About time water transportation got a bigger push

Internally, India has a rich riverine geography crisscrossed by the Himalayan and the south’s peninsular rivers.

Published: 21st March 2021 08:32 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st March 2021 08:32 AM   |  A+A-

Water Transportation

For representational purposes (Amit Bandre | Express Illustrations)

After years of red tape, dredging problems and Covid paralysis, Mumbai’s first private ro-ro ferry (literally roll on-roll off) service kicked off in August last year connecting car commuters from the island city to the Alibaug mainland. Initially used by the farm-owning glitterati of south Mumbai to get their cars across the harbour, the M2M ferry has now become a popular joyride for heavy duty bikers and weekend cyclists and tourists too.

This convenience of reducing travelling time to the resort town of Alibaug by almost two hours, has worked wonders for the Mumbai gentry. Droves of farm house owners, fearing Covid-19 in the city, have locked themselves away claiming to work from their second homes; and the otherwise tepid real 
estate prices have suddenly shot up for farm land across the harbour, driven by this new demand. It is a no-brainer that improved water transportation is cheaper; and is the obvious environmental-friendly 
alternative. India has a coastline of 7,516 kms; and its 10 longest rivers offer 12,000 kilometers of navigable routes for freight and passenger traffic.

Presenting the Maharashtra budget this month, the deputy CM, Ajit Pawar, announced an ambitious waterways development programme for commuter traffic around the sea lanes of Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai. The first of these will be connecting the towns of Vasai and Kalyan. A water taxi service operating from south Mumbai’s Ferry Wharf to Navi Mumbai’s Belapur and Nerul are also on the cards.

The obvious advantage

Internally, India has a rich riverine geography crisscrossed by the Himalayan and the south’s peninsular rivers. The advantages of waterways compared to rail and road transport are obvious: For freight, one HP moves 150 kg on road, 500 kg on rail and 4,000 kgs on water. Similarly, one litre of fuel moves 24 tonnes on 1 km of road, 85 on rail and 105 on inland waterways.  Carbon dioxide emission is 50 per cent lower than trucks.

It’s a third mode of transport which takes the pressure off rail and road networks. But it was only around 2004 that the government began to wake up and seriously look to developing inland waterways. At that stage the share of water transport was a paltry 0.15 per cent, compared to 20 per cent in Germany and over 32 per cent in Bangladesh. 

A concerted effort has been made to develop National Waterways. Initially, 5 major national waterways were taken up like the NW1 Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system up to Allahabad with a massive navigable 1,600 kms,  and NW2 on the Brahmaputra - from Dhubri to Sadiya of nearly 900 kms. By 2016, a huge list of 106 more rivers and channels was compiled, but work on making them operational has just about started. 

There are serious challenges facing river transportation that have slowed the pace of development. While the basic per unit cost looks cheap, inland waterways snake naturally and do not go in a straight line like roadways or railroads. This increases the length of the transport corridor. Broadly the breakdown of cost is: Re 1 per tonne for waterways, `1.4 - railroad, and `2.5 per tonne for roadways. Add to this the higher infrastructure costs for loading and unloading freight and its slower movement on waterways, and we find the basic cost advantage gets neutralized.

Coastal traffic

Commuter ferry services on sea lanes around major cities like Hong Kong, New York or London have been an important supplementary mode to decongest the more traditional bus and rail alternatives. Though they carry a very small proportion of the commuting public, water transportation takes the pressure off buses and rail networks.  

In Hong Kong, water lanes were popular for cross-harbour commuter traffic, and peaked in the 1970s, with the two major ferry operators, the “Star Ferry” and the Hongkong and Yaumati Ferry transporting 240 million passengers in the 1971-2 period. However, the commissioning of several cross harbour tunnels and the mass transit railway system in subsequent years shifted water transport to a supplementary role. By 2017, patronage of regular passenger ferry services declined by 13 per cent and 
represented just about one per cent of the average daily public transport patronage (12.7 million). Since then, the Hong Kong government has got into the act to refloat the Hung Hom - Central and Lamma Island ferry route for commuters and tourist traffic. 

In New York City, although ferry services are not popular and account for only two per cent of the commuter traffic, the local government has been proactive in developing a strategy to promote the sustainable development of the waterfront and waterways of NYC. To this end, it kicked off a new ferry service, the NYC Ferry in May 2017, which has offered a popular, and cost-effective alternative. 
India’s coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai have huge commuter traffic that use railroads and buses in cramped and unhygienic conditions. It’s about time a third alternative, starting with short-distance and inaccessible routes, kicked off to take the pressure off traditional commuter networks.


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