Water transport



  • Before the advent of Railways, Inland Waterways were the chief mode of transportation
  • Waterways are the cheapest means of transport and are most suitable for carrying heavy and bulky materials having low specific cost
  • Water transport is a fuel efficient and environmental friendly mode of transportation which has vast employment generation potential
  • However, it suffered a great deal at the hands of roadways and Railways, because it could not compete with the speed of road and rail transport
  • Currently, coastal and inland waterways contribute 6% of the country’s freight modal mix, while adjacent developing economies, such as Bangladesh (16%) and Thailand (12%) have a higher share of water-based transport, highlighting the scope for improvement for India
  • The exclusive jurisdiction of the Central Government is only in regard to shipping and navigation on inland waterways declared to be ‘national waterways’ by an act of Parliament. Utilisation/sailing of vessels, in other waterways, is within the ambit of the concurrent list or is in the jurisdiction of the respective state governments.


Inland Water Transport in India

  • India is endowed with various Inland Water Transport (IWT) options that comprise rivers, canals, backwaters, creeks, and tidal inlets
  • India has over 5,000 km of navigable inland waterways under development.
  • These not only form a competitive alternative mode of transportation with lower operating cost (30% lower than the railways and 60% lower than road) but also a sustainable mode in freight logistics and passenger transport
  • To harness the potential of IWT, Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) was established in 1986, and since has been working towards development and regulation of inland waterways
  • In order to increase the significance of Inland Waterways and to improve their efficiency, the Government has identified few important Waterways, which are given the status of National Waterways
  • From only five waterways recognised as National Waterways (NWs), the government of India notified 106 additional waterways as National Waterways, by the National Waterways Act, 2016.
  • The major waterways identified in India, are as in the table below:

  • In addition to notification of NWs, the government has also undertaken initiatives for speeding infrastructure development

These include:

    • Jal Marg Vikas Project (JMVP) for NW-1.
    • Arth Ganga and Arth Brahmaputra for holistic and sustainable development leveraging NW-1 and NW-2 for freight and passenger movement.
    • Inland Vessels Bill.
    • Land Use Policy for Inland Waterways (IWs).
    • Dredging Policy for IWs.
    • Promoting private participation in terminal operations and maintenance.
  • As a result, the total cargo volume transported through inland waterways in India reached 73.6 million tons per annum (MTPA) in 2019-20 and has grown at a CAGR of 19 per cent over the last five years.
  • Rivers in south India are seasonal and are not much suited for navigation
    • However, the deltaic areas of the Godavari, Krishna, Mahanadi, lower reaches of the Narmada, Tapi serve as waterways
  • There are some navigable canals also, which serve as inland waterways
    • Buckingham Canal in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu is one such canal, which provides water transport for a distance of 413km
    • The other navigable canals are Son Canal, Odisha Canal, Damodar Canal


Advantages of Inland Waterways

  • A well-coordinated inland waterways network could bring a fundamental alteration in the logistics scenario of the country
  • Waterways can decongest roads, including highways by moving cargo away
  • Waterways do not involve challenges associated with land acquisition, which has always been a sensitive issue, causing time and cost overruns of numerous projects
  • Waterways are a cheaper mode of transportation vis-à-vis the available alternatives, significantly reducing the point-to-point cost of goods
    •  As per a study carried out by RITES in respect to the Integrated National Waterways Transportation Grid, one litre of fuel will move 24 tons through one kilometre on road, 95 on rail and 215 kilometres on inland water transport


Challenges related to Inland Waterways

  • The channel draft of the national waterways is not uniform at 2 meters throughout the year, as is required. Some of these rivers are seasonal and do not offer navigability through the year
  • Further, all the identified waterways require intensive capital and maintenance dredging, which could be resisted by the local community on environmental grounds, including displacement fears, thereby posing implementation challenges
  • The presence of waterfalls and sharp bends in the course of river hinders the development of waterways
  • Silting of river beds reduces the depth of water and creates problems for navigation. And Desilting of river beds is a costly affair
  • Diversion of water for irrigation purposes reduced the quantity of water in river channel, and hence should be done carefully
  • Also, the demand for sufficient waterways needs to grow, to make it an economically viable mode of transportation

national waterways


    • The transit route comprises of shipping transport from Kolkata to Sittwe port (539 kms), inland waterway transport from Sittwe to Paletwa (River Kaladan – 158 km), Paletwa to Indo-Myanmar border (Myanmar side – 110 km) and from the border to NH 54 at Lawngtlai (India – 100 km).
    • This presents an easier and faster transit route than the existing ‘chicken neck’ corridor through Siliguri.
    • The riverine trade through Bangladesh facilitates trade through Assam, as domestic movements on NW-2 between Assam and Haldia/Kolkata areas pass through a significant stretch in Bangladesh and are subject to the bilateral protocol.
  • The waterways are also proposed to be linked to the eastern and western Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFCs), as well as the Sagarmala Project, which aims to promote port-led direct and indirect development. The linkages are being planned in a manner such that commodities and cargo can be swapped/shifted from and to the waterways, the DFCs and road transport. The inland waterway in its full scope is conceived as part of an ambition to link several big infrastructure projects


