Waterway Transport in India Today
India has a good network of navigable channels and a history of inland water transport, which is now up for modernization to utilize its full potential
India has about 15,000 km of navigable waterways which comprise of rivers, canals, backwaters, creeks etc. . At present, operations on waterways are restricted to a few stretches on the Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly rivers, the Brahmaputra, the Barak, rivers in Goa, backwaters in Kerala, and minor operations in Godavari – Krishna delta. ~69 million metric tonne of cargo were moved by inland waterways in 2019-20, amounting to a mere ~2% share of total freight transport. Although India has a long history of using waterways for transport, they were supplanted in the 19th Century by the expansion of the railway system. Thereafter, there was minimal investment in IWT routes and many canals and other IWT assets fell into disuse and disrepair. India continues to ply small, shallow draft vessels but a commercial shipping industry using large modern vessels is not currently developed.
As per data published by IWAI
Countries like Germany, China & Vietnam use Inland Waterways extensively as an integral part of their transportation network
- Vietnam has developed ~9,000 km of navigable channels. Waterways accounted for ~53% of all freight transported in Vietnam
- Germany transports ~ 240 MT of goods or 65 billion tonne-kilometres every year via the German Federal waterways. This is more than 75% of goods transport by railway in the country
- China transports ~7.5% of its freight traffic through inland waterways.
- United States transports ~14% of its freight traffic through inland waterways 
- European Union describes Inland Waterways as “a competitive alternative to road and rail transport
Due to higher capacity and efficient movement, Inland waterways are much more eco-friendly than road and rail
IWT has lower energy consumption requirement than land-based modes of transport. Its energy consumption per km/ton of transported goods is approximately 17% of that of road transport and 50% of rail transport. Further, IWT causes lower noise emissions as well
Due to natural grade separation, waterways can significantly reduce congestion in metropolitan areas as well as on highways
By shifting a significant share of freight and mass transit movement to the waterways, other transport modes would benefit as well. Especially in densely populated regions like Kolkata Metropolitan Area, it would contribute to decongesting overloaded road and rail networks.
Waterways are easier and economical to develop and are much cheaper than road and rail transport
Waterway transport is as much as 60% cheaper than rail and road transport in terms of freight costs per ton-km. Waterway transport costs ~INR 1 per ton per km, as compared to ~INR 1.4 per ton per km and ~INR 2.3 per ton per km on rail and road transport respectively. Further, cost of developing and maintaining infrastructure on waterways is much lower than for rail and road transport, ~25% and ~10% lower respectively.
High Carrying Capacity
Waterway vessels have much higher capacity, more than entire rakes and hundreds of trucks
A typical barge convoy can carry ~3,000 MT of cargo, which is comparable to 75 Rail wagonloads (~40 metric tonne each) or ~300 truckloads (~10 metric tonne each). A well-developed IWT network would significantly increase in freight and passenger handling capacity of the country.
As per data published by IWAI
Strategic location vis-à-vis NW1 & EDFC
Developments like the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor (EDFC), IWT Terminals along NW1 such as Varanasi, have made IWT transport from North / East India viable and economical over other modes of transport.
Major commodities being transported by IWT in West Bengal include coal (~74%), iron & steel (~18%), food grains, timber, fertilizer, sugar and manganese ore. In 2019-20, ~10 MT of cargo was transported along NW1 and ~6 MT along NWs in Bengal
Gateway for Logistics to North-Eastern States
Kolkata region is the focal point for integrated waterways development in the North-eastern states. Difficult road and rail connections are a crucial driver towards promotion of IWT based movements. West Bengal acts as a key driver to promotion of trade and logistics for this region.
Gateway to International Trade Routes
Syama Prasad Mukherjee Port is directly located on the waterway. The port serves as a gateway to the land-locked north-eastern states and have direct access to the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. ~23% of the import cargo at the Port is evacuated through IWT
West Bengal acts as an EXIM gateway for land-locked Nepal. India and Nepal have an agreement on trade and transport through NW-1.
Indo-Bangladesh Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade designates 8 waterway routes, 6 of which pass through West Bengal. Kolkata and Haldia Ports are amongst 10 notified “Ports of call” of IBTP
Passenger Transport Artery
Waterways in West Bengal is a key passenger mover. Major rivers like Hooghly, Damodar, Dwarakeshwar support significant people movement across the river. Movement along the river is currently limited, largely concentrated on river Hooghly. Nevertheless, ~360 passenger vessels in West Bengal ferried ~117 million passengers in 2019-20.