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Inland Water Transport (IWT) is operationally cheaper, high in fuel efficiency and environment-friendly. It has a vast potential to act as an alternative and supplementary mode of transportation in certain conditions. India has a large number of inland waterways consisting of rivers, canals, backwaters, creeks, lakes etc, which have the potential for the development of an efficient waterway transport network. However, the development of inland water transport has been dormant for a long time.
So far, five waterways namely (i) the Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hoogly river system from Haldia to Allahabad (1620 km),(ii) the Brahmaputra waterway from Dhubri to Sadiya (891 km), (iii) West Coast canal from Kottapuram to Kollam along with Champakara and Udyogmandal canals (205 km), (iv) Kakinada-Pondicherry canals integrated with rivers Godavari and Krishna (1095 km) and (v) East Coast canals along with river Brahmani and Mahanadi delta (621 km) have been declared as National Waterways No. 1,2,3,4 & 5 respectively. The IWAI is planning and implementing various developmental works on the above waterways.
In her budget speech on February 1, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said “Inland Waterways received a boost in the last five years. The Jal Vikas Marg on National Waterway-1 will be completed. Further, the 890-km Dhubri-Sadiya connectivity will be done by 2022.”
Assam has the largest inland waterway network in India. The Assam’s navigable inland waterways extend to 1,983 km out of India’s total 14,544 km comprising of 44 rivers, the longest being the Brahmaputra followed by the Barak river system. While the Brahmaputra from Sadiya to Dhubri (891 km) is already functioning as National Waterway No. 2, the Barak River is under active consideration for declaration as a National Waterway.
Besides these two main waterways, the other potential waterways identified for development of inland water transport are listed below.
- River Dhaleswari/Kathakal from Bairabi to Barak confluence at Kathakal (125 km)
- River Jia Bharali from Bhalukpung to Brahmaputra confluence (60 km)
- River Buridihing from Joyapur to Brahmaputra confluence (80 km)
- River Dikhow from Sivasagar to Brahmaputra confluence (40 km)
- River Dhansiri from Numaligarh to Brahmaputra confluence (25 km)
- River Kopili/Kolong Jagibhaktagaon to Brahmaputra confluence (50 km)
- River Disang from NH 37 crossing to Brahmaputra confluence (25 km)
The river Dhaleswari is an inter-state river between Mizoram and Assam. After travelling 280 km in Mizoram, the river enters in Assam at Bairabi and travels 126 km within Assam and confluences with the river Barak at Kathakal. Since the river, Barak is an international river flows through Bangladesh along protocol route and hence it has direct connectivity to Kolkata. The river Dhaleswari is navigable during monsoon season for about 6 to 7 months for about 2 to 3-tonne vessels. Foodgrains, fertilizers, iron, steel and cement are the major items for movement by IWT from Kolkata to the Karimganj/Silchar in Assam then to the feeder system of waterways viz., Dhaleswari/ Tut/ Tlawng up to Aizawl in Mizoram.
The other potential waterways Jiabharali, Buridihing, Dikhow, Kopili, Dhansiri and Disang are suitable to ply about 100-tonne vessels during the monsoon season of 6 to 7 months in a year. Since many of these waterways are traversing through the industrial areas and the Northeast oil fields and coal fields, there is a possibility for movement of industrial and mines-based cargo besides local ferry services.
Many tributaries of the Brahmaputra originate in the hilly terrains of Arunachal Pradesh and enter into plains along Assam border and the confluence with the river Brahmaputra. Hence, the river reaches in Arunachal Pradesh are suitable for hydroelectric power projects and the river reaches in Assam are suitable for navigation. There are series of several hydel power projects either under construction or under a proposal in rivers Dibang, Lohit, Subansiri and Siang.
The river reaches of these waterways in Assam are fairly navigable to ply 200 to 300-tonne vessels. These waterways have been further connected to National Waterway No. 2 (Brahmaputra) and hence cargo movement is feasible right from Kolkata/Haldia in West Bengal up to the proposed power project sites through protocol route in Bangladesh.
As of now, the major cargo transported through NW-2 comprises food grains, electricity generation and transmission equipment, fertilizers, building materials and bamboo. The trade volume in NW-2 is minimal compared to NW-1 as there are no major industries in the NER along the river bank.
Easing of navigation through NW-2 promises substantial gains in terms of commercial and environmental costs in view of the recent thrust on infrastructure development like roads, railway, waterways and power generation in the Northeast.
Furthermore, a considerable volume of commercial goods is already being transported across shorter stretches along the NW-2 in Assam which is dominated by the unorganized sector. For instance, in lower Assam, which is marked by a number of small islands or sars, day-to-day necessities are transported by the unorganized sector for the stretches between Dhubri to Hatsinghimari and Phulbari near Meghalaya.
As per estimates by the Central government, the unorganized sector contributes to 23.21% of the total passenger and goods transport in Assam. This indicates that promoting the use of waterways can lead to greater economic activities along the river banks by communities, which in turn will have a positive impact on the local economy and livelihoods.
River-based tourism is yet another prospect that the region has and there has been some movement on this in the recent times, particularly with India and Bangladesh signing an MoU on operating cross-border river cruises along protocol routes.
The NER has wonderful potential for natural, cultural and adventurous tourism; there are very strong prospects for religious tourism involving Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and India, with particular reference to Bodhgaya (Bihar), Kushinagar (Uttar Pradesh) and Lumbini (Nepal) for Buddhist circuit. There is also immense potential for nostalgia tourism for people on both sides of the border in Bangladesh, West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and the likes and also for war tourism in NER and its surrounding, particularly for Japanese and Chinese nationals.
The tourism prospects of this region can lead to inclusive development given that tourism links and relies heavily on local natural resources, culture, cuisine, art, and history to draw tourists. This, in turn, promises enhanced livelihood and economic opportunities for local people as well as external agencies. In a nutshell, tourism has the potential to effectively connect the BBIN sub-region with Myanmar, building people-to-people connectivity, trust and inclusive economic prosperity.
With the recent policy thrust to “Act East Policy” and the slew of infrastructure development projects that are coming up in India as well as the region, the NE Region stands to gain majorly. However, for such gains to happen, it is equally important to see that bigger visions at regional and national levels are matched and aligned with ground-level realities and needs.
A comprehensive approach wherein regional waterways development is aligned with other major developments like the East-West corridor, Trans Asian Highway and the Trilateral Highway is the need of the hour.