Inland Water Transport Development: In backwaters of Kerala lies the key for its growth

Transport planning in India has failed to harness the enormous potential of the water transport. Kerala is no exception.

Written by RM Nair | Published:July 6, 2016 5:24 am
India has about 6,000 kms of coastline dotted with a number of minor and major ports. India has about 6,000 kms of coastline dotted with a number of minor and major ports. (File Photo)

Transport faces an increasingly difficult challenge — to provide an efficient and economic mode, to mitigate congestion, traffic accidents and air pollution. Inland water transport (IWT) represents a significant resource for India. The total length of navigable waterways in India is about 14,500 kms of which 5,700 kms are navigable by mechanically propelled vessels. The country has about 6,000 kms of coastline dotted with a number of minor and major ports. The major benefits of IWT are: cheaper mode of transport, safe and energy efficient, more environmentally friendly and causes least CO2 emission. Diversion of a part of the cargo from road to IWT will decongest the roads, reduce accidents and substantially reduce the line cost, transportation and fuel cost.

Transport planning in India has failed to harness the enormous potential of the water transport. Kerala is no exception.

National Waterways in Kerala

* NW-3–(Kollam-Kottapuram, Champakara / Udyoamandal)- in 1993.
* Kottapuram-Calicut, NW3 Extension( 2016)
* Kottayam-Changanachery (2016)
* Kottayam-Allapuzha (2016)
* Athirampuzha-Kottayam-Allapuzha (2016)

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Historically, Kerala Public Canals and Ferries Act regulated the canal transportation for cargo and passenger movement. The geographic and demographic pattern of the state necessitated the use of waterways and water bodies for communication and connectivity before the vast network of roads provided an alternative for the hinterland intra state connectivity. The country boats/mechanised boats and tows operated under the rules made under the above Act. Regular schedules for passengers and cargo by waterway still exist, though on a much reduced scale, giving way to the rail and road network. The landmarks in water transport development include the setting up of Kerala State Water Transport Department, which provides passenger services with mechanized boats; construction of boat jetties and navigable facilities under centrally sponsored schemes and establishing Kerala State Shipping and Inland Navigation Corp — a PSU under the state government— for operating cargo vessels and movement of POL.

With regard to regulation of traffic, Kerala IWT Rules was notified in 2010. State government, during successive Plan periods, have received support from the Centre and have taken up construction of passenger jetties and bank protection in certain stretches. Financial assistance schemes like the loan interest subsidy and vessel building subsidy have been availed though in a very limited scale. Private operators have entered the market for PSU cargo movement.

Fiscal incentives like vessel building subsidy and loan interest subsidy were also introduced, but unfortunately short lived. Even after two decades, the waterway development remains incomplete. Targets in terms of fairway capacity, cargo, vessels and IWT operations have only declined. A silver-lining though is that the development of backwater tourism, which saw a quantum jump.

LDF Manifesto; Water transport

Important milestones set for the target “a new Kerala” in the LDF manifesto include development of an efficient public transport system in particular the water transport system as a whole. The LDF manifesto also highlights the need to develop inner waterways and feeder routes, port hinterland connectivity and high speed ferry.

Delays in Implementation

Major bottlenecks encountered in implementation of schemes in NW-3 have been delays in land acquisition, difficulties in disposal of dredged material, delays in project execution, and poor fund utilisation. Conflicts of interests between traditional fisher-folks and navigational operation, friction between road-IWT operators, insufficient navigation lock/bridge clearances, and above all, wide gap between supply and demand with respect to vessels and cargo.

Advance planning is needed for land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement, clearances at bridges and locks etc to avoid delays. Efficient planning of fairway or the channel, terminals and intermodal connectivity, vessels of optimum dimensions and utility and navigational aids for safe and round the clock navigation are needed to make the IWT mode competitive. With the present classification of NW-3 as Class-III waterway, after the first stage development 500 tonne vessels or barges should navigate for the entire length. Two such barges in tow can replace 100 trucks from the road. Larger the permissible size of the vessel better the economy of transportation; fuel consumption, operating cost, power to load ratio etc. A balance is to be struck between what is on the ground and what is to be created and a cost benefit analysis done before arriving at the class of waterway.

(The author is former Member (Technical), Inland waterways Authority of India)

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