o country is entirely self-sufficient, and every country relies on maritime trade to sell what it has and buy what it needs. Shipping helps ensure that the benefits of trade and commerce are more evenly spread.
However, it is a pity that the world does not generally recognise this fact. It comes to the notice only when there is an accident like the grounding of “Ever Given” in the Suez Canal. This led to a large number of ships being blocked which according to Lloyds List was holding up an estimated $9.6billion each day – or $400million every hour. Yet somehow, economists and those responsible for the world economy fail to recognise that without shipping and its associated infrastructure the world economy would come to a grinding halt. All the algorithms of the world’s capital markets would not be able to move goods to facilitate trade.
Shipping is fundamental to international trade as it provides a cost-effective, safe, and clean means to transport large volumes of cargo around the world. In layman’s term it is the gear box that moves the world economy.
Furthermore, shipping does not mean only ships and oceans – it has a lot of associated industries. It would be true to say that it is one of the most comprehensively integrated industries which in addition to ships includes ports, environment, bathymetry, ocean engineering, hydrodynamics, and human resources, to name a few. For the sake of clarity, I will call it the Maritime Ecosystem.
It must be appreciated that even during the height of the pandemic when the world was under almost total lockdown, shipping continued to carry goods all around the world. This ensured food grain and oil reached its destination so that half the world did not go hungry, and the other half did not freeze. These ships were manned by seafarers who were stuck on board for months together without being able to set foot ashore. In fact, due to trade dispute between Australia and China some seafarers were stuck on board their ships for more than 14 months. It would be unimaginable for those ashore to live in such an isolated and confined environment as well to battle with the elements of nature. Under such circumstances normal people ashore would have created a riot. Even today, with a new wave of Covid variants and governments thinking twice before even considering enforcing a total lockdown, ships continue to carry and deliver cargo come hail, snow, or pandemic.
Thus, it is essential to understand and nurture the entire Maritime Ecosystem to have a sustainable economy.
The 11 major ports functioning under the restrictive ambit of the Major Port Trusts Act, 1963 (MPT) had difficulty in operating in a highly competitive environment and responding to market challenges. The business practices have changed drastically since the 1960s. Since, the major ports were falling short of providing the expected services several non-major ports and private ports stepped in and captured more than 40 per cent of the market share of the cargo handled in India. Hence, the government had to comprehensively revise the MPT to provide corporate governance of these ports. Nonetheless, it must be appreciated corporate governance does mean only monetising the existing assets i.e., the land banks available with the port trusts. We need to plan at least 50 years ahead and work towards ensuring that the entire maritime sector is sustainable. This means involving all sectors as mentioned above to ensure that it is sustainable for the future. Sustainable development is the name of the game today.
Maritime coastal states have recognised the importance of the maritime sector and have set up State Maritime Boards. Unfortunately, this has been restricted to building ports to facilitate the movement of export and import cargo. Building and sustaining a port is not restricted to setting up berths and cargo handling gear. We must understand the environmental and safety issues and address all aspects comprehensively. For example, when building and operating a port constant dredging is needed to ensure that the water depth is maintained for safe navigation. We can use the dredged material to enhance the river embankments for controlling floods. The nutrient rich silt can also be used to rejuvenate fallow agriculture land. The oceans can be harnessed to capture clean energy by using tides and ocean current. This is not only clean and cheap but also goes a long way towards mitigating threats posed by climate change. Apart from enhancing the economy of the region, it also has tremendous potential for job-creation. The opportunities are unlimited, we just have to recognise them and work to implement them.
Recently, Odisha passed the Odisha Maritime Board Bill. The proposed board is expected to have 12 members from the state and central government with the Chief Secretary as the chairman along with a maritime expert. The board is expected to frame guidelines for non-nationalised inland waterways as well exercise licensing and regulatory functions relating to port infrastructure and services. Even though I have served both on ships as well as within the maritime sector of the United Nations, I cannot claim to be an expert in all fields of the Maritime Ecosystem. In fact, there is no one person who can claim to be an expert in all matters related to the maritime sector. The need of the hour is to take inputs from not only the stakeholders but all ancillary and associated sectors and then take a considered decision while finalising a maritime project. This will ensure that the infrastructure not only meets the commercial needs but also the environment and safety requirements. We can also take lessons from our history where the Cholas as well as the kingdoms of Odisha like the Sendha dynasty had a comprehensive maritime infrastructure which was sustained over generations. They had a thriving maritime trade with South and South East Asia due to this and were renowned for it.
Finally, not only as a nation but each maritime coastal state individually, we have world renowned experts in all fields related to the building of a sustainable Maritime Ecosystem. Hence, there is no need to employ expensive foreign consultants who, by and large, would propose ideas that have been used in developed countries without understanding the ground realities in India. Indian professionals would also be far more cost effective than foreign consultants. All that is required is that decision-makers take inputs from the entire range of the Maritime Ecosystem before making the final decision.
The writer is Director (retired), Maritime Safety Division, International Maritime Organisation (United Nations).