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IME conducts conclave to highlight importance of inland waterways

The Mumbai Branch of Institute of Marine Engineers (IME)  (India)  held an online conclave, “Inland Waterways Transportation in India And Way Forward”, on 17th July. The aim of the caucus was to deliberate and discuss the status on various national waterways and to access and improve the inland transportation by rivers, canals, creeks and backwaters thereby highlighting the significance and importance of Inland Waterways to India.

The conclave received over 550 registrations while others witnessed the proceedings, which were conducted in the question-answer format, live on Facebook.

Mr. Vijendra Jain, Chairman,The Institute of Marine Engineers (India) Mumbai Branch, welcoming all the eminent panelists and speakers, thanked Dr. Malini Shankar, Chairperson, National Shipping Board for proposing the idea of holding the conclave. Expressing his gratitude for enthusiastic response of the participants he stated that utilization of inland waterways was still at a nascent stage in India. He added that it was only after the declaration of 111 waterways as National Waterways, in 2016, that the potential of inland waterways was realized.

Mr Jain informed the conclave that utilisation of these waterways would provide an economical, fuel efficient, environmentally friendly mode of transportation. He also delved on the development work on rivers such as Brahmaputra in the North East, rivers of Goa in the West, Godavari and Krishna in the East and backwaters of Kerala in the South. He specially mentioned about the developments made in inland water transport in Kerala using houseboats, ferries and crafts, which are technically advanced and some of them are even solar powered. Currently the share of Inland water transport is just 2% due to several reasons. He iterated that navigational  hazards such as shallow waters, narrow channel width, siltation, bank erosion and lack of infrastructure needs to be addressed.

Mr. Sanjeev Mehra, who coordinated the proceedings, introducing the guest speaker, Dr. Malini Shankar, congratulated her on being nominated as the Vice Chancellor of Indian Maritime University, Chennai.

Inaugurating the Conclave, Dr. Malini Shankar stated that though the cost water transport was significantly lower as compared to Rail/ Road, these services were limited to states such as Assam which utilizes 10% of total inland waterways, West Bengal and coastal areas such as Kerala which covers 20% of 1680 Kms of its waterways and has a great potential to be improved. She elaborated on how the Buckingham Canal in Tamil Nadu was in use for water transport and was navigable up to Vijayawada till as late as 1972 after which it was road and rail which took over. She highlighted the various advantages of Inland Water Transport and also underlined the challenges in popularizing the use of Inland water transport.

She touched upon the various challenges faced in this sector such as lack of water in the waterways throughout the year, first and last mile connectivity, lack of industries closer to Inland waterways, the huge time taken due to longer distances by Inland waterways, air draught issues, night time navigability, etc. As rightly pointed out the true potential of inland waterways has not really been realized as Rail and Road has become the preferred mode of transportation. However, she highlighted that Inland Waterways have witnessed a multifold increase between the years of 2012-13 to 2019-20 and looked forward for answers by means of this Conclave with benefits to the logistics sector and the environment.

Dr. Amita Prasad, Chairperson of Inland Water Authority of India (IWAI), in her introductory address disclosed that out of 111 waterways, only 22 are capable of being used for transportation and only 2% of cargo is moved by water transport. Though a lot of investments have been made in IWT for developing IWT nodes at Varanasi, Sahebgunj and Haldia, end users are yet to come forward to use it. In fact, there’s scope for shipment of goods using water transportation for Nepal and Bhutan too.

Elaborating on the extensive infrastructure that has already been completed on NW1, NW2, Indo-Bangladesh waterway protocol to the tune of 1000 crores in the last 3 to 4 years, she revealed that 30% cargo movement to waterways would require a large number of vessels which could give a potential boost to shipbuilding and thereby impetus to all ancillary industries in turn generating substantial employment. She emphasized on addressing bottlenecks, and urged investments in this sector to increase the navigational traffic from 2% to 3% by 2030 to fully modernize and utilize the potential of these waterways. She also emphasized on the importance on utilizing these waterways and supporting the projects like “Arth Ganga” leading to commercialization of waterways, providing infrastructure support like jetties, giving navigational aid and coordinate passenger traffic through tourism..

S.M. Rai, a Fellow member of the IME(I), who moderated the subsequent panel discussions introduced the six panelists, all leaders and experts in their own rights of different yet relevant sectors of the maritime industry. They were: Mr. Tom Jose, IAS, (Rtd) Chairman Kerala Shipping & Inland Navigation Corp. Former Chief Secretary Kerala; Mr. Shashi Bhushan Shukla , Member,(Traffic & Logistics ) – IWAI; Mr. Vijay Arora Joint Managing Director, Indian Register of Shipping; Capt. Anil Kishore Singh, CEO, Dredging & Inland Waterways, Adani Group; Capt. Rakesh Singh, General Secretary, Association of Indian Coastal Ship Owners; and Dr. Amit J. Mokashi – Professor (Waterways), New Jersey City University USA.

