As India is blessed with more than 14,500 km of inland waterways, it could be an effective alternative for people who want to trade inland and travel inland. In some cases, it would also be cheaper. For example, according to government data, one ton of freight per kilometer can be transported for Rs 136 by rail, Rs 250 on highways, and only Rs106 on inland waterways.
India is also blessed with many great rivers flowing through the interior, from the mighty Ganga to the majestic Brahmaputra. In theory, these rivers could complement rail infrastructure and congested roads across the country.
For the most part, however, this is the future. We have a centuries-old law on Indian waterways. It is called the Inland Vessels Act, 1917. Since then, it has been amended, enforced, and never tricked, but its provisions are outdated and largely inadequate.
For example, states and municipalities still control how many ships are allowed to cross each state’s borders. Authorizations and certificates come from regional governments and there is no uniform application of the rules. Different states have taken different measures, and seamless shipping on India’s waterways remains a distant dream.
This will change with the adoption of the Inland Navigation Act 2021. This will replace the old laws and bring all matters relating to inland waterways and the movement of ships under the central regulatory system. This, in turn, will unlock the limitless potential of India’s waterways.
For starters, there should be more sophisticated classification criteria. The new rules should apply specifically to do-or-don’t for ships sailing on waterways.
They have different safety regulations, they need special equipment and supervision. And they need to be treated differently. The law, if adopted, clearly distinguishes between different types of powered ships: ships, boats, barges, container ships, and ferries. A ferry carrying people is not the same as a barge weeping with wood and wheat.
Once the classification is complete, the movements and identities of all ships will be imported into a central database. The law also stipulates that ships must be held liable for accidents, injuries, or deaths, among other things. In fact, we already have such a law. This will be a welcome addition to all this.
Inland waterway activities will increase and create new jobs for port crews and shipyards. Small and medium-sized enterprises in the hinterland will use the waterways to transport their modest loads to the big cities at affordable prices, and we will have good days ahead of us.
The law aims to combat pollution. The central government will prohibit ships from discharging classified pollutants. It will require owners to adopt appropriate discharge and disposal methods for wastewater and waste from ships. Ships will not have to pollute waterways at all.
If all goes well, the new laws will eliminate many operational bottlenecks and provide significant support for inland waterway transport. Owners need to find alternatives and switch to greener alternatives. But there is no way around it.