Weak maritime sector needs sea change

Weak maritime sector needs sea change

Every year, the country celebrates April 5 as National Maritime Day (NMD), when SS Loyalty, the first ship of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, set sail from Mumbai for the United Kingdom in 1919 and created nautical history. NMD was first celebrated on April 5, 1964. The NMD recognises the maritime sector’s contribution to the national economy throu­gh the facilitation of trade across the five oceans.

Besides ports and shipping, the maritime domain constitutes ship building, ship repair, off-shore development, fisheries, exploitation of sea bed resources, inland water transport, ship breaking and marine tourism. It is also a day to salute Indian seafarers, who constitute 6.7% of the global maritime community. They sail across the oceans and brave the perils at sea, such as the elements of nature and the scourge of piracy.

Historically, we have been a maritime nation given that Indian sailors used the monsoon winds to trade with faraway lands. Moreover, India’s geo-physical position and geo-political realities compel it to be a maritime nation.

India has an Exclusive Economic Zone of 2.03 million sq km which is a treasure trove of resources. Over 90% of the country’s trade by volume and over 72% by value, including crude oil, is transported across the seas, which is vital for our economy and energy security. In a sense, this makes India an island country.

Despite being a maritime nation, India has for centuries had a continental outlook and has suffered from “sea-blindness.” Lately, the 26/11 Mumbai atta­cks, piracy incidents off Somalia and the movement of China towards the Indian Ocean with its anti-piracy task force, submarine patrols and New Maritime Silk Route, have resulted in a maritime reawakening among our security bureaucracy, but not so much among the people. So, on NMD, it is time to take stock of our shortcomings and work towards overcoming them.

Geographically, ports and shipping help nations to connect with each other. The country’s 12 major ports compare poorly with other advanced ports across the world. None of these ports feature among the top 10 ports globally. Importantly, China’s ports occupy the first seven spots among the top ten.

India’s ports suffer from lack of capacities, high turn around time, limited water depth which requires frequent dredging, old and inefficient cargo systems, congestion on approach roads and labour issues. Foreign ships, therefore, often prefer to bypass India and tranship containers at Colombo, Sri Lanka; Kelang, Malaysia; and Singapore. These ports, which entail zero deviation from international shipping lanes, are also equipped with automated infrastructure for quick turnaround times measured in couple of hours, along with competitive tariffs.

India possesses a fleet of about 1,246 ships of which only about 400 are foreign-going vessels. Most of these ships are past their prime and should rightfully have ended up at the ship breaking yards by now.

Today 90% of India’s trade is transported in foreign-flagged vessels. Besides loss of revenue, this is a strategic vulnerability, especially during hostilities when enemy war ships could target Indian-flagged vessels, mostly oil tankers, thus affecting energy security and the national war-waging capability.

Foreign ships, on the other hand, would avoid conflict zones or charge hefty insurance premiums to do so. During crisis situations such as the recent evacuation of Indian citizens from Yemen, Indian-flagged merchant vessels were also required in the national effort along with the Indian Navy.

Ship building in India, too, is in dire straits. Most are government ship yards and suffer from a public sector undertaking mindset which often results in time and cost over runs, as well as quality issues. India has a long way to go before it can catch up with world leaders, such as China, South Korea and Japan, in ship building.

However, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, the beginnings of a sea change in the maritime industry are apparent. His ‘Act East’ policy, ‘Make in India’ campaign, enunciation of ‘SAGAR’ (an acronym for Security and Growth for All in the Region), push for ‘Blue Economy’ ,the ‘Sagarmala Project’ with its port-led development plans, have all given a much-needed impetus to the maritime sector.

The Centre has made several policy changes and announced tax rebates to reinvigorate the maritime industry. India’s state-owned ports and shipping entities reported their best performances in fiscal year ended March 2016, after a very long time. Today, the privately-owned minor and intermediate ports such as Adani’s Mundra have clearly taken the lead over their public sector counterparts.

With Modi’s firm hand on the steering wheel, ‘achhe din’ may truly be here for the maritime industry. Fair winds and calm seas will follow for the maritime fraternity. The NMD, among other things, should be an occasion to spread maritime awareness and bring about sea mindedness among the people. The future of India, like that of many other countries, lies on the oceans and seas around us.

(The writer is a former Principal Director, Naval Intelligence, and was in the Cabinet Secretariat)

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