Water transport is one of the oldest means of transport in India. Prior to the advent of rail and road transports, goods and people were moved from one place to another through water transport. Since there is almost very small cost involved in the construction and maintenance of waterways this transport system is always cheaper.
According to one estimate the construction of each km of railway and road needs an investment of Rs. 1.0-1.5 crores and Rs. 0.60-0.75 crore respectively whereas only Rs. 0.10 crore is required to develop same length of waterways. Their development is faster and maintenance cost much lower. Waterways are of two types: (a) Inland waterways, and (b) Sea ways or ocean ways also called shipping.
Inland waterways refer to using inland water bodies like rivers, canals, backwaters, creeks, etc for transporting goods and people from one place to another. India has a long historical tradition of using such waterways. Ganga, Brahmaputra, Indus, Yamuna, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Narmada and Tapi etc. were the main arteries of the country's transport system giving birth to a number of inland river ports and jetties. The decline of river transport began with the construction of the railways during the middle of the 19th century.
Later on the development of roads adversely affected the prospects of such transport. The diversion of river water irrigation canals made many of these rivers unsuitable for navigation,. So much so that today its share is only one per cent in the country's transport system.
India is a land of many long and perennial rivers. But water transport is not very popular in the country. This is mainly due to seasonal concentration of rainfall, fluctuating river regime, devastating floods during rainy season, shifting river courses (in the Northern Plains) making it difficult to construct permanent jetty or wharf, diversion of large quantity of river water into irrigation canals so as to reduce the depth of water in the river and making it unsuitable for steamers and mechanised boats, heavy silting and formation of sandbars, undulating topography in hilly and plateau regions leading to the formation of a number of rapids, and formation of delta and diversion channels making the mouth narrower for the entry of ships and big boats.
The country has about 14,500 km of navigable waterways which comprises rivers, canals, backwaters, creeks, etc. Of this total length only a length of 3,700 km of major rivers is navigable by mechanised crafts but the length actually utilised is only 2,000 km. As regards canals, out of 4,300 km of navigation canals, only 900 km is suitable for navigation by mechanized crafts. About 160 lakh tonnes of cargo is annually moved by Indiand Wjjter Transport.
The most important waterways of the country are : the Ganga Bhagirathi Hugli, the Brahmaputra river , the Barak river, the delta and lower courses of the Mahanadi, Godavari and Krishna rivers, the lower courses of the Narmada and Tapi, the Zuari and Mandovi rivers in Goa, the Kali, Shravati and Netravati in Karnataka.
The backwaters and lagoons in Kerala and the Buckingham Canal of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Uttar Pradesh has the highest length of navigable inland waterways (2,441 km or 17.01 per cent) of the country followed by West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Kerala and Bihar (Table 25.IX).
1. The Ganga
The Ganga river provides an important inland waterway for the country. It is a perennial river fed by Monsoon rains during rainy season and melting of the snow during dry summer days. On its 2,510 km length from snow to the sea it passes through most densely populated parts of the country and nurturing a number of premier cities of north India like Hardwar, Kanpur, Allahabad, Mirzapur, Varanasi, Ghazipur, Patna.Munger, Murshidabadand Kolkata.
Despite heavy diversion of water to irrigation canals its main channel still maintains a depth of more than 10 metres from Patna downstream. Recently the river has been made navigable up to Allahabad and regular steamer service has started between Haldia and Allahabad. Some of the tributaries of the Ganga like Yamuna, Ghaghara, Gandak, and Gomati may also be utilised for navigation.
The Hugli River is an important distributary of the Ganga in its delta course and is intensively used for river navigation between Kolkata and Diamond Harbour. Silting and consequent decrease in thi depth of water is the main obstacle in this navigation. The Farakka Barrage Project supplies 15,000-21,000 cusecs of water through a 42-km long canal to improve flow and clear silt deposits.
2. The Brahmaputra
The Brahmaputra River is navigable by steamers throughout the year from its mouth to Tezpur and sometimes upto Dibrugarh (1,280 km). It carries Assam oil. Tea, timber and jute to Kolkata. Pandu, Jogighopa and Dibrugarh are important river ports. Navigation is difficult in the river due to barrier effects of Bangladesh, presence of river islands, sand banks and shoals and very strong current of the river during rairily season.
3. Peninsular Rivers
Peninsular rivers are mainly rained and go dry during the dry season. Hence, these are not very suitable for navigation. Some transport is carried on in their lower reaches where ground is flat and quantity of water is satisfactory. Narmada, Tapi, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri are such rivers navigable in their lower courses.
The Zuari and Mandovi rivers of Goa transport iron ores, manganese and timber to Marmagao port. The creeks of the West Coast Rivers like Kali, Sharavati and Netravati etc. also provide navigation facilities.
The Buckingham Canal (412.8 km) is an important navigation canal in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. It runs parallel to the eastern coast joining all the coastal districts from Guntur to South Arcot. It is 315 km long north of Chennai and 100 km south of it. Its northern part connects the Kommamur Canal of the Krishna delta, while the southern part terminates in Marakkanupi backwaters. The construction of the Vijayawada-Chennai rail line has adversely affected the canal traffic. It is now mainly used for the transport of salt and fire wood to Chennai city.
Similarly Kurnool-Cuddapah Canal (116.8 km), Son Canal (326.4 km), Orissa Canal (272 km), Medinipur Canal (459.2 km), Damodar Canal (136 km) and West Coast Canal (connecting major ports along the western coast) are also used for inland navigation. Some of the irrigation canals of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are also utilised for local transport.