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Developing India’s Port Sector to meet its Global Aspirations
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Cmde Anil Jai Singh (Retd) | Date:03 Mar , 2021 0 Comments
Cmde Anil Jai Singh (Retd)
is a former submariner and an anti-submarine warfare specialist, is an Indian naval advisor in the UK. He is currently Vice President, Indian Maritime Foundation.

For a country as dependent on the sea as India for its economic well-being with about 95 percent of its trade by volume, over 74 percent by value, and more than 80 percent of its oil and gas traveling over the sea, its 12 major ports and 205 non-major ports will soon be inadequate to meet the growing demand.

The Maritime Agenda 2010-2020 had envisaged the establishment of two new major ports, one each on the east and west coasts, of which none had been built till the end of 2020. Project Sagarmala, the multi-billion rupee port-led development programme for revitalising the maritime infrastructure in the country which was introduced in 2016 had envisaged the construction of three major ports which has been increased to six in the ‘Maritime Vision 2030’ document released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration of the Maritime Summit 2021 on March 2. 

Maritime Vision 2020

India intends to become a USD 5 trillion economy by 2025. The present GDP is still well below the USD 3 trillion mark, with an estimated 7.7 percent reduction in 2020-21 as a consequence of the COVID pandemic. Although there has been a remarkable recovery in the last few months, it will still take some time to regain the previous momentum with some sectors taking longer to recover than others.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF’s) estimate is that India will grow at 11.5 percent this year. Hence, in the next four years, the economy has to grow by almost 45 percent which will see a corresponding increase in the volume and value of India’s trade. India is also seeking a larger share of the global market as it embarks on various programmes to achieve global standards in manufacturing. Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari, while addressing the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) in December 2019, had said that to become a USD 5 trillion economy India must increase its contribution in global trade from the current 2.6 percent to at least 8-10 percent (China contributes around 17 percent). An exponential increase in this magnitude will require a very focused and concerted effort within the next few years to ramp up the capacity of the country’s existing ports, introducing efficient practices to optimise output, improving the national port connectivity network and building new ports and the port connected infrastructure. 

Sagarmala programme

This capacity enhancement is anchored in the Sagarmala programme which was announced by Modi during the Maritime Summit 2016. The government is also encouraging private sector participation including numerous public-private partnership models to leverage the efficiency and investment potential of the private industry. As per the annual report of the Shipping Ministry, in 2018-19, “34 PPP projects with an investment of Rs. 22,377 crore involving capacity addition of 300 MTPA are under operation. Another 13 PPP projects with an investment of Rs. 7,173 crore involving capacity addition of 140 MTPA is under implementation. Further, there are 20 captive projects with an investment of Rs. 5,234 crore involving capacity addition of 142.45 MTPA under operation and seven captive projects with an investment of Rs. 6,823 crore involving capacity addition of 55 MTPA are under implementation. The Public-Private Partnership (PPP) projects handled 353.49 MT cargo i.e. 52.03 percent of total cargo handled in major ports.” 

The total cargo handling capacity of India’s major ports has increased from 800.52 MTPA from March 31, 2014 to 1514.09 MTPA till March 31, 2019. It is intended to enhance this to 3300 MMTPA by 2025 to be able to handle an estimated 2500 MMTPA of the cargo of all kinds. 

The performance of India’s major ports has also shown an encouraging improvement. During the period April to December, India’s 12 major ports handled traffic of 524.03 MT which was marginally more than the corresponding period of the previous year. Seven of these ports showed an impressive increase in throughput ranging from 8.83 percent at the Deendayal port in Gujarat to 3.97 percent at Paradip port in Odisha. Average turnaround times, which are an important indicator of port capacity and efficiency and a critical economic parameter for shipping companies have steadily improved over the years reducing from 107.28 hours in 2011-12 to 59.51 hours during 2018-19. This does not compare unfavourably with the global standards. As per Statista inc, India was ranked in the top 25 with an average turnaround time for container ships of 0.91 days as compared to Japan at 0.35, China at 0.6, and Singapore at 0.77. 

India’s non major ports are also getting a long-overdue up-gradation. In 2018-19, they handled 582.59 MT which was about 45 percent of the total maritime traffic of the country and increased by about 4.8 percent over the previous year.  

Enhanced port connectivity through a series of rail and road-building projects have also been initiated to further improve the efficiency of the movement of trade to and from the ports.  

Skill training institutes and centres of excellence on maritime-related subjects are also being set up, some of which have already commenced operation. A Centre for Inland and Coastal Maritime Technology (CMT) at IIT Kharagpur has been set up to serve as the technology arm of the Ministry of Shipping to provide research, testing and experimentation facility to Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) and major ports.

The National Technology Centre for Ports, Waterways, and Coasts (NTCPWC) at IIT Madras has been set up to provide innovative and applied research-based engineering solutions on various issues related to ports, waterways, and coasts in the country. Multi-skill development centres (MSDC) in major ports are being set up at major ports to develop a skilled workforce in the port sector. 

