Water traffic to get welcome boost

The government’s plan to convert 101 rivers in the country into national waterways will vastly improve the country’s transport infrastructure. Though India has a large number of rivers, water transport has not received much attention. Most of the areas in the country are well-connected by rivers but the role they once had in moving people and goods has only declined in the past decades. There are only five declared national waterways which account for about 5,000 km. There is a long river network of about 15,000 km in the country. Rivers, canals, backwaters and creeks can all be utilised for transport. The cargo moved through inland waterways is only 0.3 per cent of the total cargo traffic in the country while it is 7 in the US and 16 per cent in China. With the approval by the Union cabinet of a legislation which will enable extension of the waterways system, inland water traffic should get a major boost.

Inland water transport has many more advantages than other modes of transport. It is much more cost-effective, fuel-efficient and environment-friendly. It is more suitable for movement of hazardous materials and for bulk transport of goods. It is the cheapest form of transportation. One litre of fuel moves 24 tonnes per km on the road, 85 tonnes per km by rail but 105 tonnes per km by waterways. The initial investment cost is much less than what is needed to lay roads and to build rail lines. Maintenance cost is low. Water transport saves time. Accident rates will also come down. Another advantage is that new centres of development can be built on waterways which will take the pressure away from present cities and towns. The creation of water traffic and transport infrastructure like building of boats and barrages and setting up of storage facilities will necessitate and attract more investment. It is estimated that there will be an investment of over Rs 1 lakh crore in the sector if the present plan goes through. Employment opportunities are also high. Greater attention to water transport will also help to better address the problem of pollution of rivers.

Nine rivers in Karnataka are to be declared national waterways. Though the state has great potential to develop water transport, its performance has been below par. Improvement of water transport facilities will greatly benefit regions like the North-East also, where road and rail connectivity is low. Passage of enabling legislation will only be the first step, and much hard work is needed for development of a good national waterways grid.

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