Professionals should head major ports

Jose Paul | Updated on April 11, 2018

With increasing competition from private sector players, there is all the more need to rope in professional managers

There are 12 major ports and 187 non-major ports on India’s 7,517-km coastline. While the major sea ports come under the administrative jurisdiction of the Central Government, the non-major ones fall under the respective maritime State governments.

To vest the administration, control and management of major ports, they were brought under the provisions of Major Ports Trusts Act 1963.

The intention of the government, by constituting a body corporate for Indian major ports, was to de-link Port Trusts from governmental administration and give such body corporate a good deal of autonomy to function as commercial entities with separate budgets, rules and regulations.

But the powerful bureaucracy defeated that objective and started treating the Port Trusts as an extension of the Centre. Consequently, with political influence and bureaucratic support at the highest level, personnel of the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service, Indian Revenue Service, and Indian Navy managed to get appointed as Port Trust chairmen in many major ports during the last 55 years.

Clause 3(a) of the Major Port Trusts Act merely states that a chairman be appointed by the Central Government and it does not specify any special qualifications and professional experience for appointment to the post.

The civil service personnel seem to have fully exploited this provision and managed to get appointed to various port trusts, with very few professional managers getting appointed as chairmen.

Looking back

On the invitation of VKRV Rao — an outstanding economist and the Minister of Transport and Shipping in 1967 — experts from the International Association of Ports and Harbours (IAPH), led by Stig Axelson, General Manager, Port of Gothenberg, Sweden, visited major ports in India and submitted a detailed report to the Ministry of Shipping in 1969 on how to modernise port planning, operations and management.

The relevant extract reads thus: “We have found that, with one exception the current port chairmen have had little or no experience in the areas of port development, operations, shipping or, in fact, in any field of transportation.

“Nevertheless, such chairmen are expected to direct effectively the efforts of subordinate officers and to evaluate their performance.

“Likewise, these officials are at times called upon to participate in meetings on international trade conventions, agreements, between ship owners, chambers of commerce programmes, etc.

“In our opinion, it is unrealistic to expect a port administrator or manager to develop insight and appreciation of the complexities of port operation and international trade overnight. There is no short-cut or substitute for experience and the fact that most of the current port chairmen at Indian major ports have not had the benefit of such experience is neither fair to them as individuals nor is it in the best interests of India.”

This particular recommendation, being so damaging to the interests of the civil service personnel, was quietly allowed to gather dust in the Ministry of Shipping without being brought to the notice of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Seventeen years later when the National Shipping Board (1985) for India assessed the same issue, it could not come to a conclusion different from that reached by the IAPH team.


“The Committee is of the view that port administration, like the Railways and Airports Administration, is a highly specialised affair for which professionals who are fully acquainted and have grown with port problems would be better suited to head the Port Trusts.

“Only when such an officer is not available from amongst port services, the question of inducting merited officers from Indian Administrative Services, Defence Services, Engineering Services, and Indian Institute of Business Management should arise.”

Scene at world ports

Antwerp in Belgium is the largest general cargo port in Europe handling 224 million tonnes annually. Robert Vleugels, Fernand Suykens and Eddy Bruyninckx were all professional managers who served as chief executives, with each putting in over 20 years of service with distinction.

John Black, a harbour engineer, served as chief executive of London Port Authority for about 22 years.

Anthony J Tossoli retired as chief executive of New York and New Jersey Port Authority after three decades of professional service. Jean Rousset and Jean Smagghe, chief executives of Marseilles Port Authority and Le Harve Port Authority in France had decades of shipping experience before being appointed to the post.

Bold initiative needed

The government at the Centre is credited with implementing a number of initiatives to reform management policies for effective governance.

It is introducing a new Bill in Parliament to constitute Port Authorities in place of Port Trusts for all major ports. Of the total annual sea-borne traffic of 1,133 million tonnes at Indian ports, 57 per cent is handled by major ports and the balance by non-major ports.

By 2020 non-major ports are expected to handle about 50 per cent of the country’s sea-borne trade. Major sea ports will thus face keen competition and formidable challenge from non-major ports. All the non-major ports operate in the private sector and they have appointed highly qualified, technically competent professional managers as chief executives with a longer tenure of service. There is, therefore, a compelling need for major ports also to professionalise its management structure to meet with the challenges thrown up by the private sector ports.

A decisive change and meaningful transformation in the governance of major ports will happen only if the Prime Minister’s Office insists that the chairman and deputy chairman to be appointed to major port authorities should necessarily have qualifications, technical knowledge and professional experience relevant to international trade, ports, shipping and maritime transport.

The writer is a former former Chairman of Mormugao Port Trust, Goa.

Published on April 11, 2018

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