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Monday, May 26, 2003

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Jawaharlal Nehru Port: Charting out a steady course

Amit Mitra

JNPT port containers await offloading from ship.

WHEN, on May 26 1989, the Jawaharlal Nehru Port (JN Port) was commissioned amid much fanfare and expectations that it would soon emerge as India's most high-tech port and a major container hub port in this part of the world, doubts were expressed in certain quarters on whether the port could actually live up to the bloated expectations of its planners. But 14 years down the line, the successive managements of the port could quell the doubts, despite facing an initial period of setbacks and teething troubles, marked by a slower-than-expected growth rate. Indeed, today the port is firmly poised to emerge as a major regional container hub port, having already carved a distinct niche among the international ports, with more than 30 international shipping lines operating from the port.

Confident of handling more than 27 million tonnes of cargo in the current fiscal, including 23 million tonnes of container cargo, JN Port, which is expected to play a more significant role in bolstering the container traffic from and to India in the coming years. Nonetheless, analysts say that the port, which ranks 28th among the container ports in the world, would have to ramp up its productivity and infrastructure if it were to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with international container transhipment ports. For, only then would new shipping lines be attracted to the port. Says Mr Ravi Bhushan Budhiraja, JN Port Chairman: ''We are at presently handling 55-60 per cent of the container throughput in India. There is going to be tremendous increase in container traffic in the coming years and the port is confident of handling 36 million tonnes of traffic by 2006-07.''

In fact, the need for a modern container port in India was felt as far back as in the 1970s when the first container ship of American President Lines called at the then Bombay Port.

Indian port planners subsequently zeroed in on Nhava Sheva for setting up a port that would be totally different in concept, technology, operation and administration - it was even felt that a new legislation for the port was necessary so that it could sprout on the strength of its own roots and not be manacled by ponderous procedures that were in existence then.

It is a different matter that the legislation did not materialise, but in the years that followed, the port could overcome the initial problems and emerge as a model port in India.

Shortage of equipment and concomitant delay in turnaround of ships (vessels were then confined to the port for two to three days) had resulted in tardy growth in container traffic to the port for the first few years. Starting with a throughput of 33,880 TEUs in the first year (1989-90), the traffic could nudge one lakh TEUs only in the year 1991-92.

However, the port went in for a brisk expansion between 1995 and 1997, acquiring three RMQCs (rail mounted quay cranes), six RTGCs and two RMGCs in phases.

Pointed out Mr Budhiraja: ''This capacity augmentation has brought about a dramatic change in the productivity parameters of the port, with pre-berthing detention coming down to hours from days in the earlier years. The traffic touched its peak in the year 1998-99, when the port handled 6.69 lakh TEUs and crossed one million TEUs in 2001-02.''

Today, the port has five container berths, including two operated by Nhava Sheva International Container Terminal (NSICT), India's first privately operated berths, two liquid cargo berths and three shallow draft berths, which handle both feeder and general cargo vessels. The port has also lined up a string of developmental projects to meet the anticipated surge in container traffic in the coming years.

What were the factors that fuelled this growth? Analysts say that the large hinterland, covering Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and New Delhi, apart from some parts of South India, has been generating a steady stream containerised cargoes. Further, the port's connectivity with the hinterland has been smoothening cargo evacuation - the port is connected with 23 Inland Container Depots (ICDs).

The other factors include fixed window schedules to Europe, America, Africa and Far East, according to the analysts.

What is significant about the port's container operations is that over 80 per cent of the containerised cargo handled at the port heads directly to the destination, with only 20 per cent being transhipped.

In ports like Mumbai, Kandla, Cochin, Tuticorin and Chennai, more than 80 per cent of the box cargoes are transhipped at various transhipment ports as Colombo, Dubai, Salala and Singapore.

''This has been attracting exporters and importers, as they can send their cargoes through the port directly to destinations as Europe, America and Africa, without touching any foreign transhipment ports, which helps them make significant savings and reduce transit time,'' a Mumbai-based garment exporter pointed out.

This is precisely the reason that JN port has all the potential for becoming a major container hub port. ''Already, much of the cargo from Kandla, which was hitherto being transhipped in the Gulf or at Colombo port, is now being transhipped at JN Port. Added to this, the cargo from West Asia and Karachi, destined to Europe is also being brought to the port for transhipment since almost every alternative day a vessel is sailing to Europe,'' a port official said.

As a matter of fact, a Government-appointed Committee, headed by the former chairman of the port, Mr Arun Bongiwar, appointed by the Ministry of Shipping to examine the issues relevant to encourage transhipment at Indian ports, had recommended that a major thrust be given to JN Port, as ''this is the only upcoming port to be developed as transhipment hub in this region.''

Thus, once the Government implements the Committee report (already some of the recommendations like abolition of Custom over time and submission of bonds are being implemented), JN Port would surely emerge as a major container hub in this region.

Further, to facilitate quick transhipment from East Coast to West Coast, Concor and the Railways are together planning to put in place the 'land bridge' concept between Chennai, Kolkata and Haldia to JN port.

Also, some of the coastal feeder operators who are at present feeding the cargo from Kandla and Pipavav to get it transhipped at JN port are now planning to broaden their area of operation by getting cargoes from Cochin, Goa and New Mangalore.

Port analysts feel that with JN port having significant potential in the box cargo segment, it is intrinsic that the port plans strengthening of its cargo handling and cargo evacuation infrastructure.

The port will soon have its sixth container berth through private participation, with its invitation for Expression of Interest (EoI) bids having met with encouraging response from domestic and foreign port operators.

More important will be the pace at which the port can increase the rail capacity - doubling of the Panvel-Jassai rail link to meet the anticipated increase in inflow of container traffic by rail is on the agenda of the Government, which, analysts say, should be taken up on a war footing.

Also, the port's connectivity with the National Highway should be broadened if the port were to emerge as a major container hub in this region.

Picture by Shashi Ashiwal

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