The expert appraisal committee attached to the ministry of environment, forest and climate change has recommended environment and coastal regulation zone (CRZ) clearances to V O Chidambaranar Port Trust ( VOCPT ) to expand the capacity of the Central government-run port located in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district with an investment of ₹ 5,720 crore.

The expansion of the inner harbour of VOCPT - one of the biggest yet undertaken at a major port - includes deepening the harbour basin and approach channel to handle ships with a draft of 15.2 metres, widening the port’s entrance, building six new berths and strengthening/upgradation of the existing berths.

Deepening the approach channel and harbour basin will help VOCPT to dock very large container ships with a capacity to carry as much as 14,000 twenty-foot equivalent units or TEUs, as the shipping ministry looks to position the eastern coast port to compete with Colombo for transhipment after the cabotage restriction was lifted in May last year.

“Geographically, VOCPT is best suited to compete with Colombo for transhipment of containers, but it needs better infrastructure and draft to allow bigger mainline ships to dock,” said a shipping industry executive.

The easing of cabotage rules allowed foreign-flagged container ships to carry export-import (EXIM) laden containers for transhipment and empty containers for re-positioning on local routes.

Taiwan’s Wan Hai Lines Ltd has already started a main line service from VOCPT, taking advantage of the cabotage relaxation.

VOCPT currently has a water depth of 14 metres allowing ships with a draft of 12.8 metres and cargo carrying capacity of 60,000 tonnes to call.

It plans to increase the depth of the dock basin area to 16.5 metres and approach channel to 17.2 metres to accommodate ships with a draft f 15.2 metres.

The inner harbour optimisation plan also involves increasing the length of the approach channel from 3.8 km to 10.04 km as well as widening the port’s entrance from 153m to 230m to allow safe entry of larger size vessels with a length overall (LOA) of up to 367 m.

The channel deepening and widening of the port’s entrance will also help fully-loaded Panamax vessels with a capacity to carry 90,000 tonnes of cargo and requiring a draft of 15.2 metres, to dock. The doubling of the ship parcel sizes calling at the port will cut logistics cost by 30 per cent, according to a shipping ministry official.

VOCPT currently runs six general cargo berths, two container terminals, two coal jetties, one oil jetty, two North cargo berths and one shallow draft berth with a capacity to handle 46.78 million tonnes (mt) of cargo. In FY18, the port handled 36.58 mt.

The expert appraisal committee (EAC) recommended the project for environmental and coastal regulation zone (CRZ) clearances during a meeting on January 17, the shipping ministry official said. The EAC recommendation will have to be signed off by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, which is considered a mere formality.

VOCPT has hired the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras to write a detailed project report (DPR) on the expansion plan.