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China: Empty roads, jammed rivers

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May 16, 2006 11:03 IST

A few weeks ago, driving back from the industrial town of Huzhou to Shanghai in China, I called for a stop. We had been driving for a good hour on a four-lane highway, passing mostly small towns and industrial estates. Here, the road ran parallel to a river with large smoke-belching factories on the other side. It was worth noting that this was the first potholed highway we encountered in mainland China!

We stopped for two reasons. The first was a cigarette break for my companions. The second was to marvel at the constant traffic jams that we had been seeing since we hit this stretch of highway. Not on the road, but on the river. It was a staggering sight. Miles and miles of open barges carrying cement, sand, coal and stones sailing briskly. As far as the eye could see.

The traffic was so dense at times that the barges would bunch up and slow down. Occasionally, smaller boats would "overtake" at the points the channel was wider. Else, it was an unrelenting stream, of traffic. And there was no let-up for the good 20 minutes that we stood and watched. On both sides of the river. Besides us, on the highway, apart from the occasional old Chinese lady scurrying past on a scooter and a few cars, there was no traffic.

Two nights later I was seated atop the open deck Bar Rouge in downtown Shanghai, with breathtaking views of the Huangpu river and the glittering skyscrapers of the new Pudong area beyond. This was 11 pm at night. And the Huangpu river was jammed ... this time with tourist boats and floating restaurants jostling with giant ships and assorted barges. Even the usually packed Shanghai roads are free at this time.

The highly fertile Yangtze River Delta region (that includes Shanghai) beats the southern Pearl River Delta, which hosts the legendary special economic zone of Shenzhen, in economic size. This region is also host to some of the most active waterways in the world. China has some 5,600 navigable rivers and a total navigable length of around 119,000 km (India has 16,000 km). The Huangpu river, which lay before me, is a tributary of the mighty Yangtze River, which empties into the East China Sea.

It's here, in the Yangtze Delta, that the Chinese have combined natural resources with sheer industrial might to their advantage. To building and powering factories to sending their produce down the river. Right up to Shanghai, now the world's largest port. The dependence on water transport is high. Power plants in areas like Changxing, another industrial centre in the Delta, depend on river transport to ensure that they get a steady supply of coal.

The maritime jams brought back memories of a river trip I made two years ago on the Hooghly (one of three "national" waterways), with Praful Tayal, then chairman of the Central Inland Water Transport Corporation. The CIWTC is in a shambles and Tayal, a former Navy man, was in charge, fighting a mightly battle to revive it. As the empty cargo boat chugged along, on both sides lay decrepit run-down structures and abandoned warehouses, ghosts of a once industrialised zone. Occasionally, a fishing boat would sputter past, slowly.

Traffic on India's inland waterways is sparse. Occasionally, boats muster the courage to take a long trip and often run aground in the process. Close to half of the CIWTC's 100 boats have met this or a similar fate and are immobile. Goa and Kerala are an exception, particularly Goa for transporting freight up the Mandovi river. But then economic activity on the western coast is higher. The overall situation is dismal. In India, inland waterways account for 0.15 per cent of the total cargo carried. In China it's about 10 per cent.

Back home, waterways are more like a hobby project for the ministry of shipping. Rising costs and logjams should have triggered greater focus on river and coastal sea transport. But that has not happened. For dozens of reasons. Some companies have used the sea effectively to move cargo, particularly along the western coast. The scale, however, has not caught on. China, incidentally, has 2,000 inland ports.

And yet the Chinese didn't naturally take to river transport, at least in the last few decades. They were forced to, by crippling capacity shortages in the rail freight system. Which have not entirely been resolved. Because of which, for instance, coal produced inland is not able to reach power plants in coastal, eastern and southern China. Leading to, among other things, power shortages.

It helps that Chinese premier Premier Wen Jiabao routinely takes up the issue of transport logistics. Two years ago, he called for guaranteed transport of coal, oil, fertiliser and grain. He also asked the railways and waterways to chip in or back up. As a result or around the same time, the ministry of communications, which oversees shipping, pulled back ships from the overseas shipping routes for domestic coal. The whole process resembled a war effort.

We were through watching boats on the Changxing-Shanghai canal, also known as the Oriental Rhine. We got back in and drove on. Soon, we joined another newly constructed expressway which would take us into Shanghai. Thinking back, it was clear that this was an area that China had been caught out, in a manner of speaking. The country's freight infrastructure just did not match its output.

While it was trying hard to bridge the gap, it was also focusing elsewhere. On simultaneously building more and more world-class expressways which would take up the slack. Of people, if not freight. China has 41,000 km of expressways, a situation referred to by the government as a short supply. So, from a situation where infrastructure was just in or behind time, the country was creating a surplus. At least for some time. Now that's something to learn from.

Govindraj Ethiraj