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Transportation by waterways costs 25 paisa per km and `1.50 and `2.50, respectively, by railways and road, according to the shipping ministry. Photo: Reuters
Transportation by waterways costs 25 paisa per km and `1.50 and `2.50, respectively, by railways and road, according to the shipping ministry. Photo: Reuters

Rajya Sabha passes inland waterways bill

Legislation that opens up economic opportunities to new regions among few the opposition is allowing passage in Rajya Sabha

The decks were cleared on Wednesday for the conversion of 106 rivers and creeks across India into transport waterways.

The Rajya Sabha passed the National Waterways Bill 2015 unopposed—it is among the few legislations that the opposition is allowing passage in the upper House—setting the stage for the adoption of the new law.

Once it is a law, it can potentially provide an alternative form of transporting goods, which at present is dominated by road and rail, and open up economic opportunities to new regions.

The bill which was introduced by shipping minister Nitin Gadkari was approved by the Lok Sabha last year and would now be sent to the President for his approval.

Supporting the bill, members of Parliament (MPs) across political lines in the Rajya Sabha raised environment and occupational concerns and cautioned that the law should not infringe upon state government rights on rivers and water bodies.

At the same time, most MPs who participated in the discussion complimented the minister for such a radical plan to makeover the transport matrix.

Speaking in Parliament during the discussion, Gadkari said inland waterways in country had huge potential.

While countries such as China, Europe and Korea channelize over 40% of their passenger and freight traffic, in India the proportion was only 3.5%; and this despite it being the most fuel-efficient, cost-effective and eco-friendly form of transport.

According to the shipping ministry, transportation by waterways would cost 25 paisa per km, while by railways and road it’s 1.50 and 2.50, respectively. In terms of fuel efficiency, too, waterways compare favourably: one horse power can ferry four tonnes of cargo by waterways, while the equivalent is 150kg and 500kg by road and rail, respectively.

“It’s an irony that a polluting sector such as roadways is given 55,000 crore as budget support, while shipping is given a meagre 800 crore. However, I’m determined and finances would not be a hurdle," Gadkari said.

According to him, the inland waterway projects will be developed through public private partnership and infusion of foreign direct investment (FDI).

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has been eyeing the constitutional mandate to develop these inland waterways since it took charge. Gadkari has been advocating the development of waterways, arguing that it would reduce logistic costs substantially.

The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), responsible for developing inland waterways, in a study done during 1998 had set a target of 9,286km of national waterways, state waterways and feeder routes by 2020 in its “IWT Vision 2020".

India currently has five inland waterways as national waterways. These include waterways on Ganga from Haldia to Allahabad and on Brahmaputra from Dhubri to Sadiya and others.

However, environmentalists have been opposing the bill, claiming that because of the numerous large and small dams, the water flow in the rivers is severely restricted.

“The state governments are not realizing how it going to impact them and would be suicidal for them at the time when extreme climate change is being witnessed through drought, floods, river-erosion and declining agriculture and fisheries," said Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an environment advocacy group.

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