An alternate route?
Apart from generating economical and logistical benefits, inland waterways have the potential to supplement the stressed transport system in the NER
Inland waterways in India have been receiving renewed attention since 2014 and several attempts are being made to develop it as a supplementary mode of transport through better support and connectivity. As is widely known, the North East Region (NER) of India is endowed with rich mineral resources such as coal, limestone and oil reserves, and is home to industries such as fertilizers, cement & clinker, paper, bamboo, tea, oil refineries and food processing industries. As per the North Eastern Region Vision 2020 published by the Ministry of Development of the North Eastern Region, the per capita Gross State Domestic Product of northeastern states is expected to grow at a CAGR of 15.16 per cent during the period 2017-22.
The region is connected to the mainland of India by a narrow 22 km stretch of land at Siliguri, West Bengal, commonly known as the Chicken's Neck. Due to the limited capacity of connecting infrastructure and the rising economic growth and development of the region, this corridor is under increasing pressure as a means of transport connectivity for NER.
Apart from the constrained road and rail connecting infrastructure, NER is blessed with a wide network of rivers. After the declaration of 106 additional river systems as National Waterways (as part of National Waterways Act, 2016), the key inland waterway routes for NER include the Brahmaputra river stretch i.e. National Waterway 2 (NW-2) and the Barak River stretch i.e. National Waterway 16 (NW-16). These inland waterways facilitate an important alternate gateway to the NER by connecting it to Kolkata and Haldia (in the Indian mainland) via waterways of Bangladesh (the Indo Bangladesh Protocol route i.e. IBP route) thereby facilitating access to the rest of the country by road, rail as well as coastal shipping.
Key locations in Assam serving as connections for inland waterways include Dhubri, Pandu and Jogighopa along NW-2 (which are connected to the Chilmari-Aricha stretch of IBP route) and Badarpur along NW-16 (which is connected to the Karimganj-Ashuganj stretch of IBP route).
Therefore, channelizing Inland Waterway transportation (IWT) for logistics, could not only help in avoiding the narrow and congested Chicken's Neck Corridor but could also provide an alternative to avoid congested cities/towns through which road and rail routes pass. Moreover, the NER waterways, specifically NW-2 is also strategically placed to facilitate regional connectivity within NER as well as that with neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar through multimodal facilities.
NW-2 has additional significance from the urban transport point of view specifically for the State of Assam. Stretching over 891 km from Sadiya to Dhubri (at Bangladesh Border), NW-2 almost bisects the entire State and a large population of the State lives and works in the Brahmaputra valley or close to it. It contains many inhabited islands including Majuli Island, the world's largest inhabited river island. Flowing through the heart of the State, it is quite an intimidating barrier between the north and south banks as its width varies from around 1-10 km and almost up to 20 km wide in some sections. With limited cross-river bridges along the entire length of the river, the river itself provides a vital means of transport, longitudinal as well as cross-bank movements for thousands of communities in both the urban and rural areas of the Brahmaputra valley.
It is pertinent to note that IWT is already catering to passenger and cargo logistics requirements of NER in various capacities. Assam had more than 300 ferry routes across the Brahmaputra river. Also, in FY 2020, while passenger movement accounted for the highest share (51 per cent) of traffic moving on NW-2, approximately 3.93 lakh metric tonnes of cargo was also transported through NW-2 between approx. 50 origin-destination pairs. Major cargo commodities (apart from personal items, vegetables etc.) comprised stone chips/ boulders originating from Bhutan as well as coal and containerized cargo between Haldia and Guwahati during the year. Moreover, apart from such bulk cargo, other types are cargo are also being transported using IWT. For instance, the successful completion of the first containerized movement on NW-2 in FY2020 was a landmark achievement for IWT in NER.
To further augment the role of IWT in NER, several infrastructural interventions have been initiated along NW-2 as part of the Mahabahu Brahmaputra project including the introduction of Ro-Pax services between Neamati and Majuli island, North Guwahati-South Guwahati and Dhubri-Hatsingimari. Moreover, it is also proposed to set up various jetties along NW-2 to unleash the tourism potential of NER.
The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has been consistently taking up various initiatives and projects for the development and maintenance of the fairway, navigational aids and terminal infrastructure in NER. For these purposes, IWAI has allocated approximately Rs 460 crore and Rs 45 crore for the development and maintenance of NW-2 and NW-16 respectively.
With a long-term view of enhancing private sector participation in IWT and bringing efficiency in the sector, there is a proposal to award the existing terminals at Pandu, Dhubri, Karimganj and Badarpur on operate, maintain and transfer basis to the private sector. The development of a multi-modal logistics terminal at Jogighopa is also on cards which will give access to third-country cargo to Bhutan. Additionally, IWAI has installed a floating jetty on River Gumti at Srimantapur (Sonamura) in the state of Tripura in July last year, thereby providing connectivity with the rest of the country via waterways through Bangladesh.
For the augmentation of urban transport through inland waterways, the Government of Assam is also engaged in the development of improved passenger ferry infrastructure and services through loan support from the World Bank.
IWT for the NER has significant potential in providing an efficient, economic, reliable and environmentally friendly mode of transport. When developed for utilization by modern inland vessels operating on a dependable fairway, IWT can reduce congestion on and promote greater multi-modal complementarities and facilitate intra-regional trade. As the traffic volumes to/from the NER using the IWT mode will increase in the coming years, further savings in the overall logistics costs through increased economies of scale are made. Not only will this generate logistics-related benefits, but it will also create several direct, indirect and induced economic benefits for the local communities such as access to new markets, creation of jobs and an increase in disposable incomes.
Views expressed are personal