Mr. Shashi Bhushan Shukla outlining the strategies adopted by IWAI to shift cargo movement from rail and road to waterways stated that there was a 30% increase in cargo over the last 2 years on NW1 and Indo- Bangladesh route has come about due to the work undertaken on the Indo-Bangladesh protocol. Speaking about the movement of cargo between Assam and Bangladesh he disclosed that the movement was largely one-way. He also revealed that there is no night navigation available on this route. “Low air draft due to low road and rail bridges is a big challenge,” he added. For enhancing cargo movement by waterways there was a need for a holistic approach to transportation. The focus of IWAI, he said,  will be on long haul cargo movement which will make cargo movement commercially viable.

Mr. Bhushan further said, Slowly the cargo movement is increasing in the inland waterways particularly in commodities like coal, steel and fertilizers. He was hopeful that inland waterways movement would increase to 120 million tons in the next 3 years. He conceded that th4 transition to waterways was slow but was hopeful that, in due course, the Eastern grid connecting Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India will become a vibrant network of connectivity.

Capt. Anil Kishore Singh highlighting the challenges faced by this segment of the industry stated that there was a necessity for all the concerned parties to adopt a business rather than regulator approach. “While developing IWT infrastructure, we need to have a good industry connect,” he said. He was of the opinion that transport by waterways took longer time than road rail mainly due to the meandering rivers which resulted in increased point to point distances. This, he said nullified the advantages of water transport. Citing an example, he said that the distance to Varanasi by road about 900km while by river it was 1400km.

Small improvements were needed before water transport becomes a serious supplement to road and rail transport, he iterated. One of the issues was inability to navigate 24×7. This could be achieved by improving infrastructure and support available for pilots, currently limited to color of water, to navigate in the dark will provide a serious boost in supplying round the clock cargo movement as a reliable alternative to rail/road.

Mr. Tom Jose emphasized the need for a unified transport policy which integrated Rail, Road, Inland Waterways and Coastal Shipping. He stated “In our country the PWD builds bridges without considering implications for river transport at the design stage. There is no clearance for vessels to go underneath these structures stopping movement across water bodies forever. We have bridges in Kerala that have prevented water transport for all times to come.”  He was of the opinion that a holistic approach by different sectors of transportation will result in boosting all sectors.  He iterated, “Major projects have to be a joint venture between the State and the Central government so that policy decisions are taken at the highest level which will ensure everyone is taken on board.

Mr. Vijay Arora citing issues faced by Indian Register of Shipping (IRS) during classification of inland vessels said that 85% of the 300 vessels classed with IRS were general cargo vessels  built in Indian shipyards. He informed all those present at the conclave that there were variations in assumptions made regarding average weights of people, requirement for free space on board etc. Rules therefore changed from State to State. He added that State and IWAI requirements are different. This posed a challenge for the IRS to build vessels as per class IWT Act, which is under revision, he informed. Mr. Arora hoped that a uniformity will be brought in with the Inland Waterway Rules coming into force soon, so that they are aligned with the stakeholder’s inputs.

Capt. Rakesh Singh, highlighted the fact that when draft was not sufficient it was not possible to ensure timely delivery. Two of the major challenges faced the industry were that the vessels were not designed for long haul and the IWT vessels do not come under tonnage tax. He also mentioned issues like geographical parity with other modes of transportation such as on NW1, low air draft, less water or sometimes no water in the banks of rivers.  He also highlighted the fact that less vessels are designed for long haul cargo for inland waterways, a need to mark and dredge waterways and lack of training of pilots which led to vessels running aground thereby resulting in the customer losing confidence

Dr. Amit J. Mokashi providing insights into waterways of USA stated that the problems faced in India were not unique. He believed that an honest approach to solve these issues was the best way to overcome them. He averred that peer influence among shippers was strong which will lead to further usage of these waterways. He stated that there was a need to look at the perspective of the shipper, his needs and issues faced by him. He highlighted key attributes of shippers such as speed, frequency, reliability, flexibility, inventory cost. . He also touched upon first and last mile connectivity, the environmental benefits and its limits such as resilience, safety and security.

Mr. Girish Sreeraman, , Head, Technical Sub-committee at IME(I), summarized the takeaways of panel discussion. He sincerely hoped that we moved forward in the coming years and that there  was a boost to this sector, which had immense potential. He also mentioned that IME(I), Mumbai branch will sum up these discussions and send it across to IWAI to this important mission.

Mr. David Birwadkar, Head of Training Committee, Mumbai Branch of IME(I), proposed the Vote of Thanks. A special vote of thanks was extended to Dr. Malini Shankar and Dr. Amita Prasad for laying down the base for the above discussions and the entire Organizing Committee for meticulously planning and successfully organizing the Conclave.

The proceedings concluded with a recitation of the National Anthem.

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