Inland Water Transport in India: Is it Sustainable, Green and Connected?

Shravani Posted on: 2020-04-10 07:24:11 Viewer: 2,764 Comments: 0 Country: India City:

Inland Water Transport in India: Is it Sustainable, Green and Connected?

In India, almost all the metro cities are struggling with issues such as congestions, emissions from vehicles, air pollution, etc. These problems are resulting in much bigger problems like poor health conditions, a negative impact on the productivity of human resources, etc. Even in tier II and tier III cities, the above problems are emerging as a major issue. Another major challenge is climate variability and flood disasters.

Every year, several parts of India face disruption in road and rail network due to flood. For example, in Assam, the road and rail networks get disrupted due to flood water in the Brahmaputra river. Other cities on the bank of big rivers such as Ganga and Yamuna also face a similar problem of riverine flooding. In the case of coastal cities, cyclonic storms, tsunamis, tidal inundation, and riverine flood create huge disruption on road and rail networks, which takes a long time and huge investment to re-build. When we talk about transportation in a city, the first thing that comes to our mind is road transport. We always try to solve the issue of congestion by widening or construction of roads, building flyovers, diversion, etc. To address the air quality issue, we are pushing for the cleaner mode of transport like electric vehicles. But we always forget that topography is one of the important factors in making robust planning of transport networks in the city or state.

It is important to understand the physical environment includes elements of the natural environment such as climate and topographical features, including water features of harbors, bays and rivers and land features of peninsulas, ridges, slopes, and elevations. We should always remember that “One size does not fit all” while doing the planning for public transport in cities. One such mode of transport that is often forgotten when bettering the public transport in a city in the Inland Water Transport System (IWT), which is one of the most common modes of transport for the residents of cities in Assam, Kerala, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, etc.

IWT is not only fuel-efficient, environment-friendly and cost-effective mode of transport, but it also has the potential to ease the pressure on the existing rail and road network in some geographical locations in India. Till the early part of the 20th century, Inland Water Transport (IWT) was an important mode of transport and widely used for trade and commerce. The advent of railways and the extension of its network made a dent in share of water transport in India. The rapid growth of roads, coupled with inadequate development of IWT sector over the years gave a decisive set back to IWT and in the later years of 20th century, except in a few areas namely, Assam, Goa, Kerala, Mumbai, West Bengal, and some other coastal areas (where it has natural advantage and no developmental intervention was needed), the IWT sector was marginalized. However, considering its inherent advantages, the need for the systematic development of the Inland Water Transport sector was always felt which is evident from the fact that since independence, several committees studied IWT system of the country from time to time and advocated the systematic development of this transport mode.

National Transport Policy Committee in its report (1980) accordingly recommended for setting up of an authority for the development and regulation of inland waterways, which led to the formation of Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) in 1986 for the development and regulation of inland waterways. Currently, the navigable inland waterways are approximately 14,500 km, and it caters less than 0.5% of India`s freight traffic.

Advantages of Inland Water Transport

The distance travelled using the ferry is much less than what the distance would be via any preferred mode by roadways, subject to geographical areas although. For example, it takes around one hour to reach the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati from Panbazar via road on a regular day.

In ferries, it takes only 20-30 minutes for the same. This not only saves up travel time, as when the journey is made via ferries, but it also helps in reducing congestion on the roads. The occupancy ratio is also quite significant as compared to those of single-occupancy cars or two-wheelers. If the commuters choose to take ferries as their preferred mode of transport, the cars on the road will go significantly low and hence are the reductions. If cities had a great ferry service, provided there is well first and last-mile connectivity, it could bring down the vehicle ownerships down to a great extent. This would also mean that other problems, such as on-street parking, bottlenecks due to such parking, etc could come down as well. When comparing the total trip length along with the trip costs, going from an origin to a destination, it seems that the cost for travelling in a ferry is significantly lower than any other mode of travel with any fuel type such as diesel, petrol or Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).

In the longer run, it is much more sustainable as it has quite a low maintenance cost as well. It also does not require much infrastructure investments, but only the modifications of the existing ferry jetties.

Advantage of using electric boats than diesel-powered boats  As high oil import dependence and air pollution due to usage of fossil fuel are among major motivations behind the electrification of road transport in India, it is important to promote electric motor-powered boats instead of diesel-powered boats. Electric boats also have very less maintenance and operational costs as electric motors don’t need regular fuel or oil for their operations.

It is also much like electric cars or buses, as they have fewer moving parts than conventional ones. As per the report of Stephens Waring, it is established that the electric powered boats are cost-effective than diesel boats, the analysis was based on the test conducted for both electric boats and diesel boats for 1000 miles. The bottom line for diesel boat was 657 dollars whereas it was 360 dollars for electric boats. Solar boats are highly environment-friendly, easy to maintain, and quite efficient in performance. The installed solar panels can produce 80% of their potential energy and even on very cloudy days they can give as much as 25% output. They are also flexible as their sizes could be modified as per the energy requirements.

The solar-powered electric boat is not something new, it came up in 2007 by some Swiss sailors who piloted boat called the “sun21” using solar panels only, which crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The goal of this project was to combat climate change and to encourage more use of renewable energy sources. This “sun21” was a 45.9 ft longboat with a roof of 48 silicon photovoltaic cells. The device was able to transmit 3600 pounds of storage batteries and the 11-ton solar boat was able to provide power as much as required to light ten 100-watt light bulbs and had a speed of 3.5 knots.