  • Actions needed
    • As every riverine system is unique and presents diverse challenges, separate studies based on a detailed micro-level review to assess viability need to be done for each, before taking up implementation.
    • An effective waterways network would necessitate drawing up a well-coordinated strategy on lines of complementarity between the national network and other waterways, not declared as such, as well as between waterways and roadways/railways.
    • The said strategy should closely look into the various undercurrents, including competing uses/needs, possible local resistance and also work closely and in coordination with local governments for quick and successful implementation of this important national project



  • India has had a glorious past with respect to shipping
    • Indian maritime trade flourished in ancient times
    • Indian boats and ships have been sailing in the Indian ocean for the last 4,000 years taking merchandise to the Middle East
  • Currently, shipping plays a significant role in the transport sector of the country’s economy
    • Nearly 90% of India’s trade Volume(77% in terms of value), is moved by sea making shipping the backbone of trade and economic growth
  • Today, India has the largest merchant shipping fleet among the developing countries


Coastal Shipping

  • This involves movement of goods and passengers from one port to another port within a country
  • India’s long coastline, array of ports on the east & west coast; and a large & resilient domestic economy provides a perfect ecosystem for the country to develop a substantial coastal shipping industry.
  • In India, domestic movement happens primarily through road, followed by railways and a meagre share is through waterways. Hence, Coastal shipping can be a great enabler to develop economy and reduce logistics costs as evident from the experiences in other developed regions.
  • The European Union experience has demonstrated that cost of coastal movement of cargoes was about 20 percent and 40 percent that of road and rail movement, respectively. Hence, the need to capitalise when there is a long coastline resource at hand, for India

  • Currently, in India, the coastal shipping primarily handles POL, coal, and iron ore, which account approximately 80 percent of the total coastal movement


Ports in India

  • There are 13 major and 200 medium and small ports in India
  • The major ports are under the supervision of the Central Government, while the minor ones are managed by the concerned state Governments
  • The 13 major ports handle about 90% of our foreign trade
  • The major ports on the west coast are Mumbai, Jawaharlal Nehru, Kandla, Marmagao, Mangalore and Kochi
    • The ports on the east coast are Kolkatta/Haldia, Paradwip, Vishakapatnam, Chennai, Ennore and Tuticorin


Challenges Faced By Shipping Industry in India

  • Institutional Challenges
    • The rigidity of the Indian bureaucracy and its reluctance to give up control adds to the delay.
    • Multiple involvements of the central, state and local governments with overlapping powers add to the chaos.
    • Lack of a single window clearance system has made it challenging for shipping companies in India
  • Infrastructural Challenges
    • Capacities of all major and minor ports in India need to be increased urgently.
    • When compared to transhipment points in other countries, the cycle time of Indian cargoes has been rendered as uncompetitive on a global scale.
    • Besides this development of road network, electricity and overall infrastructural development is also the need of the hour.
  • Financial Challenges
    • The burden of taxes like Customs Duty on Bunkers, Landing Fees, Income Tax etc. without negligible exemptions have made it difficult for shipping industry to thrive


  • Vessel Size
    • The sizes of vessels are getting bigger owing to the rise in demand for shipping services. While it might sound like an improved trend, many ports in India are still struggling to keep up, and many of these large vessels cannot be called on into most of the ports


Measures taken

  • Recently, the Union Cabinet approved a scheme to provide Rs 1,624 crore over five years as subsidy to Indian shipping companies in global tenders floated by ministries and CPSEs for import of government cargo
  • Sagarmala Project
    • The Sagarmala is a series of projects to leverage the country’s coastline and inland waterways to drive industrial development
    • Sagarmala, integrated with the development of inland waterways, is expected to reduce cost and time for transporting goods, benefiting industries and export/import trade.
    • The initiatives under this project include:
      • modernising port infrastructure
      • improving port connectivity through rail corridors, freight-friendly expressways and inland waterways
      • create 14 coastal economic zones or CEZs and a special economic zone at Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Mumbai with manufacturing clusters to enable port-led industrialisation
      • develop skills of fishermen and other coastal and island communities.
    • Sagarmala could boost India’s merchandise exports to $110 billion by 2025 and create an estimated 10 million new jobs

India is located along key international trade routes in the Indian Ocean and has a long coastline of over 7,000 km. Yet, capacity constraints and lack of modern facilities at Indian ports tremendously elongates the time taken to ship goods in and out of the country and has held back India’s share in world trade.

  • Transport costs are high in India – 18 per cent of GDP, compared to less than 10 per cent in China.
  • Hence, the need of projects like Sagarmala, with proper implementation to capitalise on the strategic location in the Indian Ocean region