In 1951, in India's first five year plan, efforts were made to set up a Ganga-Brahmaputra transport board for river transport. Red tape severely damaged this effort-legislation was only passed in 1986. The law was then revisited 30 years later, converting 111 river stretches into waterways, 37 of them on priority.
In terms of international ports, at Independence, India gained those at Surat, Mumbai, Kochi, Chennai, Puducherry and Kolkata. Together, they had a cargo handling capacity of 10-11 MTPA (million tonnes per annum). In late 2019, the handling capacity of major Indian ports had reached 1,534.9 MPTA.
In the past decades, though most ports have gained highway or railway connectivity, key transport routes have remained congested. India has 12 major and 200 non-major/ intermediate ports. Over the next decade, the government's Sagarmala plan-with 574 identified projects involving port modernisation, new port development, connectivity enhancement, port-linked industrialisation and coastal community development-will set the trend. So far, 121 of these projects have been completed.
The next big thing for the shipping sector is inland waterways. In June 2014, India's biggest electricity generator, NTPC, transported coal to its Farakka power plant in West Bengal via the Ganges waterway, saving Rs 450 per tonne in transportation costs. Following that, it decided to transport 3 million tonnes of coal annually via this waterway. Similarly, in November 2018, PepsiCo India transported 16 truckloads worth of products from Kolkata to Varanasi by river. In the next five years, inland waterway freight is expected to grow significantly. It is much cheaper; back of the book calculations suggest it costs about Rs 2.5 per km to transport goods by road, Rs 1.4 by rail and less than a rupee by waterways. There are environmental benefits too: waterway transport produces only about half the CO2 of road transport. However, there are limitations to consider-for one, water transport from Kolkata to Varanasi takes about 10 days, while road transport takes just two. Second, inland port infrastructure is still being developed. Third is that the construction of dams and diversion of water for irrigation means that water levels can be challengingly low.