India is a country having so many great rivers like the mighty Ganga, serene Yamuna, majestic Brahmaputra, flowing through the entire country. In a way, such rivers are nature’s highways and India is blessed to have so many natural highways.

These days when the roadways are becoming congested and rail infrastructure is used highly, these waterways can be an adequate medium for transportation. In fact, this medium of transportation will be cheaper compared to railways and roadways.

As per the government data, one could move a tonne of cargo over a kilometer at about ₹1.36 on rail, at ₹2.50 on highways, and just ₹1.06 on inland waterways. The post service tax fares are slightly higher for rail & highways but there are no taxes for waterways.

One litre of fuel moves 24 tonne-km on road, 95 tonne-km on rail and 215 tonne-km on Inland waterways. India is blessed with close to 14,500 km of inland waterways, so, it could be a very effective alternative for people looking to trade and travel.

However, waterways being used as an alternative medium is still a long way to go.

This is because of the century-old Inland Vessels Act, 1917 which is governing the Indian waterways. Although it has been amended several times since it was first enforced, it never was enough as the provisions were obsolete and inadequate.

There were differences in central and state governments. The state government was calling the shots and many vessels could only traverse within the boundaries of a state.

The rules were not uniform across the country. Permits and certificates were given by the state governments. Each state adopted different measures and so, using  waterways always remained a distant dream.

Now, things will begin to change with the passing of the Inland Vessels Bill, 2021. This new legislation will replace the old law and will bring all matters related to inland waterways and the movement of vessels under a central regulatory regime. 

This will help in unlocking the huge potential of using rivers as a viable mode of transport  both for passengers and cargo.

Furthermore, the new rules have specified the do’s and don’ts for vessels using these waterways. There is an elaborate classification criterion. 

A ferry carrying people is not the same as a barge crying timber or wheat. Hence, they need to be treated differently. They have to have different safety regulations and they may need specialized equipment and oversight. 

This law is focused on that by making a clear distinction between different types of vessels like ships, boats, barges, container vessels, and ferries. Only after the completion of classification, 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. 

The application of rules will be uniform. New jobs across cress, ports, shipyards will be created. MSMEs companies located near these ports could use these waterways to transport their loads to big cities at a very affordable price.

Climate being highly in news, the law aims to tackle pollution. 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. 

Vessels can’t be polluting the waterways anymore and those discharging anything that could be classified as a pollutant will be banned. Owners will have to figure out alternatives or switch to more eco-friendly options. 

There are good chances that this new law could eliminate many operational bottlenecks and expedite inland waterway transport means.

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