Inland Waterways Transport in India : Challenges, Developments and Opportunities

Inland Waterways Transport (IWT) is a method of transporting cargo over rivers, backwaters, canals, and creeks. It provides a cost-effective, logistically efficient and environment-friendly mode of transport and whose development as a supplementary mode would enable diversion of traffic from over-congested roads and railways.

These waterways can be developed as environment-friendly modes of transport. This will decrease the huge logistics cost in India significantly and Hence, the waterways project deserves better regulation and development across the country.

Inland Waterways of India

India has a large network of water bodies in the form of rivers, canals, backwaters, and creeks. The total navigable length is 14,500 km, out of which about 5,200 km of the river and 4,000 km of canals can be used by mechanized crafts.

These long waterways provide a good mode of transport across the cities as well as towns, like backwaters of Kerala, Canals in Gujarat and few waterways in Goa, West Bengal, and  Assam. Still, these inland waterways are un-utilized in India as compare to other countries in the world, Inland Waterways Authority of India is working on new projects for waterways and better water transportation in India.

As compared to other large countries like the United States, China, and the European Union, Freight transportation by waterways is highly under-utilized in India. The total cargo moved (in tonne-kilometers) by the inland waterway was very less of the total inland traffic in India, compared to the 21% figure for the United States.

Indian water transportation is receiving significant attention in recent times since logistics cost in India is one of the highest among major countries –as per the reports it is 18% in India versus 8-10% in China and 10-12% in European Union.


  • As the acquisition of land for national and State highways becomes scarce and the cost of construction of roads, flyovers and bridges goes up, the government is now exploring using water as a means of public transportation.
  • Water transport is not only environment-friendly but also cheaper than other modes of transport
  • It takes lesser time to transport cargo by waterways in some areas and the chances of congestion and accidents on highways are eliminated.
  • There is a huge potential for domestic cargo transportation as well as for cruise, tourism and passenger traffic.
  • There is huge potential for public-private partnership (PPP) led investments in dredging, construction, operation and maintenance of barges, terminals, storage facilities, and navigation, as well as tourism.
  • It will help in the generation of millions of job opportunities.
  • It will boost the maritime trade of the states and augment their economies.

Waterways Proposed by India:

  • National Waterway 1: Varanasi–Haldia stretch of the Ganges–Bhagirathi–Hooghly river system having a length of 1620km with expected cargo movement of 4 million tonnes.
  • National Waterway 2: Sadiya — Dhubri stretch of Brahmaputra river system having a length of 891km with expected cargo movement of 2 million tonnes.
  • National Waterway 3: Kozhikode-Kollam stretch of the West Coast Canal, Champakara Canal and Udyogmandal Canal having a length of 205km with expected cargo movement of 1 million tonnes.
  • National Waterway 4: Kakinada-Puducherry stretch of canals and the Kaluvelly Tank, Bhadrachalam – Rajahmundry stretch of River Godavari and Wazirabad – Vijayawada stretch of River Krishna having a length of 1095km.
  • National Waterway 5: Talcher–Dhamra stretch of the Brahmani River, the Geonkhali – Charbatia stretch of the East Coast Canal, the Charbatia–Dhamra stretch of Matai river and the Mangalgadi – Paradip stretch of the Mahanadi River Delta having a length of 623km.
  • National Waterway 6: In Assam, Lakhimpur to Bhanga of river Barak having the length of 121 Km.


  • Water is a scarce resource in India. It has to first meet the basic requirements of drinking and irrigation before it can be used for navigation. River linkages and water sharing arrangements will have to be worked out between states to estimate the quantum of water required on a time basis throughout the year to maintain the minimum depth of water in the canals for navigability, besides ensuring that drinking, irrigation and other demands of water do not get impacted.
  • The cost savings from water transportation would never be realized unless vessels are able to load to their full tonnage. This is possible only if the rivers are deepened between 2.5 and 4.5 meters and if return cargo is made available for the vessel to avoid wasteful return we all well aware that most of the Indian rivers are locational,    cover small geography and undergo huge seasonal fluctuations even Some of the rivers generally remain dry which rendering them unsuitable for navigation  There is a need to develop water reservoirs for the conservation of rainwater to feed such rivers.
  • Higher water salinity, especially in the coastal regions and estuaries, and constant inflow of silt in the rivers can be problematic. Along with the minimal water flow continuous dredging is desired as the rivers bring a large amount of siltation.
  • The financing requirement for inland water transportation is huge and open-ended. The heavy investment will be needed for construction of locking barrages to hold water for vessel movement, concretization and building of embankments to create port terminals and procure equipment, including dredgers, shipping vessels, and barges of different sizes and require river ports with their support infrastructure- road and rail connectivity, warehouses and other services. The private sector can participate in many potential areas like Terminal and warehousing facilities, mechanization of the cargo handling system, installation of the new navigational aids, deploying low draft barges and vessels and maintenance of the existing fairways.
  • Inland Waterways Transport (IWT) is a slower mode as compared by Rail and Road by its very nature. So Improper navigational aids further hurt its competitiveness with other modes.
  • Non-availability of permanent and mechanized handling terminals for loading and unloading with adequate infrastructure, connectivity to the other mode of transport with the terminal is another key factor.
  • There are road and rail bridges with low vertical clearances which impede the passage of bigger IWT vessel on the waterways. There should be a long-term vision for the development of dams, bridges and other in-way infrastructures.

