Inland Waterways in NER







Historical Background


Northeast India has many large and small rivers providing facilities for water transport, especially in their plains sections. From the ancient period until roads were constructed, the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers were commonly used as the medium of transport. During the period of British rule the Brahmaputra and Barak-Surma rivers were used extensively for transport and trade between northeast India and the port of Calcutta (now Kolkata). With the growth of the tea industry these rivers became important carriers of trade. The East India Company started the water route along the Brahmaputra from Kolkata to Dibrugarh in 1844 and steamships were introduced by the Joint Steamer Company in 1847. At about the same time Silchar was linked with Kolkata along the Barak-Surma-Meghna navigation channel. However, with the partition of India in 1947, water transport received a serious blow as a foreign country was born between northeast India and the port of Kolkata.


Network of Rivers


2. It is estimated that the North Eastern  Region has about 1,800 kilometers of river routes that can be used by steamers and large country boats. The inland water transport departments of both the state and central governments have been trying to improve the water transport system in the region. The Brahmaputra now has several small river ports. In addition, there are more than thirty pairs of ferry ghats (crossing points) on the Brahmaputra, transporting both passengers and cargo. The Barak also has small ports at Karimganj, Badarpur, and Silchar and ferry services at several places across it. 


3. In Arunachal Pradesh the rivers Lohit, Subansiri, Burhi Dihing, Noa Dihing, and Tirap are used for navigation by small country boats in those stretches where there are no rapids. The rivers Dhaleshwari, Sonai, Tuilianpui, and Chimtuipui in Mizoram are also used for navigation with small country boats in convenient stretches. Similarly, in Manipur, the Manipur River, along with its three main tributaries, the Iril, Imphal, and Thoubal, is used for transporting small quantities of merchandise by country boats.


Potential for Cargo


4. The largest expected cargo movements in the North Eastern  Region shall arise from the ambitious power projects being implemented by various private sector companies along with the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Ltd (NHPC), North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Ltd. (NEEPCO), National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) on various tributaries of the Brahmaputra particularly in Arunachal Pradesh. These developments are expected to generate cargo movements of about 50 - 100 million metric tons over a period of 20 years.  (2.5 -5.0 million metric tons per year). Accordingly, the infrastructure requirements for the same will be enormous in size. IWT can play the most complementary role in catering to the needs of such large requirements.


5. Other identified cargo movements include coal from Meghalaya, fly ash from Farakka to various destinations in the Northeast, limestone for cement plants, petroleum products from Numaligarh refinery, bitumen from Haldia, and food grains from Kolkata to various destinations in the Northeast for the Food Corporation of India Ltd.


River Brahmaputra as National Waterway-II


6. Brahmaputra is the life line of NER. It was declared as National Waterway-2 in 1988 for a distance of 891 km from Dhubri to Sadia. Inland Waterways Authority of India maintains navigational channel of minimum 45 m width and 2.5 m depth is in NW.2 between Dhubri – Neamati, 2.0 m between Neamati- Dibrugarh and 1.5 m between Dibrugarh – Sadiya (Presntly the channel is maintained between Dibrugarh – Oriumghat instead of Dibrugarh – Sadiya due to the ongoing porcupine work by Brahmaputra Board near Sadiya.  Necessary aids for facilitating 24 hour navigation is maintained between Dhubri and Silghat while day navigation marks are provided in further upper sections of the river. Terminal facilities for loading and unloading of cargo is being maintained by IWAI at strategic locations like Dhubri, Jogighopa, Pandu, Silghat, Neamati and Dibrugarh. Pandu (Guwahati) is being developed as a multi modal transport hub which can serve the entire N.E Region. A permanent terminal at Dhubri, Assam is under construction with all facilities at an approx. cost of Rs. 46.68 Cr. Dhubri is the first important terminal on the Brahmaputra. The existing temporary IWT terminal at Jogighopa is proposed to be upgraded to a bulk cargo handling terminal for products like Meghalaya coal, with rail connectivity up to the terminal.


National Waterways


Declaration of River Barak as National Waterway


7. River Barak between Bhanga to Lakhipur (121 kms) in Assam will be declared as National Waterway after Bill is passed by Parliament.




8. The North East Region being riverine, offers immense scope for development of Inland Water Transport. IWT has not received its due importance in the scheme of transport planning, fund allocation and policy priority after Independence.  


9. Why IWT suitable for NER? Feasibility of IWT as a transport option can be optimised with the following issues:

  1. Plans and investment for IWT has to be anchored within a multi-modal transport plan.  As multi-modal transport planning is yet to take off in NER, IWT's full potential has not been leveraged.
  2. Benefits of IWT in terms of low cost, high volume, low fuel expenditure and shortest land distance between North Eastern Region and rest of the country has to be disseminated amongst policy makers and users.
  3. Undivided Bengal and the North Eastern Region were an integrated economic market prior to Independence where the riverine transport system was intensively used for movement of cargo and passengers.  The present challenge is to recreate those routes by combining both investment and multi-modal planning. 
  4. IWT has a natural fit with the bulk commodities that the North Eastern Region imports and exports from rest of India – tea, oil, cement and coal are exported.  Food-grains, fertilizers, petroleum products are imported. All these commodities being non-perishable and high volume are suitable for transportation by IWT.  It would be cheaper than road or rail but slower.  Fast transportation is not required for these commodities.
  5. Investment on waterways can provide alternative routes for movement of bulk cargo for Nagaland and Manipur which would be a cheaper option and will not face blockages and similar exigencies.
  6. However, any serious development of IWT requires active and positive participation by Bangladesh. Therefore, IWT arrangements should be devised in such a manner that stakeholders, both in India and Bangladesh, derive value from developing and using IWT.
  7. The Inland Waterways Authority of India is mandated to develop and maintain National Waterways-II on the Brahmaputra between Dhubri and Sadia. Reasonably good terminals are now available in NER. More investment are in the pipeline for NW-II. IWAI is also working to declare Barak river as National Waterways-VI.  It is likely to be done in the immediate to near future. There are well-developed terminals in Barak also.  Hence, investments to develop infrastructure of IWT on the National Waterways-II and National Waterways-VI (proposed) do not pose any serious bottlenecks.
  8. As IWT has not received its due importance in policy and investments so far (investment wise things look promising for the future), operators with required fleet size of vessels has not emerged either in private or in public sector. This is the major bottleneck in the promotion of IWT. Brahmaputra and Barak rivers have not been fully commercially exploited for transportation purposes. IWAI is not an operator.  The public sector, Central Inland Water Transport Corporation Ltd (CIWTC) is sick.  The private sector, either in India or in Bangladesh, has not emerged due to various policy reasons.  Therefore, the challenge here is to create a policy regime that will promote investment in appropriate fleet of vessels in both public and private sectors.
  9. Optimal development of IWT will happen when there is meeting of purposes among:


    • IWAI for creation of infrastructure on the waterways
    • Stakeholders such as the Food Corporation of India and the oil companies, tea industry, cement industry.
    • Owners of fleet of vessels of the right size
    • The goodwill of Bangladesh and their participation
    • Multi-modal transport planning
  10. Optimal use of IWT for transportation of bulk commodities will open up the narrow chicken's neck corridor linking North East to rest of India for transportation of passengers through fast moving rail connections, evacuation of power, telecommunication links, etc.
  11. Tourism is also a potential user of IWT.
  12. Transport of Over Dimensional Cargo (ODC) for hydro power development in the North East essentially requires IWT as there are limitations on hill roads.



IWT Master Plan for NER



Activities of IWAI


Page Maintained By: 
Dr Uday Shanker, Director