Inland Waterways in India – A Story of Shallow Depths and New Heights

In a remarkable feat, the government’s relentless efforts to promote cargo movement through inland waterways have yielded a 700% surge in the past decade. The greenest mode of transportation has seen a substantial increase, with freight transported by waterways reaching an impressive 126 million tonnes (MTs) in the fiscal year 2022-23, a substantial leap from 18 MT in 2013-14.

As of December 2023, the ongoing fiscal year has witnessed the transportation of 100 MT of cargo through inland waterways, indicating a promising trajectory. Officials expressed confidence that by March, the total cargo transport will set a new record, surpassing last year’s figures. The government’s multifaceted approach, including the provision of incentives, underscores its commitment to establishing waterways as a preferred mode for the transportation of goods.

In a recent statement to the Lok Sabha, the Union Minister for Shipping and Waterways, Sarbananda Sonowal, revealed that 32.4 MT of cargo traversed through the 12 national waterways in 2022-23, marking a substantial 4.5-fold increase from 6.9 MT in 2013-14. The cumulative cargo movement until December for these waterways stands at an impressive 22.1 MT. Notably, NW-1, covering the Haldia-Allahabad stretch of the Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system, carried 9.6 MT of freight in the current fiscal year.

Moreover, data highlights a significant uptick in cargo movement through national waterways in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Goa. In Maharashtra, waterway transportation surged sixfold, from 10.2 MT in 2013-14 to 63.1 MT in 2022-23, with the current fiscal year recording 52.4 MT till December. In Gujarat, cargo movement escalated to 27.7 MT in 2022-23, compared to 11.5 MT in 2017-18, with nearly 23.5 MT of freight transported by Narmada and Tapi waterways in the state by December of the current fiscal year.

To further boost the adoption of inland waterways as a supplementary mode of transport, the shipping and waterways ministry has introduced a strategic initiative: waiving waterway user charges for an initial three years.

Inland waterways have emerged as a transformative force in India’s cargo transportation landscape, offering boundless opportunities for economic growth. India’s inland water transport system holds immense potential for both passengers and cargo, a fact underscored by its prioritized development. Carriers are increasingly recognizing the growth prospects associated with a broader range of services, including landside operations.

India’s modal share of freight moved on inland waterways has significant untapped potential, poised for improvement compared to international benchmarks. The growth rate in cargo movement through inland waterways has been extraordinary, even during a year that tested the resilience of global trade.

The future prospects of inland waterways in India are promising, with the government’s continued emphasis on their development. As infrastructure improves and incentives drive increased adoption, these waterways are poised to play a pivotal role in shaping the country’s economic landscape.


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