Inland Waterways: Unlocking India's Transport Potential

Mains Marks Booster     5th August 2023        
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Inland water transport, which involves the movement of people, goods, and materials through rivers, canals, and lakes within a country's borders, offers significant advantages. Despite its potential, it remains underutilized in India, accounting for only 2% of the country's transportation mix.


  • It is a ten-year blueprint for the maritime sector (released in 2020).
  • It will supersede Sagarmala initiative.
  • Sagarmala aims to reduce logistics costs for EXIM and domestic trade with minimal infrastructure investment.
  • Objective: To boost waterways, give a fillip to the shipbuilding industry and encourage cruise tourism in India. 
  • Development of green sustainable ports;  increasing the share of renewable energy to over 60 per cent by 2030 from current less than 10 per cent.  
  • Focusses on promoting waste to wealth through sustainable dredging and domestic ship recycling.
  • Emphasises on  'Make in India, Make for the world'. 
  • Setting up  Maritime Development Fund for enhancing cruise infrastructure by developing dedicated cruise terminals at 12 selected ports. 


  • Cost effective: According to World Bank, inland waterways in India can be up to 60% cheaper than road transport and 20-30% cheaper than rail transport.
  • Fuel efficiency: It consumes approximately 0.1 liters of fuel per ton-kilometer, while road transport consumes around 2.5 liters and rail transport consumes around 0.6 liters.
  • Economic impact: Varanasi-Haldia stretch of NW-1 had direct impact on the industries in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. 
  • Connectivity and Trade facilitation: NW 2 opened up new trade routes and enabled transportation of goods to and from neighboring countries like Bangladesh.
  • Decongestion of Roads and Railways: Transportation of coal on the NW-1 from Haldia to Farakka reduced the number of trucks on the road by approximately 2,25,000 per year, easing road congestion and reducing pollution.
  • Ecologically sustainable: Study by World Bank found that inland water transport emits 10 times less carbon dioxide per ton-kilometer compared to road transport in India.

Scope of Inland Waterways in India

  • India boasts an extensive network of inland waterways spanning over 20,000 kilometers, encompassing rivers, canals, and backwaters. These waterways hold immense promise for both passenger and cargo transportation. 
  • Notably, the development of National Waterway-1 under the Jal Vikas Marg Project (JVMP), including Arth Ganga, is expected to provide a boost of Rs 1,000 crore in economic activity over the next five years. 
  • Furthermore, promoting inland waterways aligns with Prime Minister's vision of making India a zero-carbon emission country by 2070.

Advantages of Water Transport

Cost-effectiveness, Energy efficiency, Suitable for bulky goods, Friction-free, Eco-friendly, Catalyst for growth, Safety and accessibility

Challenges of Water Transport

Despite its potential, inland water transport in India faces several challenges:

  • Limited navigability: Some rivers are seasonal and do not offer year-round navigability. Around 20 out of the 111 identified national waterways have been deemed unviable due to this reason.
  • Capital and maintenance dredging: All identified waterways require extensive capital and maintenance dredging, which may face resistance from local communities due to environmental concerns and displacement fears, posing implementation challenges.
  • Competing water needs: Water has competing uses, including domestic needs, irrigation, and power generation. Local governments and stakeholders must balance these needs, potentially affecting the development of inland water transport.
  • Jurisdictional complexities: The Central Government has exclusive jurisdiction over shipping and navigation on national waterways declared by Parliament. 

Role of Inland Water Transport in Regional Development

Inland water transport can significantly contribute to regional development:

  • Cost-effective regional connectivity: Inland water transport is a cost-effective mode of transport requiring minimal maintenance investments, making it conducive to regional development. 
  • It played a crucial role in pre-colonial times, fostering trade and regional development in North India. Today, it can help reduce production costs for industries.
  • Facilitating development in challenging areas: In regions like the deltaic regions of Ganga, where constructing roads and bridges across numerous distributaries is difficult and expensive, water transport can serve as a vital mode of transportation, promoting economic development.
  • Rural water transport (RWT) and poverty reduction: RWT, a sub-sector of inland water transport, holds particular importance in reducing isolation and poverty. 
  • Small family-owned boats operating on rivers and canal networks provide transportation services, employment opportunities, and support fishing. Additionally, boat making generates additional employment.

