Photograph: Omair Ahmad
Established in 1986, the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has made minimal progress in the last few decades, partly because of little investment in its initiatives.
While the United States has committed to a USD 1 trillion infrastructure renewal plan including work on its inland waterways, India was investing a paltry INR 60 million (USD 1 million) each year until 2014.
That funding has since been expanded considerably and the National Waterways Act of 2016 created a legal framework and boosted the number of national waterways from five to 111.
More important perhaps than the finances and legislation, is the history that has shaped them. During the colonial period, the British decision to focus on railways – at the cost of nurturing existing inland waterways – had a massive effect on infrastructure built in the 19th and 20th centuries. Not only has Indian transport and freight predominantly relied on the rails (and now roads) as a consequence, few factories or other manufacturing units have been built by rivers. The decision has also meant that communities traditionally associated with riverwork, such as the Malhars, ended up poorer and more marginalised.
This combination may explain why the rivers of India – and the larger South Asian region which was under British colonial rule – have a deeply underdeveloped level of trade and transport architecture. But the renewed push to develop inland waterways may work to change all that.
The minimal flow of water required for waterways to be used for trade and transport has additional benefits, noted Sagar Prasai, India representative of The Asia Foundation, at a conference on inland waterways in Kolkatta at the end of October. The water will help strengthen riverbeds and support the surrounding biodiversity. The greater and steadier flow of water will also help reduce pollution, which must be tackled far more rigorously if water-based tourism is to be successful.
Bipul Chatterjee, the executive director of CUTS International which organised the programme, had already spoken of how the development of inland waterways will be critical to addressing poverty – especially among the poorer communities who live by and are dependent on the rivers. Key among those constituents will be women who are the most impacted by water-related issues; in South Asian cultures, water in the household is their responsibility.
But it will be difficult for things to develop in this matter, according to the policy briefs by CUTS on inland waterways in Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal. Although Bhutan is keen to trade with Bangladesh, and through India and Bangladesh to reach the sea, it has no real policy to deal with navigation in its own waterways. Nepal has little knowledge or institutional capacity to deal with trade. The trade that already takes place, such as the transportation of bamboo down the Koshi into India, is done largely outside the confines of formal networks.
In its own way, Bangladesh may offer the greatest possibilities. As the most downstream riparian and a country crisscrossed by rivers, it already has an existing inland waterway structure.
But Bangladesh also exemplifies the challenges waterways will face; the country faces serious problems with sedimentation and seasonal low flows, it has multiple competing agencies that manage water routes, and it requires huge investments to maintain its infrastructure.
These problems cannot be handled by Bangladesh alone. The issues of sedimentation and low water flows are part and parcel of managing the larger Brahmaputra and Ganga water basins. This will require coordination and, most importantly, data to be exchanged by the countries sharing the basin. It is only when trade, tourism and transport in the whole basin becomes a possibility that public and private players will be willing to invest the funds needed to transform the region.
The push by India has energised the conversation on this issue, but its approach may not necessarily be free of problems. The same rules that led to the marginalisation of communities by the river also led to their disenfranchisement. In Uttar Pradesh, the establishment of the Varanasi Turtle Sanctuary impacted local fisherfolk who were no longer allowed to use their boats there. The sanctuary is now being denotified, allegedly because its location hinders the working of the inland waterways project.
Similarly, dredging the Brahmaputra may have a massive impact on livelihoods and the environment. As the CUTS report on India notes, in the “Brahmaputra river, fish breeding and rearing is mostly done in secondary channels to avoid direct water flow. The sand collected while dredging is usually released in the secondary channels as the river is wide up to 15- 20 km at several places. This could clog the mouth of secondary channels thus damaging the breeding sites”.
Inland waterways have the potential to remake the economics of India and the region, but they can also do this in non-constructive ways – destroying livelihoods as well as creating them. A body of research and consultation, which includes inputs from the communities most affected by the changes, may better inform the development of these infrastructure projects, minimise distress and dislocation, and gather much needed political buy-in by local constituencies.