, the IWT as a mode of transportation should not be considered in isolation. It should be integrated with other modes to achieve optimum benefits for the national economy. For this, Central-level coordination is urgently needed.