India has nine coastal states and four coastal union territories.  Its coastal community is of over 200 million people, who are dependent on the sea for their sustenance and livelihood. A large number of these rely on their traditional skills which are neither efficient nor productive in this era of technology. The potential of this community and its knowledge of the maritime domain should be harnessed by training them and providing them the required skill set for the country’s and their own economic benefit. Many of them can be absorbed in the port-led eco-system that the Sagarmala programme is designed to achieve.   

Industrial clusters in multiple sectors are being set up in the vicinity of major ports to reduce transit cost and time thus improving the efficiency of the system and also boosting India’s trade.  

Project Unnati

In 2014-15, the government launched Project Unnati (progress) to improve the competitiveness of the major ports which were losing ground to the newer and more modern private ports through improved efficiency and management reforms. A quantitative benchmarking module was prepared to compare India’s major ports against international standards with respect to some key performance indicators. A total of 116 new initiatives for 12 major ports were identified to increase the volume of traffic and reduce capital expenditure. Of these, 95 have already been completed and 12 are under implementation. Nine projects were shelved. 

In December 2016, the government introduced the Major Port Authorities Bill to replace the Major Port Trust Act, 1963. However, despite discussions on the bill, it did not progress further and lapsed. The government has reintroduced the bill in March 2020 and it is hoped that it will be expeditiously processed and will become an act soon. This should empower the Major Ports to perform with greater efficiency on account of greater autonomy in decision making and the modernization of their institutional framework. Prior to that, at the 17th meeting of the Maritime State Development Council (MSDC), held on October 15, 2019, at New Delhi, it was agreed that greater interaction between the central government and the states is essential for augmenting the port infrastructure and their security and safety. 

There are plans to increase the draft in major ports to accommodate larger  deep draught vessels, further reduce the turnaround time for ships and facilitate the ease of doing business by adopting technology to address procedural and functional bottlenecks in the system. This has led to a remarkable improvement in trade across borders (TAB) from 146 to 68.

The government has also been placing a lot of emphasis on improving the inland water network in the country to offer a cheaper and cleaner alternative for transportation of freight vis-à-vis by road and rail.  It has identified 111 inland waterways including five national waterways which will be linked to the ports on the coast. This will not only enhance port efficiency in the handling of cargo but more importantly, from a geopolitical perspective, an effective interconnected inland waterway network will provide India’s landlocked neighbours, Nepal and Bhutan, and access to the sea.

This will be beneficial for their trade and from a geopolitical perspective it will enable enhanced connectivity between South Asia and Southeast Asia through Thailand and Myanmar. India is developing a multi-modal connectivity network aligned with its Act East Policy and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) doctrine through multi-modal connectivity projects which are under development at present. 

In the last six years of being in office, this government has taken numerous initiatives to harness the potential of the maritime sector and improve India’s global standing. The Maritime Summit at Mumbai in 2016 was the first major initiative. Around 43 countries participated and business worth almost Rs 83000 crore was transacted. A similar Maritime Summit, albeit virtual, is taking place from March 2-4, 2021. The Maritime Vision 2030, released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi will define India’s roadmap towards becoming a maritime power of reckoning. It will also provide an overview of the progress made in the last five years and its intent for the future to a global audience.  

Need to bring in professionals 

The challenge is immense; the intent seems to be there but is the establishment up to the task of delivering the desired outcomes?  In the contemporary technology-driven global scenario it is agility, flexibility, and the ability to adapt to the dynamic environment which will be essential to remain ahead of the curve. This in turn needs a deep and professional understanding of the entire maritime eco-system which can only come from within the environment. The process-driven and paper-bound Indian bureaucratic monolith has rarely given any indication of being agile, flexible, or adaptable and lacks the depth of professional knowledge required to drive this change at the pace that is required. 

The maritime sector covers a very wide cross-section of activities. While each is important by itself, there is a certain degree of national effort which requires optimisation of resources, whether, fiscal, material, or human. To ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, a professional single-point authority/adviser is essential to coordinate the effort. Surprisingly, despite the Government of India acknowledging the importance of this sector, it has not felt the need to appoint one.  As a consequence, individual departments and ministries looking after different areas in the maritime domain allocate the priority they think is appropriate. 

A glance at the website of the Ministry of Shipping and the major ports reveals the startling fact that despite experienced and senior professionals in the port and maritime sectors, only the rare exception is able to crack the glass ceiling to the top job which seems to be the exclusive preserve of the civil services who have little or absolutely no training or professional experience of the port sector. In addition to the experienced port professionals, India also has the third-largest number of seafaring officers in the world who can offer their experience of having been in various ports across the world and are familiar with global best practices and new technologies. Little is ever heard of their experience being utilised. 

This is a sad fact not only in the port sector but across a majority of sectors in the Government of India where professional experience and expertise is kept out of the decision-making loop.   

If India indeed wants to become a leading 21st-century power, this needs to change. It has to shed its colonial administrative mindset and reorient itself to the realities of a technologically specialised and intensely competitive global environment where the generalist is increasingly becoming an anachronism of a bygone era.

Since port-led development is vital to India’s aspiration of becoming a USD 5 trillion economy, this sector could become the driver of this long overdue change. 


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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