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Sunday, 29 January 2012

India Maritime Week 2012 -

India Maritime Week was held in Delhi from the 17th through 21st of January 2012. Organised by Gateway Media of Singapore and Hyderabad. Here's my report, as carried first at MoneyLife:-

The deeper message from the India Maritime Week

January 28, 2012 08:20 AM |
Veeresh Malik

The participants at the IMW were reminded that if they wanted the freedom to grow, they had it, and there was no point in simply bringing up old issues. The approach was that the IMW heralded a solution oriented future, and was not going to be the complaint centre

There is a theory doing the rounds in the backrooms of power in India, quietly gaining strength with those for whom national interest takes precedence over anything else, that the Bombay-Calcutta axis of commercial power enhanced by the alignments of maritime trade as elevated in the post-Mughal colonial eras is about to self-destruct and implode into a natural end. This may not be very palatable to many, but then the truth is usually anything but bitter, and is more than wishful thinking by rival ports and cities and the people behind them which have come from literally the deep blue ocean and taken large chunks of cargo away from these two traditional city-ports.

Witness the following winds of change, globally and in India, as weather-vane indicators:

  • Large historically strong port-cities from powerful nations worldwide have re-invented themselves as banking and trading centres as the physical ports themselves have moved away. Examples —London, New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Tokyo and even Shanghai. However, they have also re-invested vast sums of money in building up the support infrastructure to make themselves global cities. Can we say the same of Kolkata or Mumbai, which have more or less, simply changed their names? Can the Kolkata or Mumbai Port Trust start to try to emulate the methods adopted with changing times by, for example, the Port of New York Authority, which has become a huge infrastructure company now known as the “Port Authority of New York and New Jersey”?
  • Vast chunks of the commercial aspects of shipping have moved to inland cities like Toronto, Geneva, New Delhi and some inland cities in the states of Connecticut and Virginia in the US. Even land-locked Mongolia is emerging as a maritime registry of some clout. Within India, shippers and customers inland now often have the upper hand over the ports, shipping lines and agents, which also dictates not just cost control, but also timelines demanded of the shipping industry. Shippers from upcountry inland centres who had to go and beg for everything they wanted in port cities even as recently as 10 years ago, will and do demand real-time solutions in their own town, or will simply not use those ports again.
  • Within the Indian context, the states which appear to be racing ahead with building ports and allied inland infrastructure are Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Industry as well as consumption is already following them. The realities with Mumbai/Maharashtra andKolkata/West Bengal and their satellite ports are there for all to see, in comparison, which is sad, no doubt, but as put forward by one of the speakers, “time and tide waits for no-one”. Broadly, a clarion call has gone out to these two ports—shake up, or ship out.
  • Forget removal of cabotage, the message was that the government was going to make concerted and joint efforts to assist coastal shipping, though at this juncture the inter-ministry co-operations required were as hazy as the intra-ministry co-operation missing from within the various arms of the ministry of shipping. A call went out that like in inland water navigation, the cobwebs of the DG (Directorate General) of Shipping be removed so that coastal and inland shipping in progressive states could go forward like it did in Goa. This is a fact—the biggest stumbling block for coastal shipping in India has been our own shipping governance.

In this context, the first ever India Maritime Week (IMW) held in Delhi from the 17th through to the 21st of January, was a mirror to all that is going up and down, or better still, like the ocean tides, flowing in or out, along our coasts and connected aspects. Incidentally, one additional reason for holding this now to-be annual feature in Delhi was that it removed any trace of regional bias between coastal states and local power brokers, which has been the bane of similar attempts in the past. Holding this event in Delhi, straddling all aspects of the maritime industry, means that there was no Bombay club, Calcutta adda, Madras coffee-shop, Cochin spice or any other parochial or communal bias. This was simply—pan India.

The IMW also spanned seamlessly the complete spectrum of issues related to the role of shipping in securing and strengthening a country and its economy. Intermodal linkages (road, rail, inland water), ports, maritime industries (ship-building, repair, dredging), technology (software and hardware), people (HR onboard as well as skills development onboard and ashore), coastal shipping, passenger movements, ship-owning, finance and domestic as well as international regulations were just some of the issues where information was shared, and discussed, freely and frankly, often between disparate groups who were inter-dependent but rivals. In addition, this being Delhi, governance was present in full force, and made some important announcements which will have very deep bearings on the larger issues of national interest.

