Inland navigation: Lifeline of national economy

The use of waterways by mechanized vessels in this part of the world began more than 175 years ago. An inland steamer first propelled in the river Ganga in 1834  The steamer was owned by the government. The India General Navigation and Railway Company Ltd. (IGNR), the first inland steamer company, was floated on February 06, 1844. After a few years the River Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. (RSN) was established. During the nineteenth century these two companies with their registered offices in London dominated the IWT trade in Bengal, Assam and Bihar. They used to carry 70% of cargo and passenger traffic. The growth of traffic was tremendous. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century (1880-1899) as many as 898 vessels used to ply annually in the route from Kolkata to Khulna through the Sundarbans. In the first quarter of the twentieth century the number of the vessels rose to 4,803 .

During the British period river conservancy works were carried out by IGNR and RSN. As such, improvement and development of inland water transport (IWT) sector were conditioned by their profit motives. Inland ports, terminal facilities and ancillary services for smooth and safe navigation were adjuncts to commercial requirements. There were no provisions for governmental control and maintenance of waterways. The river conservancy works were carried out at the district level by the companies. Each district was headed by a pilot superintendent comprising a large establishment of pilots and surveyors grouped together and placed along the navigational routes. Each group used to cover a specific length. They used to inspect the channels regularly, using country boats, measured depth with bamboos and other materials and demarcated the deepest part or the shallow area with bamboo sticks. Whenever a vessel arrived at a particular pilot station, a pilot went on board and guided the vessel through a channel.

In the early part of the twentieth century, waterways weren’t improved much for navigation, except in the Madaripur Beel route. The first dredger, Foyer, was acquired in 1907. Utilizing this dredger the Madhumati river, the Madaripur Beel route, the lower Kumar and the Gopalganj loop were excavated. A second dredger, Alexandra, was procured afterwards. Thus dredging was introduced in river conservancy. At this time the Halifax cut was made. The Gabkhan Khal, a narrow creek between the mighty tidal rivers, was excavated and moderately widened. The Inland Waterways Bill was passed by the Bengal Legislature in 1934. This would have set up a waterways board. Unfortunately, the act was never put into operation.

After the partition of India in 1947, during the early period of East Pakistan several proposals were made by various experts and agencies to create a competent statutory organization for the management, operation and development of IWT. These were:

(i) United State steel Survey Mission – 1948

(ii) UN IWT Study Group – 1951

(iii) UN Report by J.G Surie on IWT in India and Pakistan – 1953

(iv) IWT Conferences East Pakistan – 1952 & 1956

(v) Ad-hoc Committee of IWT of the Central Govt – 1955-56

(vi) Un Report by J.J Krugg on water resources of East Pakistan – 1955-56

(vii) World Bank Survey Mission – 1957

(viii) ICA Survey Mission – 1957

(ix) First Five years Plan, Govt. of Pakistan – 1957

(x) IWT Enquiry Committee of the Central Govt. – 1958 (BIWTA Brochure, 1995)

According to their recommendations, the then Government of East Pakistan promulgated on 31 October, 1958 an ordinance called the East Pakistan Inland Water Transport Authority Ordinance, 1958 to set up an authority to develop, maintain and control of inland water transport and of certain  navigable waterways. This authority was first constituted in November 1958 with appointment of a Chairman and a Member (Engineering) by the Government (E.P. Ordinance No. LXXV of 1958).

Even after the partition, cross-border inland navigation was not affected or stopped. Steamers sailing from Kolkata used to travel to Assam through the territory of East Pakistan and vice versa. But the Indo-Pak war in 1965 halted such operations. After the independence of Bangladesh, trans-boundary navigation was again introduced. Bangladesh and India signed a trade agreement in March 1972 Under the provision of the Trade Agreement, a Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade was signed in October 1972 for a term of five years. [Indo-Bangladesh Protocol on Inland Water Transit & Trade,1972] Since then, the working of the protocol has been continuing without any interruption.

The people of Bangladesh learnt to depend upon waterways not only for drinking water, agriculture, food and shelter but also for passage of goods and passengers. In fact, transportation in this part of the world started with rivers. Inland waterways have become a very important mode for not only maintaining transport link between the various remote parts of the country but also as a means for transporting import and export cargo. IWT has proved more accessible and cheaper than roads and railways and the poor people use the mode more. A World Bank study conducted in 2007 revealed that 12.3% of rural population or 50% of all rural households have access to water transport. Due to its natural advantage over the other two surface modes (roads and railway). IWT can contribute significantly to the government’s effort in growth, as also reduction of poverty.

