As Gopal Krishna, secretary of Shipping, Government of India and Pravir Pandey, chairman, Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), along with other officials flagged off the MV RN Tagore carrying PepsiCo’s 16 containers, equivalent to 16 truckloads, from Kolkata, India marked its first inland container movement post-independence. Although India has always had a history of active transportation through its domestic waters, recent years have seen poor utilisation of the waterways, with a mere 0.5% freight being transported via this channel, in contrast with the massive 65% by roadways.
The vessel will transport the consignment over a period of nine or 10 days through the National Waterway-1 (NW-1). This comes just ten months post the Indian government cleared the Rs.53.69 billion Jal Vikas Marg Project (JVMP). Under this, commercial navigation of vessels weighing 1,500-2,000 DWT (deadweight tonnage) will be enabled from the port of Haldia to Varanasi, located 1,390 km inland. This project, being pursued with the backing of a $375 million loan from the World Bank, is a more practical alternative than to have goods transported to Gujarat’s Kandla or Maharashtra’s Nhava Sheva.
This initiative looks at providing employment to 46,000 people directly and 84,000 people indirectly across its route — the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. As such, water transport has not developed in this area due to negligible infrastructure in terms of cargo terminals and jetties. The government has plans to establish six multi-modal freight terminals apart from five new Roll On-Roll Off (RO-RO) crossings.
Developing the inland waterways of India is a positive step not just in terms of employment. It is a cheaper alternative with the World Bank estimating that in contrast to the Rs.2.28 required to transport 1 tonne of freight over 1 km via roadways, the same costs just Rs.1.19 via waterways. With low handling costs, low probabilities of pilferages and damage and easier modal shift, inland freight transport might emerge to be the much-needed solution to India’s dysfunctional transport system. But considering the underdeveloped network of inland waterway in the country and the time taken, whether India Inc would see it as a serious freight option in a GST-enabled world is still in question.