Calcutta Notebook


Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to run large ships on the Ganga to transport imported coal from Haldia port to the upcoming thermal power plant; near Allahabad. A freight terminal has been established at Ramnagar, upstream of Varanasi, as a first step to securing this objective. A large barge was sent from Patna to Ramnagar in a trial run. The Forest Department has stopped the barge from entering Varanasi. The stretch from Rajghat located downstream of Varanasi to Ramnagar located upstream of Varanasi has been declared as a Wildlife Sanctuary for the protection of turtles. The Forest Department believes, and rightly so, that movement of large ships will harm the habitat of the turtles. The ship was stranded at Rajghat at the time of writing this article waiting for a decision from the State Government whether it should be allowed to enter the area of the sanctuary between Rajghat and Ramnagar. The issue is not merely of protecting the meek turtle. Turtles represent all the meek and poor, including the fishermen who make a living from fishing on the Ganga. The issue is whether Ganga belongs to the people of the country, or belongs only to the rich.

The plan to convert Ganga into a waterway has been made on the lines of the Mississippi Waterway in the United States. The track record of this waterway indicates these are passe. Waterways don't work both in drought and floods. The level of water in the river is less during droughts and that effects the plying of barges. A Report from St Louis says: "Drop by precious drop, the Mighty Mississippi River continues to melt away beneath the droughts withering assault. And that's starting to have a severe impact on the bottom line of companies that depend on the river as a vital transportation route. And once those barges hit the water, the problems related to low water levels are far from over." Drought turns the Mississippi waterway into a one-way street. Previously two barges moving in opposite directions could pass each other with no problem. Now they have to wait to go single-file. This leads to delays and increased cost of shipping.

Floods bring another problem. The level of water in the river rises. This leads to the barges moving at a higher elevation and brings forth a danger that they may hit the bridges that are made on the river. The above report continues that during the floods: "Barges have to gain clearance under the many bridges that cross the Mississippi from St. Paul, Minnesota to New Orleans." Thus water transport is perhaps the least reliable mode of transport.

It is not cheaper either. The National Thermal Power Corporation stated before the Parliamentary Standing Committee considering the National Waterways Bill 2015, "the transport cost through waterway is only slightly lesser compared to the railways right now, since the cargo is transported one way only." The Inland Waterways Authority of India informed the Committee that: "as far as general comparison with road and rail is concerned, it depends on waterway to waterway also. For example, if the waterway's depth is only one meter, then, definitely inland waterways will not be cheaper. But, in general, if the waterways is well developed, say 2.5 to 3.5 or 4.5 metres depth then, those figures are definitlely right, almost 60-70 per cent of Railways, or even less than that. But every where it will not be necessarily so." It is clear from above that waterways are not much cheaper than rail transport.

Waterway transport is being driven in the US by subsidies given by the US Federal Government. A report from Minneapolis says: "The idea of Minneapolis becoming a major port was so far-fetched that even the (Army Corps of Engineers which builds and manages the waterways), usually an enthusiastic dredger, was dubious. It tried to pull out in the 1950s, saying the project would never pay for itself, but Minneapolis' obsession pushed it forward." A report on states: "during the last 30 years, efforts to launch container-on-barge services nationwide have failed to find a sure footing, often struggling to complete with intermodal rail. For instance, in September 2014, the Port of Stockton, California, announced it would end its weekly container-on-barge service to and from the Port of Oakland. The service "one of three regular US container services via inland waterways" required a $13.5 million federal grant for equipment and only attracted half of the volume it was hoping for...." Another report from the Wall Street Journal says: "The Ohio and Mississippi River lock-and-dam systems are slated to receive an influx of federal money for much needed repairs, despite an uncertain future for the coal shipping industry they serve."

This report from the Wall Street Journal quotes an official of a barge operating company: "We are forever in Washington, DC, making sure they spend the dollars to keep the locks and dams up." That is the bottom line. Waterways are inherently costly. They are being run only on subsidy from the Federal Government that is procured by lobbies representing barge companies.

The Government collects large amounts of taxes from rail and road transport while it gives out subsidies to keep the waterways going. The true state of the waterways will be proven to be much worse if the environmental costs are taken into account. The State of Kerala made the following submission before the Parliamentary Standing Committee as part of its representation opposing the inclusion of certain waterways in Kerala as National Waterways: "Dredging the river bed for providing draft would be disastrous to the ecology of tie river system, especially in ecologically fragile reaches in the upstream of the river. In the river mouth, this would facilitate salt water ingression, as already pointed out. Sand mining and lowering of river bed has already created adverse effects on most of the river systems in the State. Fish breeding will also be affected, depriving fishermen the normal catch."

The hard fact is that waterway transport is not successful. It is driven by lobbies of barge companies that manage to obtain subsidies from the Central Government. In fact, the waterway is a hidden strategy to transfer the natural resources of the country from the poor to the rich. The negative impacts of the waterway fall on the poor. The fishermen lose their livelihoods. The poor who come to take a dip in the Ganga are deprived of clean waters. The benefits, on the other hand, accrue to the rich. Cheap imported coal will lead to the production of cheap electricity which is consumed largely by the rich.

Vol. 49, No.5, Aug 7 - 13, 2016