Home / News / India /  Waterways for freight transport: Will it work?

India has an extensive network of inland waterways, but they are highly underutilized for freight transport. Despite being cost-effective and environment-friendly, domestic waterways play a limited role in hinterland connectivity. Mint takes a look:

Are inland waterways good for transport?

The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) says 25 of the 111 National Waterways (NWs) are fit for cargo and passenger traffic. According to Rail India Technical and Economic Service, an arm of the Indian Railways, inland water transport is significantly cost-efficient compared to rail and road transport. Development of inland waterways transport will also help with de-congestion of overcrowded rail and road networks in India. Already, the development of inland waterways has been effective in increasing movement of cargo by about 13% in 2020-21, compared to 2019-20.

Which are the key inland waterways?

Out of the 25 National Waterways found viable for cargo/passenger movement, developmental activities are under way for 13. The Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly River system designated as National Waterways 01 is 1,620 km long and runs across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. Gujarat, Kerala, Goa, Assam, and Andhra Pradesh are also among the states that have inland waterways under development. The Jal Marg Vikas Project for increasing the capacity of waterways was undertaken by the IWAI, and was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs on 3 January 2018.


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How will they help the economy?

Using inland waterways wherever feasible could help lower transportation cost and time, which will have a spillover effect on manufacturing and export competitiveness as the price of most items also depends on transportation cost. India’s logistics cost as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) is estimated to be at around 14% and the Centre’s goal is to bring it down below 10%.

How’s India  developing inland waterways?

To promote inland waterways as a supplementary mode of transport, the ministry of ports, shipping, and waterways last year waived user charges for a period of three years. The government also came up with digital solutions such as a portal giving information on cargo and cruise movement and a portal for river navigation and infra-structure information. To promote economical and safe transportation and to bring uniformity in the law, the government tabled the Inland Vessels Bill 2021 in the Lok Sabha on 22 July.

Can it help regional trade?

With the addition of seven new ports of call on each side of India and Bangladesh, the accessibility of inland water transport mode for trade is expected to increase and result in growth of traffic on the national waterways. Inland waterway mode has been agreed for inclusion in the trade treaty between India and Nepal. Stone exporters from Bhutan have identified inland waterways as an alternative mode of transportation. The IWAI supervised the first movement which was successfully executed in July 2019.



Swati Luthra

Swati Luthra writes on climate change, water, environment and forest issues for Mint. A graduate in Psychology, Swati has been mapping India’s policy initiatives to help meet the pledges made at CoP-26 including achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2070.
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