In today's Finshots we talk about the Inland vessels bill and how it could open up inland waterways in a big way.


The Story

Rivers are nature’s highways and India is blessed with many great rivers that flow through the country’s heartland— From the mighty Ganga to the majestic Brahmaputra. In theory, these waterways (including a few others) could complement the already stretched rail infrastructure and the congested roadways of India. What's more? It could even be cheaper in some cases.

For instance, according to government data, you could move a tonne of cargo over a kilometer at about ₹1.36 on rail, at ₹2.50 on highways, and a mere ₹1.06 on inland waterways. And considering India is blessed with close to 14,500 km of inland waterways, it could be a very effective alternative for people looking to trade and travel.

However, this is still a pipe dream for the most part.

Why? you ask.

Well, that’s because we’ve had a century-old piece of legislation governing the Indian waterways. It’s called the Inland Vessels Act, 1917. And while it has been amended several times since it was first enforced, it never really did the trick, partly because its provisions were obsolete and inadequate for the most part. For instance, state and local governments called the shots and many vessels could only traverse within the boundaries of a state. Permits and certificates once again came from the regional governments and there wasn’t a uniform application of rules. Different states adopted different measures and seamless navigation across India’s waterways always remained a distant dream.

But that may finally change now with the passing of the Inland Vessels Bill, 2021. This new piece of legislation will replace the old law and hopefully bring all matters related to inland waterways and the movement of vessels under a central regulatory regime. And this in turn could unlock the limitless potential of India’s waterways i.e. we could finally use our rivers as a viable mode of transport — for passengers and cargo.

Also, the new rules are very specific about all the do’s and dont’s for vessels plying on these waterways. For starters, there’s the elaborate classification criterion. A ferry carrying people is not the same as a barge crying timber or wheat. They need to be treated differently. They have to have different safety regulations and they may need specialized equipment and oversight. And this law does precisely that — It makes a clear distinction between different types of mechanically propelled vessels like ships, boats, barges, container vessels, and ferries. And once the classification is complete, the movement and identity of these vessels will be imported to a central database. The law will also require vessels to cover liabilities in case of accidents, injury or death, and a few other things. All in all, these are welcome additions.

Then there’s the fact that we will now have an overarching law that will enforce a uniform application of rules. If activity across inland waterways does pick up, that could create new jobs across ports, crews, shipyards, etc. Small and medium companies located in the hinterlands could potentially use these waterways to transport their modest loads to big cities at a very affordable price and we could see some good days ahead.

Also, the law aims to tackle pollution. Vessels can’t be polluting the waterways anymore. The central government will prescribe the appropriate methods for owners to discharge or dispose of the sewage and garbage from these mechanically propelled inland vessels. And they’ll ban vessels from discharging anything that could be classified as a pollutant. Owners will either have to figure out alternatives or switch to more eco-friendly options. There’s no getting around this fact anymore.

So yeah, if all goes well, this new law could eliminate many operational bottlenecks and perhaps aid inland waterway transport in a big way.

Until then…

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