Inland Waterways in India- Issues and Challenges

Context:In a first, the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) will transport container cargo belonging PepsiCo (India) from Kolkata to Varanasi on river Ganga (National Waterway-1).

What are inland waterways?

Rivers, lakes, canals, backwaters and reservoirs primarily constitute the source for inland waterways. A stretch of water, not part of the sea, over which craft of a carrying capacity not less than 50 tonnes can navigate when normally loaded is called navigable inland waterway.

Inland Waterways in India:

Number and Extent: (National Inland Waterways in India- A Strategic Status Report, 2017)

  • As per the National Waterways Act, 2016, 111 have been declared as National Waterways (NW)
  • These waterways pass through 24 states and two union territories, with an approximate total length of 20274 km
  • These proposed waterways will pass through nearly 138 river systems, creeks, estuaries and related canal systems of India.

Currently Operational:According to a PIB release by Ministry of Shipping dated 20th July 2018,the following NWs are operational:


Note:The first waterway to be declared National was the Allahabad to Haldia stretch of the Ganga – Bhagirathi-Hoogly.

Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT)

In 1972, India and Bangladesh signed the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT).It is an agreement between the two governments for the transportation of goods and keeping their respective waterways navigable, while providing infrastructure facilities.

 Cargo Handled:The total cargo moved on the three national waterways, NW 1, NW 2 and NW 3 in the year 2013-14 was about 6.89 million tons. (National Inland Waterways in India- A Strategic Status Report, 2017)

International comparison:

  • Inland water transport in India has only 0.5% modal share; China 8.7%; USA 8.3% and Europe 7% (Source: JalMargVikasProject -Frequently Asked Questions and Their Answers, Inland Waterways Authority 0f India)
  • inland water transport (IWT) accounts for less than 1% of its freight traffic, compared with 35% in Bangladesh and 20% in Germany. (Source: Hindu Buisnessline, 29th March 2018)

Advantages of Inland Waterways:

  1. Cost savings:
  2. Fuel and Energy Efficient: It is fuel-efficient compared to the other modes of transport, rail and road. For example, the Integrated National Waterways Transportation Grid Study states that one litre of fuel will move 24 tons through one kilometre on road, 85 on rail and 105 km on inland water transport. Further, 1 HP can 150 kg on road, 500 kg on rail and 4000 kg on water.
  3. Cost of developing waterways is much lower than rail & road.
  4. Reduces transportation and transition losses
  5. Environment Friendly:
  6. Least fuel consumption per tonne‐km
  7. Carbon dioxide emission is 50% of trucks
  8. Negligible land requirement as compared to rail and road transport
  9. Supplementary Mode:
  10. Reduces pressure on road and rail
  11. Reduces congestion and accidents on road
  12. Optimal Modal Mix: It will provide optimal modal mix by converging river transport with other modes
  13. Better connectivity: It help create seamless interconnectivity connecting hinterlands along navigable river coasts and coastal routes. Further, riverine routes are likely to play a crucial role in connecting the north-eastern states to the mainland
  14. Inland Waterways hold huge potential for domestic cargo transport, cruise, tourism and passenger traffic.
  15. Development of inland waterways will help in the generation of job opportunities

Disadvantages of Inland waterways:

  1. Inland waterways have low transport speed thus not suitable where time is an important factor
  2. It has limited area of operation, depending on the infrastructural premises and depth of the waterways
  3. There are only very few casesin which Inland water transport (IWT) can offer door-to-door transport of cargo
  4. Operational disruptionsdue to weather is a major disadvantage

Legal and Policy regime for Inland Waterways in India


1.The Inland Waterways Authority of India Act, 1985:

  • The Act provides for the constitution of an Authority for the regulation and development of inland waterways for purposes of shipping and navigation and for matters related to it
  • The Inland Waterways Authority of India was formed in 1986. It undertakes projects for development and maintenance of IWT infrastructure on national waterways through grant received from Ministry of Shipping

2. Indian Vessels Act of 1917 (amended in 2007): It deals with the survey and registration of inland vessels, removal of obstructions in navigation, carriage of goods and passengers, prevention and control of pollution etc.

3. Inland Water Transport Policy 2001: Policy talks about IWT being economic, fuel-efficient and environment friendly mode of transport. It advocates large-scale private sector participation both for creation of infrastructure and for fleet operations.

4. National Waterways Act 2016

  • The Act declared 111 rivers or river stretches, creeks, estuaries as National (inland) Waterways.
  • It enables the Central Government to regulate these waterways for development with regard to shipping, navigation and transport through mechanically propelled vessels.

5.Laws related to environmental and other impacts:

  • Forest Act 1980,
  • Environmental Protection Act 1986 and various notifications under it like EIA Notification 2006, CRZ Notification 2011


  1. Jal Marg Vikas Project: Jal Marg Vikas Project (JMVP) aims at capacity augmentation of navigation on National Waterway-1 (NW-1).The project is being implemented by GOI with technical assistance and investment support of the World Bank.
  2. Sagarmala Project: Along with development of coast shipping routes, the project seeks to inland waterways to drive industrial development. It aims to reduce the logistics costs by doubling the share of domestic waterways in the modal mix from current 6 per cent (PIB)
  3. Interlinking of Rivers Programme: The project is expected to offer potential benefits to the transport sector through navigation.