Vessels engaged in transport on the inland waterways are of two types: vessels registered under Inland Shipping Ordinance, 1976 and vessels not registered. According to the current regulation a vessel with engine less than 16 BHP does not require registration under the above ordinance. Presently, its construction and movement are not regulated by any law and as such statistics regarding the number of boats or transport output by such engine boats are not available. But the Engine Boat owners’ Association claims that during monsoon about one million engine boats contribute to passenger and freight movement. There is no recent data relating to country boats. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics in its year book 2008 put the number of country crafts operated by engines at 745000. It may be mentioned that country boats installed by shallow engines emerged as one of the largest transport providers since 1980s. The total contribution of the informal boats is larger than that of formal boats.

According to a report (Consultancy Services for development of IWT system in Bangladesh, 2006), passenger vessels now operating have an annual transport capacity of 85 million passengers; .

The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) has estimated and recorded cargo and passengers handled by private and public sector vessels at 21 river ports operated by BIWTA. No data, statistics are available about origin-destination, nor the volume of passenger and cargo loaded and unloaded at wayside IWT stations, mostly in the rural areas  .Cargo and passenger handle at way side landing stations numbering as many as 1200 were not included in the following Table.

The major commodities transported during the above years were construction material (57%), POL (14%), fertilizer (11%), food grains (6%) and others (12%). 65% of the cargo were transported between maritime ports and inland ports while 35% between inland ports (BIWTA Year Book, 2008). The 2007 World Bank Report ‘Revival of Inland Water Transport: Options and Strategies’ provides an indication of the modal share that IWT enjoys in relation to other modes, viz. roads and railways .

IWT is one of the largest employment sectors in Bangladesh. A recent study conducted by BIWTA estimated about 6.4 million persons are involved in or related to IWT . However, gender participation in the sector was not estimated. But it was gathered that not less than 10% of the persons related to IWT landing stations are women.

Public as well as private bodies related to development, maintenance and operation of inland water transport exist .

Transport sector incorporates about 8.27% of GDP; the water sector specifically contributes about 0.64% of total GDP (BBS, 2008). The total inland navigation transport area is about 24,000 km and it varies during monsoon (about 5,968 km) to dry season (3,865 km). According to a 2007 World Bank report, in 2005 inland water transport was occupied with 9.8 passenger-km (passenger modal share of 8%) and 3 ton-km of freight (16% of national freight modal share). Among the four means of transportation (air, road, rail and water), water transportation is the most efficient, least expensive and most environmentally safe. According to TTWDA, more than 95% of all international trade is done through waterways (TTWDA, 2008). In Bangladesh IWT contributes 30% of overall freight transport output and 20% of passenger travel (Banglapedia, 2006).

IWT provides transport access to about 25% of rural households in Bangladesh (MoS, 2009). Considering economic viability, inland navigation facility is comparatively cheaper than any other available transport system. The external cost is low; IWT requires minimum maintenance and is a safe transport option. Considering developmental issues, inland navigation transport is under-developed due to the overwhelming development of the road transportation system. Road network is responsible for the deterioration of many previous navigable routes due to blockage. The total cost of road accidents is about Tk. 5,000 crore (US$850) in monetary terms, about 2% of national GDP. In roads 2,400 persons die per year; IWT’s toll is a mere 148 persons/year (World Bank, 2007).

Thus, IWT is also a sustainable transport option, with benefits such as,

w         Natural transport system

w         balanced and the least cost transport system

w         Low traffic problem

w         Low environmental pollution

w         No requirement of land acquisition for waterway development

w         Supply water for agriculture, households

w         Groundwater recharge

w         Maintain ecological balance (flora & biodiversity) IWT is also very important because,

w         It ensures access to the remote areas where development of other modes is not feasible.

w         It attracts new industries to the remote zones.

w         It greatly expands markets for a region’s resources and products.

w         It generates water related recreation and tourism activities.

w         It creates related small business opportunities.

Road, Railway and IWT are the significant modes of transportation in Bangladesh. Considering the fare in these modes, 2001-2007, road transportation was higher than IWT and railway, both for passenger and cargo transport [See Figure 1]. IWT was found the cheapest among the available modes of transportation.