Types of Waterways

Inland water transport encompasses rivers, canals, and lakes. Noteworthy points about inland waterways include:

  • It is the cheapest mode of transport.
  • It faces competition from roadways and railways.
  • Water diversion from rivers can hinder navigation, reducing competitiveness.
  • Approximately 5,200 km of rivers and 4,000 km of canals are navigable by mechanized crafts, accounting for 1% of overall transport.
  • Out of 3,700 km of navigable rivers, only 2,000 km are utilized.
  • Canals are regulated by the Inland Waterways Authority of India.

Ocean Transport

  • Ocean transport is essential for foreign trade, connecting nations and facilitating the global market. It operates on natural sea tracks without the need for infrastructure investments.

National Waterways

The National Waterways Act, enacted in 2016, proposed the development of 106 additional National Waterways. Currently, there are six National Waterways in India, including:

National Waterways
  • National Waterway 1 (NW1): Stretching from Allahabad (Prayagraj) to Haldia, spanning 1,620 km, NW1 runs through the Ganges, Bhagirathi, and Hooghly River system. 
  • National Waterway 2 (NW2): NW2 covers a distance of 891 km along the Brahmaputra River, from Sadiya to Dhubri in Assam. 
  • National Waterway 3 (NW3): Located in Kerala, NW3 runs from Kollam to Kottapuram, encompassing the 205 km long West Coast Canal. 
  • National Waterway 4 (NW4): NW4 connects Kakinada to Pondicherry via Canals, Tanks, and the Godavari and Krishna rivers. 
  • National Waterway 5 (NW5): NW5 links Odisha to West Bengal, utilizing stretches of the Brahmani River, East Coast Canal, Matai River, and Mahanadi River Delta. 
  • National Waterway 6 (NW6): Proposed in Assam, NW6 aims to connect Lakhipur to Bhanga in the Barak River, covering a distance of 121 km. 

Measures Taken for the Development of Inland Waterways in India:

  1. Legislations and Policies
  • The Inland Waterways Authority of India Act, 1985: The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) was formed in 1986 to undertake projects for the development and maintenance of infrastructure on national waterways with grants from the Ministry of Shipping.
  • The Indian Vessels Act of 1917 (amended in 2007): This act addresses the survey and registration of inland vessels, removal of obstructions in navigation, carriage of goods and passengers, and the prevention and control of pollution.
  • The Inland Water Transport Policy 2001: This policy highlights the economic, fuel-efficient, and environmentally friendly nature of inland water transport (IWT). It recommends substantial private sector involvement in infrastructure creation and fleet operations.
  • The National Waterways Act 2016: This act designates 111 rivers or river stretches, creeks, and estuaries as national (inland) waterways. It empowers the Central Government to regulate these waterways for development in terms of shipping, navigation, and transport using mechanically propelled vessels.
  1. Laws Related to Environmental and Other Impacts

Several laws and notifications are in place to address environmental and other impacts:

  1. Forest Act 1980
  2. Environmental Protection Act 1986 and relevant notifications, such as the EIA Notification 2006 and the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification 2011.


  1. Jal Marg Vikas Project: This project aims to enhance the navigational capacity of National Waterway-1 (NW-1). It is being implemented by the Government of India with technical and investment assistance from the World Bank.
  2. Sagarmala Project: Alongside the development of coastal shipping routes, this project focuses on inland waterways to stimulate industrial development. Its objective is to increase the share of domestic waterways in the modal mix from the current 6% to reduce logistics costs.
  3. Interlinking of Rivers Programme: This program is expected to provide transportation benefits through navigation in the transport sector.


India's transportation system could benefit from inland waterways' cost-effectiveness, energy efficiency, and regional development. Inland water transport must overcome navigability, maintenance, competing water needs, and jurisdictional issues. India can maximise its transport potential and sustain economic growth by developing and using waterways.