Operations of Inland Waterways in India Needs a Solid Holistic Plan ahead

Enough is being written and talked about developing the National waterways in recent times.  Although the latest budget allocated for Inland Waterways is more than a hundredth of magnitude less than what has been allocated to the rail and road infrastructure,  and the investments in waterways has always been low for the past three decades or more, today the government  is viewing the Inland Waterways as a priority sector.  It has been a proven conclusion from other countries that the waterways are the most cost effective mode of transportation, the river systems have always enhanced commerce for them and this mode has accounted for more than a third of national cargo and people movement.

    Having given sufficient background, this is a new area for me but my interests in this topic reaches new heights every time I read some article from some expert.   I have been following this topic long enough that I am here unable to resist writing about it.  My focus is not the talk about how the  linking the rivers will happen, which unfortunately in India are state owned, but more about how this would become operational once everything is said and dusted.

     Living through the apathy of bad infrastructure of many Indian cities where excellent airports have come up without any rail or public bus transport connections to the city, having seen city metro rail being constructed and delayed continuously in major cities based not on what the traffic would be twenty years from now but rather what it had been 20 years past, having seen cities explode without any adequate public water and sanitary facilities in the ‘boom’,  having seen polluting vehicles in abundance  surviving with no strict enforcement of emission standards (more like a certificate you can get for Rs 50), having seen the explosion of number of cars and other vehicles and hence the vehicle density choking every city added by selfish drivers and bad driving conditions, having seen road vehicle parking increase tremendously as no residential or commercial building make adequate  space to accommodate parking and still get registered somehow,  it is high time we clean up our act when it comes to Waterways and have a fresh start taking into account all the variables that would make it one of the best, cost efficient, safe, environmentally friendly mode of transportation that we can proudly  give to our future generation.  Combine it with some of the Smart Cities, we as INDIANS              should be proud of what we can build and execute. 

     Hence operations of the waterways remains the critical element if indeed we all remain optimistic and the waterways gets linked for both cargo and people movement in the next few years in phases. But we need to think AHEAD and for the future rather than plan for the pain level we have now or in the past years.   Here are some of the variables, given my limited knowledge that needs to be encompassed before we implement a fully functional internal waterway system – everything should be planned for Day 1 operations:

  • First, clean up all the rivers those are deemed navigable and provide for consistent depth for navigation through the year, come rains or not. All the industries polluting the rivers should be fined and their disposal of waste managed through alternate means.  I guess this would be a good idea now for the river systems to be centralized rather than the states fighting over water for their own use – it has to be distributed according to the needs of where it flows rather than someone making claim of ownership based on the origin of the river.  And this would ensure there are no tollways in the waterways as one crosses from one state to another.
    • Fix our Indian rivers first and extend them to the countries in the east and west with other countries to enhance our maritime trade and commerce with our neighbors
    • Once the navigable rivers gets fixed, it is important to look at canals and backwaters  that connects with  rivers and can transport traffic (hence forth by traffic, I include both cargo and people)  to the interiors of the cities.  Again, they have to be cleaned and silted first.  Having grown up in Chennai, I would rather have a clean Buckingham Canal that one day has boats transporting folks from one place to another.
    • Keep the lakes as is – do not get them involved in this program.  Lakes are needed for the healthy living and it is important a good green cover is made around every lake that the local population can use for walking or running.
  • Avoid overcrowding the water space.   Safety first.  Who operates what should be stringently regulated and competitive licenses should be given only to the deserving in a transparent manner.  No politicians or bureaucrats or their immediate relatives can either directly or indirectly own or operate any transportation or infrastructure in these waterways.  Keep it clean.  Never abuse a particular waterway because it is rewarding – keep the checks and controls in place properly and audit this regularly annually.   Understand a river can only take so much.
  • Highly effective alternative non-polluting fuels a must for all the vehicles that use these waterways.  Given that all the lakes in all hill stations are totally polluted with bad diesel powered boats, we do not want to see the same issue here.  Keep the rivers and waterways clean and ensure no outlet of pollutants from these vehicles go into the river. The flora and fauna around the waterways needs to be maintained well.  Strict enforcement with immediate stoppage of services of any polluting vehicles should be done with no loop holes to operate.   At no point, should the aquatic ecology be disturbed and constant effort to preservation should be made.    Also care must be taken so that no hazardous items are being transported without adequate safety measures.
  • Use solar and wind energy mills on both sides of the waterways to generate and distribute electricity for the manufacturing plants and the parks that will come up within the proximity.
  • No monopoly should be allowed to be established in this internal waterway system.  There must be open competition based on demand with a ceiling regulated by the government.  No one can have more than 10% share of this waterways market, be it transportation based or infrastructure based.
  • Given the experiences of railways (fully government owned) and the airways (mostly privatized with the government run Air India not in the best of health for ages), it is better to evolve a model that is midway – yes, it may not be the most optimal solution from a capitalist perspective, but the best alternative model for evolving this internal waterways to peak utilization soon.
  • Have smaller ports throughout the waterway to connect the water traffic with the road and rail traffic at regular intervals.  This would reduce the logistics costs of transportation and make a competitive environment. With GST rolling out in the anvil, this would be a great win for all industrial hubs and their productivity and exports.
  • Most important is to limit load to capacity.  Never overload.  Looking at all these trucks that take more than twice their scheduled load between cities, we are all living a nightmare in terms of safety.  Truck owners do not seem to care about the suspension and brakes that may not work, thus risking every other life on the road.   Licensing the drivers that enable such traffic and regularly updating their licenses (say every three years) is critical to keep them in check. 
  • Given how the recent scams have surfaced, while building and enhancing these waterways, it is best to keep all the contract documents and tender notices available in a transparent manner.  All project execution reports should be available on a regular basis for monitoring purposes and annual report should be maintained by the institution managing the waterway.
  • Skill Development – since this may involve lots of maritime skills and also different building norms, it is best for the universities and vocational schools to start preparing adequate talents to build, manage and operate these waterways.    High employment generation is foreseen in these sectors. Skills India for Internal Waterways is the need for the hour.
  • Regular maintenance and security patrol is also essential.  Due to monsoon effects and flash flooding concerns, there is a definite possibility that silts accumulate in the rivers that may inhibit navigation.  Proper silting on a regular basis has to be put as a process.  Also, to ensure no pilferage or attacks or hijacking of the goods and people take place in remote areas where the rivers wind through, increasing patrol both on and around the waterways is to be done by the central police force.
  • Proper bypass mechanisms to be put in place in case of excessive flooding that India is prone to so that the transportation does not get affected too much during the worst days.

     Doing everything in phases and doing a complete job in these phases should be the mantra.  Link River 1 to River 2 with two way traffic and show it as complete, addressing all the above variables and above before the next phase gets operational (work can start with all these variables in mind).   First phase should be stitching two major rivers in the North and the second one must be one in the South.   As the phases evolve, they must be more uniform (may have different emphasis) in operations throughout the country.

   If the Mughals and the British have done this effectively in centuries past, I am sure we can do this better but we need to execute them well with nothing left to after thoughts.  “OOpps, I did not consider it” should not be an option while we make the best transportable internal waterways of the world.   Civilizations have always flourished in and around a waterway for ages and it would continue to do so as well.  Also since land acquisitions for these waterway projects would be minimal compared to any road transport project, the only worries would be to fix any disruption of the connectivity in rivers along the way and to ensure that the clearances of the existing bridges across the rivers are maintained, to enable a smooth ride.  Any project of these dimensions would not be simple to build and operate, but I wanted the stakeholders and decision makers to encompass lots of variables together while planning and executing to make the Indian Internal Waterways system so good that other countries become envious of us.