Issues and Challenges

  1. Cost estimation: In respect to operating costs per ton-km, IWT has lower cost than rail and road transport. However, this cost argument is challengeable. There are two factors which distinguishes how freight moves on land versus on water:

i) A road travels straight while rivers bend and curve; therefore the difference between freight costs for IWT and road/ railways is not much

ii) Cost of loading and unloading freight

2. Inadequate depth: To be viable for a navigable inland waterway, river needs enough depth throughout the year However, in their natural state; many Indian rivers simply do not have that level of water which will necessitate extensive dredging. Moreover, Indian rivers (especially rivers in the northern plains) face severe problems of siltation round the year

3. Impact on other activities: Water in rivers has competing demands, including dams and farming. To maintain the water levels in the river to the degree needed for them to function as inland waterways, the water use for such other activities might get curbed.

4. Inadequate Air Draft: Multiple bridges with low vertical clearance obstruct the passage of bigger inland water transport vessels on many inland waterways such as NW 3

5. Lack of night navigation infrastructure: Rudimentary night navigational facilities and markings are also a major issue.

6. Shortage of IWT vessels: Vessel building is highly capital intensive and faces difficulties in obtaining project finance from banks and financial institutions.

7. Shortage of MRO facilities: There is severe shortage of MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) facilities for IWT vessels.

8. Inadequate industries: Inadequate number of Industrial units on the riverside, especially not along the Brahmaputra is a major discouragement hindering development of inland waterways. At National Policy Dialogue on transboundary cooperation related to the Ganga and the Brahmaputra rivers – states, it was highlighted that due to inadequate industrial units result in no cargo commitments by the private players

9. Lack of funds: Dredging as well as infrastructure for IWT requires huge investments. However, both public and private funding in the sector is low

10. Environmental Impact:

  • Dredging operations will damage river bed, and can lead to change in habitats for various aquatic flora and fauna.
  • Dredging may also impact aquifers along the river, damaging the ability of water to percolate underground.
  • In estuaries and creeks of rivers the removal of river bed material during capital dredging can result in the ingress of excess saline water into the creek or rivers. This is one of the reasons why the state of Kerala had opposed many of its proposed waterways
  • Construction of jetties, river ports will necessitate removal of trees/ mangrove forests in the area. For example, At Dharamtar port in NW10, for construction of a jetty, the mangrove forest belt on the bank has been removed
  • Other environmental concerns include pollution due to oil and diesel from vessels, leakage and spilling of cargo

Note: Dredging is an excavation or digging activity carried out underwater that removes rock, mud, silt, sediments etc. from the bottom of the river bed or other water bodies. Dredging is used to dig and create a channel in the river bed of the required depth.

11.Social impact:

  • Ecological impacts can have implications for livelihoods of people dependent on the rivers and creeks. For example: impact on fishing community, people dependent on riverbed cultivation
  • Displacement is another major concern as land is needed for number of facilities like ports, jetties, and other infrastructure.

NITI Aayog Recommendations (Action Agenda, Three-Year2017-2020)

1.Streamline the governance of inland waterways: NITI Aayog recommends streamlining the regulatory structure and bringing an overarching body to oversee Inland Water Transport such as the IWAI to more consistency in the rules and strategy of the sector.

2.Develop measures for year-round navigation:

  • Efforts should be made to develop deeper stretches of the river, i.e., at least 2.5 m to 3 m to achieve year-around navigation
  • adequate maintenance of rivers, including continuous dredging to maintain adequate water depth for servicing shipping lines should be ensured

3.Ease restrictions on river-sea movement: Utilizing a single vessel for both inland and coastal waters, lowers transport costs and minimizes handling. Thus, by 2020, state authorities should draw up coordinates for inland vessel limits under the Inland Vessel Act for their coastal waters

4.Develop inland waterways transport to facilitate movement of goods to neighbouring countries and the Northeast:

  • By 2018, state governments should commence work on dredging and channel stabilization to create about 20 new ports in the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers.
  • The protocol for Inland Waterways between Bangladesh and India should be extended for at least 10 years to reduce uncertainty.

International Best Practice

China has an inland waterway system of more than 5600 navigable rivers and 2000 inland ports. IWT development is concentrated on 5 specific areas (Yangtze river, Pearl River, Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta). China with the aid of World Bank has taken major initiatives to boost IWT:

  • Development of power generating dams, by-passing ship locking systems, and a deeper waterway throughout the system permitting large vessels to undertake trade.
  • Three Gorges project: It aims at improving electric power and navigation safety and reduce transportation costs; and development along the Hang-Yong Canal, connecting a network of six rivers to Yangtze River

Way Forward:

  1. Strengthening public-private partnership has the key role to play in developing the inland waterways sector. Private players can undertake terminal development, cargo and passenger handling, and building low-draft vessels and related repair facilities.

2.Measures should be taken to develop basic infrastructure, address technological bottlenecks and maintenance of rivers to ensure year-round navigability

  1. Measures should be taken to taken to ensure availability of seamless, multimodal last-mile connectivity to and from hinterland to reduce trans-shipment cost and make inland water transport economically more viable
  2. Cargo transport through inland waterways should be incentivised. Following measures can be taken:
  • The Government can mandate/incentivise industries in the proximity of national waterways to use this mode for a portion of their shipments.
  • the government can promote industrial corridors along riverbanks and foster waterways-based industrialisation.
  • Higher road taxes can be levied on transportation of coal and inflammable material over longer distances

5.The government should develop passenger terminal development, offer financial support to ferry operators to improve safety, and facilitate insurance coverage to boost passenger transport

  1. Measures should be taken to promote river tourism in states like Assam and Kerala
  2. Keeping in mind the concerns, it is important to assess the environmental and social impact of development of inland waterways and associated infrastructure to negate potential damage.
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