Develop Inland Waterways

The central government realizing the importance of waterways is looking to harness and develop the country’s 50,000 kilometres of sea and river fronts as waterways. In March 2016, Parliament gave its nod to a bill to convert 111 rivers across the country into National Waterways, a move that would boost movement of goods and passengers via rivers and reduce transportation costs substantially. States like Kerala, Orissa and West Bengal are also moving to revive their ancient waterways and canals so as to facilitate tourism and public transportation, going back in time when inland rivers and canals were the economic lifeline of settlements.
Goa has 650 kilometres of inland waterways of which only 250 km’s are navigable. During the Portuguese era, these inland waterways and canals were put to extensive use and trade flourished. The advent of railways and roadways made a dent in the flourishing water transport system that existed not only in Goa but across India. It is time Goa took a serious look at developing her inland waterways and canals which are her natural highways. Goa’s waterways today are used by barges to transport iron ore during the season and the River Navigation Department is responsible for passenger ferry services in the state. In Goa, freight transportation and passenger transportation by inland waterways is highly underutilized. A look at other countries reveals that in India transportation of goods and passenger traffic on water is a mere 3.5%, whereas in China it is 47%, Korea and Japan 43% and 44% and in European countries 40%.

Why do we need to switch to using inland waterways as an alternative mode of transport? Other modes of transport like rail and road are often confronted with congestion and capacity problems. On the other hand inland waterways are reliable and can carry tonnes of cargo at cheaper rates unlike road and the railways. It is also energy efficient and helps in reducing air pollution and road accidents. If we want to end the logistics nightmare that we face by road and rail, then connectivity through inland waterways and canals is critical. Data available through the Indian ministry of shipping indicates that the cost of moving a tonne of cargo via waterways is Rs 1.06 and via road it is Rs 2.58. Transporting essential goods via inland waterways brings down the cost of commodities significantly, benefitting consumers.
Present and past governments have touched upon the importance of developing the State’s inland waterways many times, but not much has been done in that direction. Why? Unlike roadways, there is not much cost involved in developing inland waterways and inlandcanals. A construction of a dock, dredging a few areas, and hiring a few people is all it takes for developing canals and inland waterways and maintenance is negligible. Not much underhand money to be made here. Roadways on the other hand, have tollgates, eight lane roads, long term contracts and since they are done in private partnerships underhand money can be made.
Another reason for delay in developing inland waterways, is fear of opposition from taxi drivers associations, bus owners associations and road transport companies. Politicians do not want to ruffle the feathers of these associations and groups, for fear of loss of vote bank. There is lack of will on the part of our elected representatives to take risks for long-term benefits. It’s all about the short-term gain.
Developing inland waterways and canals is a viable option towards sustainable urban development. It is time our rivers once again become part of our settlements like in the olden days. Our inland waterways and canals will be the game changer in capping rising costs, which burden the consumer.
World over countries are working to preserve and restore their canal systems and develop inland waterways to encourage clean tourism, in Goa it is the reverse. Canals built by the Portuguese, worked as coolers during the scorching summers keeping the city of Panjim cool and during the heavy monsoons were used as storm drains to flush out excess water. Today, these canals are being blocked with debris from real estates. Facilitated by politicians, upcoming construction projects are given permissions to build on these existing canals or adjacent to them. While the state and its political class, continue to give a damn for her canals, Sri Lanka till date uses these Portuguese built canals for trading and ferrying passengers.
Inland waterways and canals has huge potential for public private partnership-led investments in dredging, construction, operation and maintenance of barges, terminals, storage facilities and navigation, as well as tourism.
Inland shipping can make a significant contribution to satisfying industry’s demand for transport services, they can deliver goods on schedule and in a cost-effective and environmentally compatible manner.
Goa is a tourist destination and our inland waterways and canals can be developed like in Thailand, with long tours of approximately three hours. River cruises can be arranged for tourists even in the backwaters, which will bring in more revenue. However to achieve this, first the government should remove casinos that have been blocking the beautiful river Mandovi, so tourists can taken in the sights of the city on either side of the Mandovi. We need to bring in big and better boats and not what is used today. Tourist shops should be set up at stops along with arrangements for proper waste management at these stops. The only option for tourist coming into Goa is a cruise booked at the Santa Monica Jetty in Panjim, where they are taken for a sail to the mouth of the sea and back.
But while creating infrastructure for promoting use of inland waterways and canals we need to keep in mind the ecological impact it will have. We have to guarantee safety of our marine life, mangroves and farmers who depend on the water from these rivers for irrigation purposes. Stringent steps need to be put in place from the beginning. Boats, ships, barges plying these rivers should only be allowed if they use renewable energy. The government and concerned departments should have checks continuously to see that the stakeholders do not abuse the waterways, after all they are the lifeline of our civilization. We need to find a balance through cooperation while developing inland waterways.