Inland Water Transport In India: The Windmill In Animal Farm

In the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell, the story of the windmill runs through much of the novel. Heated debates takes place between its promoters and its opposers. It is supposed to prove to the world that animals are just as technologically advanced as human beings. Its opposers claim that it would suck all the resources of the farm, but its uses would not justify its cost.

After much hard work, and after having been twice destroyed, the windmill does get completed, but not before starving the animals and bankrupting the farm. And on completion, it is used for milling corn, not to run a dynamo as planned initially.

It is a fact that 90% of international freight moves by ships. The reason is simple: it is the cheapest and the most efficient mode available. It is also true that inland waterways make up 47% of China’s, and 44% of European Union’s total transport. But these facts prove nothing by themselves as to whether India should or should not have inland waterways.

For any mode of transport to be successful, the three most basic requirements are i) availability of the transport system round the year, ii) goods or passengers to carry, iii) cost effectiveness viz. a viz. other competing modes of transport. What other countries are doing doesn’t come into picture at all.

We discuss all the three requirements one by one in reference to the much hyped inland waterways plan of India.

Indian rivers are not very big, except perhaps Brahmaputra. Except the rivers originating in Himalayas, most go dry post winter, till monsoon arrives again. And in case of most of the rivers, much of their water has been diverted, and must be diverted, for irrigation. In fact as the current drought in Marathwada shows, we need huge storage reservoirs on all our rivers, to trap the monsoon water. A requirement that must take precedence over everything else. So, the navigation channel is not available for vessels of the size of any consequence for the most part of an year. Even maintaining that channel needs huge dredging, which involves costs of its own.

Second requirement is of the goods which need carriage and passengers who need transport. It must be readily apparent that with the road network and rail network of India being what it is, no passengers are going to switch to inland waterways. When road and rail network developed between Mumbai and Goa, the passenger ferry services between the two got automatically discontinued. We can not sink huge money just so that some persons want to enjoy a river cruise.

Of the goods, water transport is economical only when goods are transported in bulk. The goods themselves may be bulk goods like ore and oil, or they may be containerised to be transported in bulk. In both the cases, the cost of bringing the goods from the production point to the port, loading and unloading, and transporting them inland to the point of consumption has to remain low as compared with the total cost of transportation, for the transport by waterways to be economical. International shipping still rules, only because it fulfils above requirement.

In case of transportation of the goods produced and consumed within India this requirement can not be fulfilled. The production and the consumption centres are not located on the inland waterways. In fact, industries close to rivers are being shut on account of pollution of the rivers. And no single city located on a river consumes the production of any factory of a considerable size. Since sizes of vessels plying on inland waterways of India is going to remain small, containerisation to transport the goods in bulk will not be economical, as the capacity of the vessels will not make it a bulk transport.

The goods which are transported in bulk, coal, ores, cement, fertilizers, oil, and foodgrains have all well developed rail and road connections, and even then their share in total transport is going down with each year. Power plants and steel plants are moving to pit heads, cement now moves in big trucks direct to the dealers’ godowns, even in cases where plants have rail siding and the destination city has rail goods yard, for the simple reason that extra cost in transport by road is offset by the savings in handling involved at both, loading and unloading point, and carriage from rail goods yard at the destination to the dealers’ godowns.  As more areas get irrigated, demand for fertilisers is getting dispersed over newer areas, making its road transportation cheaper. Oil now moves in pipelines, and with more and more states experiencing Green Revolution, foodgrain movement leads are getting shorter and shorter. The best proof of reduction in the share of bulk goods transport in the economy lies in the travails of Railway in India, which is continuously losing market share in goods transport, though being eminently suitable and economical for bulk goods transport. Therefore, it is evident that the inland waterways in India would not have anything to carry: neither passengers, nor goods.

The current age is of door to door movement of goods. Most goods are finished and delicate, and can not withstand multiple handling. As industrialisation and prosperity are spreading throughout India, both production centres and consumption centres are getting dispersed, making bulk transport difficult and uneconomical. With rising costs of labour, loading unloading costs are rising. Bulk transport requires warehousing at both the ends, as the goods arrive in smalls and are grouped to make bulk load. This considerably adds to the total cost, as India runs out of spaces for large warehouses. In fact, trucks of smaller capacity now rule the roost, as more finished goods need more dispersed door to door transportation.

Therefore, it is evident that inland water transport in India fails to fulfil all the three requirements for it to be successful: it would not be available round the year, it wound not have either passengers or goods to carry, and it would not be economical than road and rail transport already in place.

Carriage by ships may be economical for goods transported from the western coast of India to the eastern cost of India and vice versa, but only because sea is already and always there, and port and other infrastructure is already in place. All legal hurdles in such transport should be removed, and market should be allowed to find its level. But the whole concept of National Waterways and Inland Water Transport must be given up in totality. Where it is economical and convenient, inland water transport was being used even before the government turned its gaze towards it. And so long as it will remain economical and convenient, it will continue to be used, without government having to sink any money into it. We must not make inland waterways project our own windmill.

Planning in India is driven by consultancy class, and by the whims and fancies of politicians in power. Because of our corrupt ways, consultants are able to push all sorts of fancy but highly uneconomical projects. And because of our culture of sycophancy, nobody dares to say no to politician who has taken fancy to some project. So we have cycle tracks in Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) which are used by hawkers and not by cyclists, because nobody thought how the cyclists would reach BKC which is almost purely commercial with no residential areas for those who work there. And when the Chief Minister of a North Indian state went to Netherlands and took liking to its cycle tracks, whole state was put to develop cycle tracks in one of the cities of the state, without anybody trying to find out who would use the cycle tracks which are in islands of their own. People use a means of transport when they need to travel, and they choose the mode that picks them up from close to their place of residence and drops them close to their place of work. So a cycle track that doesn’t connect, uninterrupted, places of residence to places of work, may make a CM feel good about himself, but will not be used. Inland waterways of India are going to meet the same fate.

Ronald Reagan famously said that nothing is more permanent than a government programme. Because India has Inland Waterways Authority of India, it is highly unlikely that this fancy for inland waterways is going to die down any time soon. It will continue to suck money, for a long time to come. The most difficult thing for a bureaucracy is to accept that it is not required. A bureaucracy can never propose its own liquidation. And so, noise about the greatness of the idea of inland waterways is going to be heard for a long time to come.