It’s time we moved some traffic to water

The advantages range from less pollution, congestion, fuel consumption to more employment opportunities

Updated - November 17, 2021 06:18 am IST

Published - February 14, 2016 01:22 pm IST - Mumbai

Development of waterways and promotion of inland water transport may be just what Mumbai needs to ensure faster commutes for its burgeoning population. A rich endowment of water bodies such as lakes, rivers and creeks makes it a low-hanging fruit for a city bursting at the seams with people and automobiles.

Vehicular traffic in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) has been increasing at an alarming pace. As per the transport statistics compiled by Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the total number of vehicles in MMR was at 8.2 million in 2010.

This number has been growing at an average growth rate of 7% over the past few years. At this rate, the vehicular count will double by 2020, aggravating the problem of traffic congestion.

Inland water transport offers a way out of this snarl, and its benefits are many, and obvious.

First, it can help decongest roads by taking some traffic load off, which will allow vehicles to ply faster. This will result in significant fuel savings – and not just on the road: fuel consumption on inland water transport is a third of road transport. Also, inland waterways are less prone to traffic jams that increase fuel consumption. Additionally, carbon emission and pollution levels will reduce proportionately with vehicular traffic moving off the road and on to water. Hopefully, the number of accidents will come down, too.

Second, it can create new employment opportunities, both direct and indirect, along the waterfront. Needless to mention, tourism will get a solid boost.

Third, there would be an increase in vigilance along the waterfront and operational waterways will help provide disaster back-up for bridge-connected parts.

Finally, it can help revive the water bodies, particularly the rivers, which are dying or in a serious state of neglect. Currently, the major activities involving waterways are still centred around fishing and short-distance movement of passenger boats at limited locations.

Inland water transport alone cannot completely decongest Mumbai’s roads. But proffering it as a complementary mode of transport will help put in place a ‘networked connectivity’ approach for an integrated multi-modal transport system.

For example, traffic from Thane to South Mumbai and from Navi Mumbai to South Mumbai can be shifted to inland water transport, which will significantly ease congestion on the arterial routes.

Also, freight traffic, which is mostly plying on roads, can be shifted to inland waterways with relative ease.

To be sure, the contours of the city do throw up problems – and also opportunities.

A significant number of freight vehicles exit or enter MMR, which has two major ports within its limits – the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), which is the largest container port in India, and Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT). The latter is located in the heart of the city’s commercial centre and any road traffic directed towards the port inevitably leads to the congestion of the road network.

MMR is connected to other principal cargo centres through the four main national highways (NH). The NH-8 connects it to Delhi and Ahmedabad. NH-4 and NH-17 connect it to Pune and other southern states, respectively. NH-17 runs along the coast south of Mumbai. Cargo centres in Central India are joined to MMR through NH-3.

The main entry points to MMR are Vasai, Dahisar check naka, Thane check naka and Vashi check naka.

If freight traffic from these locations is shifted to inland waterways, the burden on the road network will reduce significantly. Additionally, freight traffic plying on waterways will not be subject to various restrictions that are imposed on road movement. For example, commercial vehicles are not allowed to ply on roads in the city at certain times of the day.

But implementing the ecosystem can pose significant challenges.

For example, technical constraints include availability of channel depth for navigating and manoeuvering of vessels. This can be addressed with the appropriate choice of vessels keeping in mind design parameters such as draft, beam, length overall, etc, and capacity to carry traffic.

This, however, will entail significant costs and could impact the commercial side. Possible solutions include setting tariffs considering both direct costs and costs of any delay to users; appropriate project structuring, which is beyond the scope of this article; double handling for freight cargo such as introduction of ro-ro -- or roll on, roll off -- vessels; reducing the costs through holistic consideration of the technical constraints, and design parameters for vessels and jetty infrastructure.

Then there are regulatory issues, which can be addressed through smooth coordination and aligning of the authorities, including MbPT, JNPT, MMRDA, MMB, City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra Ltd, municipal bodies (octroi) and defence. In addition, there is a need to review and include appropriate changes in regulatory framework such as environmental regulations, the Coastal Regulation Zone Act, Inland Vessels Acts, etc.

Overcoming these obstacles will certainly help Mumbai ease the congestion on its roads. But this will need strong commitment, in terms of both policy and resources. It needs to be kept in mind that most of the waterways in the region are non-navigable and making them navigable will not be financially feasible on a standalone basis.

However, a successful engagement on this front can have huge economic and environmental benefits. This has been true of most infrastructure projects – take for instance the Delhi Metro, which is envisaged to cover full operations and maintenance costs, but is unlikely to cover its capital cost.

(Rohit Chaturvedi is Director (Transport), CRISIL Infrastructure Advisory. Mr Chaturvedi has worked with KPMG, AF Ferguson and i-maritime, a maritime consulting firm). He has advised governments, public sector units, financial institutions including private equity firms and banks, and private sector clients in Africa, South East Asia and India. )

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