Rivers have always been crucial to India. The country’s name comes from one, many of its foundational myths revolve around another, and for centuries almost all commerce was carried out on or alongside a river.

All of that changed with the arrival of motorways and railways, taking passengers and cargo off water and onto land. Now, the shipping ministry is planning a new scheme – the Pradhan Mantri Jal Marg Yojana – that it hopes will revive inland water transport in a country where less than 1 per cent of all inland cargo is travelling by water.

“The idea is to use the coastal line, rivers and inland water to develop a strong water transport network, which will not only bring down fuel consumption but will also generate employment,” said Nitin Gadkari, Union minister for road transport, highways and shipping, earlier this week.

The idea is of a piece with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s overall affinity towards river projects, whether it is the grand plans to rejuvenate the Ganga or the even more ambitious scheme to link all the rivers. Yet this multi-pronged focus might be exactly what comes in the way of developing inland water transport in the country.

“Sure, to many it’s an attractive proposition, but the actual potential is limited. There are too many competing needs for water,” said Narayan Rangaraj, a professor of industrial engineering and operations research at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

In 2005, Rangaraj co-authored a paper for the Asian Development Bank that considered the viability of inland water transport in India, concluding then that it would only be sustainable in certain sectors where the conditions are just right.

“If anything, I believe things have gotten worse since then. The possibility of using inland water for transport, for having sufficient draft and viable flow is marginal at best, except where there is a canal system or a river with a tidal component to it,” Rangaraj said. “Otherwise, even though water may be environmentally better and the energy put in might be less, for end-to-end needs, it’s not really viable.”

India has 14,500 kilometres of navigable inland waterways, with only about 4,400 kilometres of those coming under officially recognised national waterways. These carried approximately 70 million tonnes of cargo in 2011-2012, according to the Inland Waterways Authority of India, which represents less than 1 per cent of all inland cargo that was transported in India that year.

In comparison, Bangladesh moves more than 35 per cent of its cargo by water, America sees about 17 per cent of all intercity freight shipped on inland waterways and China, which has more than 100,000 kilometres of navigable inland waterways, ships about 10 per cent of its total freight over water.

On paper, inland water transport tends to be more appealing than road or rail, because it is fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly and often cheaper. A study by engineering consultancy RITES concluded last year that moving cargo by inland water transport would only cost Rs 1.06 per tonne kilometre, as opposed to Rs 1.41 per tonne kilometre for rail and Rs 2.58 per tonne kilometre by highway. Moving cargo onto the waterways would also save fuel costs and lessen the environmental impact.

But that doesn’t mean it can simply replace the other two: the same RITES paper concluded that under the most likely scenario, the potential traffic that could be diverted onto waterways by 2016-17 – if new and proposed projects are implemented – would be about 186 million tonnes. That’s a huge jump from the current 70 million tonnes, but still a small fraction of the overall freight being transported in India.

As more pressure gets put onto our road and railway networks, however, any possibility of alternative transport will have to be considered. S Sriraman, the Walchand Hirachand Professor of Transport Economics at Mumbai University, says the government will need to take the load off the land routes. “About 65 per cent of freight in our country is moving by road. It should be much less,” he said. “A lot of freight movement that currently takes place by rail or road should really be moving by inland waterways if they are near places where they don’t really need additional modes to move the goods. Just as roads have been developed by the public sector, so too should inland waterways.”

Part of the problem, Sriraman said, were the competing interests of those who profit off the roads and railways. Automakers, road developers as well as those pushing for the construction of mono and metro rails are encouraging the government into capital-intensive projects that might end up providing the same results as much cheaper waterway options, such as water taxis and ferries.

“You can even think in terms of a larger industrial policy framework and encourage the growth of industries along waterways,” he said. “The only problem one faces here is transshipment, but all of our trains go through transshipment points too. Why not develop riverine ports, just as you have developed sea ports? All you will need to do is find out which areas where there will need to be upgrades, such as along the Ganga, where you can move coal and food grains that are now going by road at a much higher cost.”

The shipping ministry, which the Inland Waterways Authority of India reports to, now comes under one unified transport ministry headed by Gadkari. The minister has clearly indicated an added emphasis on developing waterways, and there is hope that these competing road and rail interests will now be balanced out in favour of a larger integrated policy.