Promotional measures by Government to support inland water transportation:

  • The Government with a view to promoting Inland Waterways Transport (IWT), has launched several schemes. Some of the same are listed hereunder:
    • Vessel Building Subsidy of 30%
    • Equity participation by Govt. in BOT(Build operate transfer) Projects up to 40%
    • Viability Gap Funding
    • Tax exemption similar to National Highways
    • Enhancement in depreciation rate for inland vessels
    • Joint Venture by IWAI
    • Customs Duty concessions
  • Under the Sagaramala project government will identify suitable port locations with deep drafts to enhance shipping and port handling capacity. Specialised ports with focus on handling coal, energy, chemicals, commodities, etc., will be developed.

In way of some strong moves for Inland Waterways Transport (IWT) the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) has approved implementation of Jal Marg Vikas Project (JMVP) for capacity augmentation of navigation on Haldia-Varanasi stretch of National Waterway-1  on Ganga River. The project will be implemented at a cost of over Rs. 5,370 crore rupees with the technical assistance and investment support of the World Bank. It is expected to be completed by March 2023.

Along with the above initiatives the Government, with a view to promoting public-private partnership(PPP) in IWT sector, has identified several areas which include:
• Construction and operation of river terminals or river ports

  • Ownership and operation of vessels for cargo and, passenger
    • Provision and operation of mechanized cargo-handling systems
    • Fairway development and maintenance
    • Putting up and maintenance of navigational aids and setting up and running of training IWT training institution.

Some additional action Shall be taken to meet the challenges:

  1.  The Indian Government should focus more and put some special efforts and funds on the development of        “commercially significant IWT.”
  2. IWT as a mode will not commercially profitable for operators unless we apply more than 1000 DWT which requires a minimum draft of 2.5 to 3m round the year with night navigation facilities. The construction of dams, barrages, bridges should consider navigation as an important requirement and make provisions for the same.

    Dam arrangements for inland water transport Barges
    Dam arrangements for inland water transport Barges

  3. IWT being a dependent mode, there is a strong need to provide effective rail, road and coastal connections from the waterways for multi-modal logistics. The terminals should be located close to industrial hubs or consumption centers and should provide connectivity to both rail and Road. Connectivity with Coastal shipping is possible at all National Waterways.
  4. Strong steps need to be taken to encourage vessel availability in Revival of Vessel Building Subsidy scheme, abatement of service tax, granting of vessel building an “infrastructure status” and ensuring two-way cargo to vessel operators, round the year.
  5. The government should target specific cargo like Coal, Cement, Fertilizers, Food grains and all the users of these cargoes close to National Waterways need to be met, their requirements to be understood and specific solutions to be developed for them on the long-term basis.
  6. The pace of project implementation is far from Even after 30 years of its declaration we are still not able to provide the lowest available draft of 3m on the whole stretch of NW1. The speed of Implementation should be increased and the projects need to be time-bound and implemented with urgency.

    Job opportunity for seafarer’s

  • More job opportunity for marine floating staff due to increase in the number of the fleet.
  • Ships pilots to Guide commercial vessels in and out of bays, harbors, rivers as required
  • For port and harbors operation Executive port directors who can oversee the administration, operation and maintenance of an inland port. A person with good leadership, planning, critical thinking and good communication skills, inspirational diplomatic and resourceful skills will be suitable for the same.
  • Marine Manager- Oversee daily operation and services of marine facilities, perform supervisory, financial administrative, customer services, maintenance and various other duties.
  • Inland water transportation equipment manufacturing industry
  • Naval architect –it includes the research, design and construction of commercial vessels, small craft, and marine structure.
  • Design, construction and maintenance of transportation system. involving the construction of locking barrages to hold water for vessel movement concretization and building of embankments to create port terminals. Its further includes regular (high-intensity) capital dredging of river sediment deposition along channel bottoms and margins. Its also include modern river information system and Digital Global Positioning System for night navigation and Development of water traffic control system.
  • Ship and port safety officer
  • Port inspectors and ship surveyors
  • Cargo managers
  • More container depots
  • Logistics and multimodal transportation
  • Marine environment pollution prevention will further flourish job opportunities.
  • Marine chartering and cargo brokers.

 As Jim Watkins has rightly said ‘A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence’.India too needs to persist with Inland Waterways Transport (IWT), overcome the rocks on the way and someday realize.

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Pratham Shukla

He had sailing experience. Now he is a member of RS Marine Academy and Nielsons Educational Forum. He is alumni of Marine Engineering & Research Institute(MERI) Mumbai and pursuing his Master's from Narottam Morarjee Institute Of Shipping. Speciality: Chemical Tankers, Shipping Management

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