Water Transport in Assam

In Assam, Inland Water Transport (IWT) was established in the year 1958. The Directorate of IWT has slowly developed as a full-fledged Directorate under the administrative control of the Transport Department, Govt. of Assam. In 1968, the shift in administrative control of six ferry services operating in the river Brahmaputra from the state Public Works Department (PWD) to Directorate of IWT was the first major expansion activity. Also, the wooden country boats which were used in the services were now replaced with the power vessels. The IWT Assam offers services such as Ferry Services, Cargo Services, and River Cruises. Assam has 15 National Waterways (NW), and the IWT Assam has nearly 10% of the cumulative navigable length of all 111 NWs in India, and it caters to about 4% of the total freight movement in the state.

The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has also enabled 24-hour navigation facilities from Dhubri up to Dibrugarh. The government of Assam has identified Silghat, Pandu, Karimganj and Dhubri as an immigration checkpoint. Now, these already existing places have a lot of potential for river taxis, port townships, development of IWT Terminals, and unimaginable opportunities for urban design projects such as riverfront developments and hence attract more and more revenue. The total revenue generated for the year 2017-2018 was around 195 crores and carried 48 lakh passengers, 9 lakh units of motor vehicles, 3 lakh units of goods along with many bicycles and animals etc.

Although the government of Assam has taken several initiatives to expand its Inland Water Transport System, it is still highly underutilized sector. There is massive scope for riverside developments which can be used as public urban squares. It is important to establish an inter-state collaboration, particularly in the northeastern states so that one can learn from each other and implement the best and the most cost-effective ideas. The IWT system in the state could act as a great example and hence it could be scalable, feasible and replicable for the rest of northeast India wherever the IWT systems exist currently.

Water Transport in Kerala

Kerala has more than 1680 km of inland waterways and navigable canals, and this network of water transport can cater to the movement of both passengers and freight traffic at low cost. Currently, the waterways in Kerala are highly underutilized (~20%) due to the various reasons which include lack of maintenance, competition from road and rail network. Kerala has 41 west-flowing rivers, 3 east-flowing rivers and a large network of the backwater.

The west coast canal connects Hosdurg in the north to Poovar in the south of Kerala. With the help of feeder canals and cross canals, a low cost and efficient network of inland water transport can be developed in Kerala. Earlier, water transport was the predominant mode of transport for the passenger and freight movement in the area like Vembanad Lake, Vypeen and Cochin. With the improved road connectivity and bridge construction, the focus shifted from water transport to other modes in these cities.

After the flood disaster in 2018, the Government of Kerala under the Rebuild Kerala initiative is working towards strengthening and connecting the water transport with road and rail network. In Kochi, the government is working on the water metro project which will be feeder service for the Kochi metro rail. Another important initiative includes electrification of the road and water transport in Kerala. Besides, India’s first solar-powered ferry ‘Aditya’ was successfully launched in Vembanad Lake in Kochi in November 2016, which was a landmark occasion in India’s journey towards the use of solar energy. With a seating capacity of 75, Aditya is the largest solar-powered boat in India.

The Ferry is 20-Meter-long and 3.7-Meter-high with a 7-meter beam. The fibreglass made boat has 78 solar panels are fixed on the roof connected with two electric motors of 20kW, one in each hull. The boat also has 50kWh Li-ion battery pack weighing around 700 kg. The boat can reach speeds up to 7.5 knots/hr with a normal operating speed is 5.5 knots (10 km/h) to cover a 15 minutes travel time between Vaikom and Thavanakkadavu, a distance of 2.5 km on water.

Kerala has already demonstrated the viability of solar-powered boats, they need to scale this and create the necessary infrastructure for proper integration of the water transport with road or rail transport network via convenient and safe exchange point and last and first-mile connectivity.

Conclusion and Way forward

An integrated network of road, rail and inland waterways can help in the development of Resilient Transportation System (RTS) in India. Interchange convenience, travel comfort, use of superior technology is key to the success of road and water interconnected network. It is high time for India to look forward to more progressive policies in terms of advancement and inclusiveness of new forms of technology and all modes of transportation. It needs to be a seamless, integrated, clean and safe commute for all. Following are the few key enabling steps for the efficient IWT ecosystem in India:

  • A holistic approach is required, to ensure efficient integration of IWT with road and rail transport network
  • Introduce enabling policy and regulation at the national and state level
  • Institutional coordination needs to be enhanced
  • Inter-state collaborations, so that one can learn from each other and implement the best and the most cost-effective ideas.
  • Develop a plan for necessary basic infrastructure to support IWT
  • Create awareness to develop the whole ecosystem, which includes manufacturing
  • Promote electric and solar-powered boats, at IWT routes
  • Improve first and last-mile connectivity along with interchange convenience
  • Use a technology-enabled platform like IoT, and keep safety on top priority
  • A strategy must include steps to minimize the negative impact on the bio-diversity due to IWT implementation

This article is co-authored by Shravani Sharma, Project Associate and Dr. Parveen Kumar, Senior Manager at WRI India under Cities and Transport program. First appeared in January 2020 Edition of Urban Transport Infrastructure Magazine (Issue 7, Vol. II).

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