In addition to the inaugurals, where there was some plain speaking by various arms of the central government on past mistakes and future path forwards, were the surprise star sessions which sort of provided additional inputs on where the industry and therefore economy was headed. These included:

  • Real time status reports and plans of some of the private ports in the country, previously known as ‘minor ports’ but having now over-taken the major ports, also known as ‘non-major’ ports. The simple fact that such ports have aggressive marketing and sales personnel posted not just in inland centres in India but also abroad shows how far this business has come from a day and age when the trade had to beg for berths—as they often still have to do at the government-run major ports. To observe the marketing managers of some ports actively networking and hustling for business was such a refreshing change from what it is like with the ‘major’ ports.
  • Inland waterways seem to be stealing a march over all other forms of domestic transport, including linkages to the North East through Bangladesh. House-full to overflowing sessions. Freed from the shackles and cobwebs of the moribund DGS, this seems to be shooting ahead in eastern UP, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Goa and even Kashmir. Gujarat appears to be blocked here because the Gulf of Kutch and Khambat are still under the ‘control’ of the ancient Merchant Shipping Act, and the islands are being slowly denied good sea service by rules designed to frustrate, but some changes are proposed here too.
  • Deliberations on how to turn around the central government-run major ports brought out some surprising numbers—the realisation from just about 8% of the land owned by the Bombay/Mumbai Port Trust, currently locked in by legacy tenants, would be more than enough to dredge and re-modernise the complete Mumbai/JNPT/Butcher Island/Nhava Sheva Port complex and leave enough money for outright purchase of one or two satellite ports not too far from Mumbai. The thinking here is that the PPP (public-private-partnership) route or seeking funds from the Centre is not really necessary for the Port Trusts when the major port trusts already have the asset base to take things forward on their own. The message was—if you don’t take your land back from your tenants despite being able to, then don’t come with a begging bowl to the Centre.
  • A session on petroleum imports (liquid and gas) and their storage moved on from the known numbers and projections to new alternate scenarios of impact of renewable energy and storage of both crude and gas in underground caverns, as well as issues of energy security and micro-generation of power using wave generation around ports. This is more than symbolic, since many of the larger oil companies—foreign and Indian—and their related entities are quietly re-inventing themselves as energy companies with eminently green credentials—where a continuous increase in consumption of energy does not mean a concurrent increase in the consumption of fossil fuels, solid, liquid and gas.
  • Some plain and straight talking by the ministers who attended as well as the civil servants and technocrats from the ministries and shipping boards as well as infrastructure segments of the government would have gone down hard with the industry. PPP was the preferred route, long-term investment with Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR) was expected, security considerations were top essential and in that context ‘denied’ on security grounds by the intelligence services meant ‘denied’. Customer is King, and if you don’t satisfy him, then don’t blame us if they somehow go via Colombo, was another message which the Sri Lankan delegates, waiting in the slips like their cricketers, were snapping up. Mention needs be made of co-operation between India and Sri Lanka in developing and re-vitalising Sri Lankan ports. All bets need to be covered, right? Right.

There is most certainly a deep realisation within the government and others that India’s complete future as a nation is at an inflection point, and is also intricately linked with India’s economic strength, which in turn depends a lot on the maritime strengths. The message is loud and clear—there is no more time to waste, the country has a large coastline, those states and ports and support services which move ahead will be given all support, those who continue to waste time and bicker may need to be aware of the consequences. There are nine state governments with coastal assets, there are some central government assets along the coast, the North East states have a good chance of being linked to the oceanways through Myanmar and/or Bangladesh, and most importantly—the country is not willing to accept a lack of efficiency any more.

If there was one message that went out from the IMW in Delhi, then it was this—the new ports in India are now the destinations of choice for trade, import, export and domestic. And if the older ports and their cities don’t provide this vital service, then nobody outside is going to mourn their change in status. To be given guided tours of the old dock systems in Kolkata and Mumbai and realise that things are so much still the same in both of them as they were decades ago, when this writer first joined a ship, may excite those seeking heritage and vintage thrills, but brought out titters and sniggers of “same shame” from some of the assembled delegates.

And then you are shown real-time satellite feeds and video clips of the newer ports, along with first-hand feedback from friends still sailing whose ships call these new generation Indian ports, and get invitations from more friends working at these ports—and you say to yourself, wish it was easier to secure permissions from the other authorities currently paranoid about security to bring this message to our own people that this, too, is India. And then you head into the exhibition area of the IMW, and suddenly, all this and more on display there.

The IMW should have had a “public day” for general visitors. Or place a mobile exhibition outside Red Gate, Indira Docks, Mumbai and Netaji Subhash Docks, Kolkata, for the people of those cities to see what their ports and cities could be.

The aim of the government is to put up at least 130% of projected capacity, both in captive and common user facilities, of all shipping-related needs, after which, may the most efficient survive and flourish. The participants at the IMW were reminded that if they wanted the freedom to grow, they had it, and there was no point in simply bringing up old issues. The approach was that the IMW heralded a solution oriented future, and was not going to be the complaint centre—and that was clear to see at IMW 2012 in Delhi.

(Veeresh Malik started and sold a couple of companies and is now back to his first love—writing. He is also involved actively in helping small and midsize family-run businesses re-invent themselves. Mr Malik had a career in the Merchant Navy which he left in 1983, qualifications in ship-broking and chartering, a love for travel, and an active participation in print and electronic media as an alternate core competency, all these and more.)

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