Optimizing Sagarmala

What is Sagarmala?

Sagarmala (the ocean’s garland) is arguably the largest transport and logistics project ever undertaken in India since its political independence in 1947. Sagarmala opens up a huge opportunity for Operations Researchers, AI, and data scientists in India and around the world to bring their expertise into play and do something to positively impact the lives of 1.2 Billion people! Last year, we took a look at optimizing India’s railways, and this time, we briefly study one flower in the ocean’s garland – India’s inland waterways.

The single biggest news item that came out of India this week was this announcement by the Ministry of Shipping.

Take a look at India’s national waterways here. The picture of National Waterway #1 below shows the path to be traversed by the merchant vessel – from the timeless city of Varanasi (Kashi) to the historic city of Kolkata along the river Ganga.

picture source: http://www.walkthroughindia.com/walkthroughs/the-6-inland-national-waterways-of-india/


Optimizing in harmony with Rta (the cosmic order) 

Ganga! The name evokes respect among the Indians first and foremost. She is our Ganga Maiyya – Mother Ganga. She is part of the world’s longest poem, the Mahabharata. She is part of our sacred geography as the river is a manifestation of the divine Ganga Devi. Quite naturally, all Indians are concerned about the increasing pollution due to the toxic industrial discharge into this most sacred of waters over the last few decades. Therefore, the environmental impact of any proposed waterway through Ganga is a primary concern. Ganga flows in sync with Rta – its water levels follow the natural cycle, rising with the Monsoon rains and ebbing in winter.  Navigation is challenging. The barge sizes that are feasible for travel and transportation can vary by time of year and the location, resulting in a time-and-space network. How can we ease these navigability limitations while also minimizing the environmental impact on this river and protecting its aquatic bio-diversity? A practical way to accomplish this task is not unrestrained optimization that is unsustainable, but to optimize in harmony with Rta and nature. As this World Bank Report says:

“…. the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has sought to adopt the least intrusive methods of making the river navigable. It has therefore followed the principle of ‘working with nature’ while planning the Ganga waterway…. .  Even this limited dredging will only be done when absolutely necessary and then too using modern, less intrusive technologies.”

The cost-benefit numbers have always been clear, but when nature is the most important stakeholder in the project, it requires time and great care. And hey, if real life optimization was easy, then why would we need smart Operations researchers?

picture source: World bank report
picture source: World bank report

The types of multi-commodity optimization problems to be solved are interesting. This supply-chain study reports that the transportation cost per metric-ton-kilometer through inland waterways is significantly lower than that possible through the rail or road mode. It is also relatively energy efficient, consuming less fuel to do the same work. Every barge through a waterway gets many trucks off the road, decongesting India’s over-stressed road network. Certain hazardous materials can be better transported through waterways, avoiding the risky drive through densely populated areas. Routing, Supply chain management, transportation, flow optimization, multi-modal network design, facility location – you name it, they are all there.

These are large-scale analytical problems and the motivation is huge. Any incremental improvement will have a significant economic and social impact.

India currently has one of the highest logistics costs in the world. More than half-of-a-decade of Soviet-style planning blindly embraced by India’s Congress party nearly bankrupted the world’s largest democracy, left the infrastructure in tatters, and millions in acute poverty. Sagarmala is one attempt to rebuild key logistical and transportation infrastructure. After the Congress party was finally voted out in 2014, India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi realized that India literally had to start from scratch. Literally reboot. While thinking of inland waterways, he also had to come up with the world’s largest health-insurance scheme, activate the world’s biggest digital ID project, and spearhead the world’s largest toilet building spree that will improve basic sanitation and save hundreds of thousands of lives in rural India.

I have highlighted just some of the many important problems being solved in this part of the world. When the fate of such a large proportion of the world’s humanity is at stake, ideology has to take a back seat; Science and Sacred must unite to optimize decision making in harmony with Rta.

Happy Deepavali  and enjoy the INFORMS Annual Meeting!