The Union Government has yet again announced its resolve to “fast-track” the development of Inland Water Transport. IWT for passenger and freight movement involves lower operating costs and environmental pollution than for road, rail or air options. It could relieve pressure on the other modes, which face their own constraints. The global experience offers interesting comparisons. In several countries, IWT accounts for a substantial share as a percentage of the total: 32 per cent in Bangladesh, 20 in Germany, 14 in the U.S. and 9 in China. In China, much of the increase has occurred in recent decades, in tandem with its phenomenal industrial-agricultural growth. By contrast, in India only 0.15 per cent of domestic surface transport is accounted for by IWT, compared with 68 per cent for road and 30 per cent for rail. IWT in India has over the years seen very slow growth, except in the case of the tidal river-canal system in Goa. There are examples such as Kerala where traffic has shifted substantially from IWT to other modes over the last decade. The reasons are many, but include, most significantly, lack of investment for the creation of infrastructure modernisation and lack of efficient operators. India has inland waterways with a navigable length of 14,500 km, but of this only 5,700 km is being used for navigation by mechanised vessels.

In 2006, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport criticised the government for extending ‘step-motherly' treatment to IWT, with inadequate allocations and improper fund utilisation. It noted that inadequate policy support for — and interest and investment in — the sector were compounding the problems, leading to IWT losing its competitive edge. The Inland Water Transport Policy Document of 2001 sought to give an impetus to the Inland Waterways Authority of India, the statutory authority responsible for the regulation, development, maintenance, and better utilisation of waterways. But the follow-up has been tardy. The government declared five sections as national waterways: 1,620 km on the Ganga; 890 km on the Brahmaputra; 205 km in Kerala, 1,027 km across Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, and 588 km in West Bengal and Orissa. Yet, traffic on waterways remains sparse. IWT still appears to be more of a hobby project than a serious alternative transportation option. India needs to study the viability and means to attract more investment to the sector, by creating an institutional framework. IWT should also become a part of the National Maritime Development Programme. The enhanced level of involvement of the private sector in IWT that has now been initiated is a welcome step. More waterways should be identified for development, and those earmarked given a push. IWT should power the growth of the economy.

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