The importance of maritime transportation to India’s economic development cannot be overstated, given that the country has a coastline exceeding 7,550 km. The government finally seems to be waking up to the potential that water-borne transport holds for domestic cargo movement. The Ministry of Shipping has given a fillip to sea-borne domestic trade by allowing vessels that could hitherto ply only in rivers and other inland waters to operate in waters along the coast, within a baseline and where waves do not rise more than two metres. Coastal shipping offers distinct advantages, which include lower operating costs and less environmental pollution than surface options. The Ministry’s move follows a series of initiatives easing restrictions on the sector. The government had earlier notified all waters within the baseline around the coast as Internal Waters under the Maritime Zones of India Act, in order to streamline and regulate shipping traffic that tended to hug the coast, as also to facilitate the operation of inland vessels along these waters.
Linking inland water trade and sea trade through coastal ships could provide alternative means of unloading and transporting cargo from ships docked at sea, to both inland destinations and to smaller ports. Vessels that are built to meet river-sea requirements need very little depth to sail and dock. Smaller vessels can also be built and operated at lower cost. But such benefits can be reaped only if the government provides logistics support. The development of small ports, warehousing facilities, and container freight infrastructure, as well as inter-modal connectivity, are extremely important for its success. Fleet strengths will need to grow: the Indian shipping industry accounts for just about one per cent of the global fleet. Meanwhile, inland waterways that extend to 14,500 km should be developed. India’s transport infrastructure requires a substantial facelift, considering higher than average traffic growth projected along several industrial corridors. A dynamic system of “sea highways” connecting a network of ports along with a sophisticated inland water transport system could complement the land-bound transport network. A lot of the production and consumption centres being land-locked, road transport will continue to serve a crucial role. But the dependence on road and rail could be reduced by diverting a sizeable chunk of cargo movement to coastal shipping. The government must ponder strategies to effectively develop the coastal shipping industry. A relatively modest investment with appropriate policy changes could bring substantial dividends.