NEW DELHI: Parliament today gave nod to a bill to convert 111 rivers across the country into National Waterways, a move that would boost movement of goods and passengers via rivers and expectedly reduce the transportation costs substantially.
The National Waterways Bill was passed by Rajya Sabha today. The Lok Sabha had approved the bill last year.
The bill provides for enacting a central legislation to declare 106 additional inland waterways as the national waterways in addition to five existing national waterways.
Allaying fears of the state governments that the new law will infringe upon their rights, Road Transport, Highways and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari said the passage of the much-awaited Bill will infact boost the maritime trade of the states and augment their economy.
"The declaration of National Waterways does not restrict the rights of state governments in any way. It only facilitates Government of India in developing the waterway for shipping and navigation. It will not infringe upon their rights on minerals and water etc," Gadkari said.
Justifying the measure, he regretted that the waterways had taken a backseat in India, with only 3.5 per cent of trade being done through the mode here as against 47 per cent in China, 40 per cent in Europe, 44 per cent in Japan and Korea and 35 per cent in Bangaladesh.
"Inland Water Transport is an environment-friendly and cost-effective mode of transporation, which on development will have the potential to establish an optimal modal mix and reduce logistic cost," he said.
He said logistic cost was as high as 18 per cent in India and an industrialist had rightly pointed out to the Prime Minister that transporting things from Mumbai to London was less expensive and easy in comparison to transportation to Delhi from Mumbai.
Responding to contention by some members that these were here tall claims, the Minister asserted, "I do not make any announcement in the air... I promise if any of my announcements is not fulfilled, I will apologise in this House....You may even bring a Privilege Motion against me if my promise is not fulfilled."
When Deputy Chairman P J Kurien asked him to refrain from throwing such a challenge, Gadkari said, "I am 100 per cent ready.. We have already signed contracts worth Rs 1.5 lakh crore in the road sector. I am not dependent on budget."
Gadkari said the irony was that road transport, which is polluting and causes 5 lakh accidents per annum killing 1.5 lakh people, has been allocated Rs 55,000 crore whereas the environment-friendly shipping got a mere Rs 800 crore allocation in the budget.
While asserting his confidence regarding completion of infrastructure projects despite constraints, Gadkari cited the example of how he made Mumbai-Pune Expressway with meagre governemnt funds by raising finances from capital market.
He said work has picked up regarding strengthening of the existing five National Waterways and once it gains momentum, it will "revolutionise" water transport in the country.
"We are setting up three multi-modal hubs in the country including one in Sahibganj in Bihar and once completed, cargo could directly go to Bangladesh from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and states like Uttar Pradesh," he said.
The minister said inland Waterways is a much cheaper and environment-friendly mode of transportation as it costs only 30 paise to move cargo through waterways in comparison to Rs 1.5 through road and Rupee one from rail.
If edible oil and pulses are transported through waterways it will bring down their prices in states while on concern of members that by river transport, ecology and fishery will be impacted, he said in fact they will be conserved, he said.
Inland waterways comprising rivers, lakes, canals, creeks and backwaters extend to about 14,500 kms across the country.
Cabinet in December last year had given its approval to carry out official amendments in the National Waterways Bill, 2015, based on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture and comments of states.
The changes effected in the original list of 101 waterways, which was introduced with the National Waterways Bill 2015 on May last year include omission of 10 waterways of Kerala, merger of 17 with the existing waterways and addition of 18.
The legislation provides conversion of 15 rivers in West Bengal, 14 each in Assam and Maharashtra, 11 in Karnataka, 12 in Uttar Pradesh, 9 in Tamil Nadu and 6 each in Bihar and Goa and 5 each in Gujarat, Meghalaya, Odisha and Telangana, among others.
The proposal also includes plan to convert the Yamuna in Delhi and Haryana into a waterway.
Five of the river-stretches, which have been declared as National Waterways, include Allahabad-Haldia on Ganga (1,620 km), Brahmaputra's Dhubri-Sadiya (891 km), West Coast Canal Kottapuram-Kollam (205 km), Kakinada-Puducherry canals (1,078 km) and East Coast Canal integrated with Brahmani river and Mahanadi delta rivers (588 km).
The government aims to garner Rs 1 lakh crore to fund projects for low-cost river transportation and seeks to develop national waterways to cut logistics cost, make Indian industry competitive and help developing smart townships along the rivers.
Gadkari said five 'Ro-Ro' services for freight transport were being introduced at five places - Kolkata, Sahibganj, Varanasi, Patna and Bhagalpur besides setting up small terminals at a cost of Rs 1,000 crore.
A River Traffic Control system has been introduced on the pattern of Air Traffic Control system, he said.
Allaying members' concern that river water will be polluted, the Minister said pollution was indeed a big concern and to address it LNG which is considered as the ultimate fuel will be used.
He said the government planned to transport 300 million tonnes of coal to power plants and states through rivers.
Earlier, the Opposition questioned Gadkari whether the views of the states were taken and whether the government had done any assessment studies, including environmental, on the project.
During the debate on the bill, Shantaram Naik (Congress) said: "What is your objective (of converting 101 rivers into national waterways). I really don't understand?"
He questioned the government on its proposal regarding the project and its requirement and wondered in how many years the project would be completed.
Naik asked the government whether it has taken the views of the states as well as other stakeholders on the National Waterways Bill and has conducted any assessment on the money required for completing the same.
He attacked Gadkari on the announcements made by him on construction of national highways in the country.
"You are doing a good job on highways. I was hearing your announcements on developing roads in Goa. I was shocked. You spoke of crores and crores of rupees. From where will you or the Goa government get this money? It is not a realistic figure. If you make an assessment about your announcements, you will be surprised," Naik said.
He also asked the government to clarify on the public private participation (PPP) model and what will be the participation of foreign companies in it.
Naik asked the government to also clarify on the status as well as utilisation of the land on both sides of the river and also on the nature of transport that will take place on the rivers once they are converted into national waterways.
Supporting the bill, Basawaraj Patil (BJP) said there is a need to ensure that banks on both sides of the river are not adversely impacted by the river being converted into a national waterway.
He add that there is also need for constant checking of the water level in the rivers, including seasonal, so that transport is not impacted.
Vishanbhar Prasad Nishad (SP) asked the government to clarify on the PPP model and the participation of foreign companies in it.
He said the interest of the fishermen should be protected and they should be ensured of their livelihood.
Nishad added that once rivers are converted into waterways there will be a need for transport police and whether the government has considered this.
He also demanded that people from the fishermen community should be given 50 per cent reservation in recruitment to transport police in national waterways.
K C Tyagi of JD (U) asked the government whether it has considered the impact of such waterways on irrigation and canals.
He also asked the government to clarify on foreign participation in the ambitious project as well as the budget for the project, commercial targets and share of the states.
He demanded that the livelihood of the fishermen should be protected.