Inland waterways for coal transportation – the prospects and potential

Coal is one of the most important fossil fuels in the world – powering cities and countries across the world, including India. For our country, coal holds a monopoly in the energy generation sector, powering 50-70% of India’s energy needs. India is also the second-largest producer of coal with coal reserves estimated to be around 286 billion tonnes.

Conventionally, the Indian Railways has been playing a major role in the transportation of coal from the mines to various thermal power plants with their extensive network and capability to handle bulk cargo. Road transportation also plays a role in coal transportation, particularly for short-distance haulage and last-mile connectivity. It is often used for transporting coal from mines to nearby industrial areas or small-scale consumers. However, road transport has limitations in terms of capacity and efficiency, making it less suitable for large-scale coal transportation over longer distances.

In recent years, the Government of India has been pushing multi-modal transportation through the Gati Shakti National Master Plan, as well as the more recent National Logistics Policy. As a result, there has been a massive push on developing and utilizing inland waterways for bulk freight transportation in India, including that of coal. The Ministry of Ports, Shipping, and Waterways aims to transport 41.06 million tonnes of coal through inland waterways in the current fiscal year.

Sarbananda Sonowal, the Union Minister for Ports, Shipping and Waterways recently said that only 5 of the 400 inland waterways have been developed for transportation of various commodities and more are on the way. The MoPSW is in discussions with various other ministries for the movement of coal, LPG, and foodgrains. Along with being highly sustainable, inland waterways offer other advantages in freight transportation like cost-effectiveness, and enhanced connectivity between coal-production and consumption centers.

“From 16 mt in 2014, the total cargo handled through the inland waterways network has now increased to over 130 mt in the last five years (cumulative). The majority of this is coal. By 2030, we are targeting to ramp up cargo handling to 200 mt and also extend the inland waterways network.”

Sarbananda Sonowal

According to the data available from the MoPSW, there has been a compounded annual growth of 16.71% in the transportation of coal via inland waterways since 2019. The volume increased from 18.96 million tonnes in FY19 to 30.61 million tonnes in FY22. This growth demonstrates the increasing acceptance and effectiveness of using inland waterways for coal transportation.

For the current fiscal year, the Ministry has set a target of transporting 41.06 mt of coal through inland waterways, thereby, pushing a 17% increase. There is an obvious hint to the government’s commitment to leveraging the potential of inland waterways for coal transportation in its endeavors.

“We are developing jetties and multimodal transport hubs along these waterways to aid coal and cargo movement. Investments are being made in dredging activities. So, besides cargo vessels, cruises have also begun moving along the various riverways,” Sonowal added.

According to reports, there are also some negotiations taking place between Indian and Mongolia regarding two potential shipping routes – one in the Far East corridor, which utilizes the Vladivostok-Chennai shipping path, and the second on the International North-South Transport Corridor, utilizing the Chabahar port. If sealed, the new routes will add even more flexibility to the transportation of coal to and from India, while making the entire supply chain more resilient and robust.

To conclude, using Inland Waterways for transporting coal holds immense possibilities and potential for India, especially when a lot of effort is being put to reduce India’s logistics cost, create world-class logistics infrastructure and meet the Paris Agreement goals – all at the same time.

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