India: It’s time for maritime service

The National Shipping Board, the apex policy-making body for the shipping industry, is in overdrive, intent on making India a ‘maritime superpower’ by 2020. NSB member Sandeep Chandra tells S. Raghotham that it is important for India to develop sea power.

Q: You have spoken of a vision of India as a maritime superpower by 2020.
Yes, we need to be proactive as far as our seas are concerned. In earlier times, force was projected through land armies, then with technological advancement, air power became important.

Now, Mahaan’s dictum, ‘He who rules the waves rules the world’ is true. All the advanced countries — the US, the UK, China — are focusing on the seas. Navies around us are flexing muscles, so it is important for India to develop sea power.

Secondly, we now know that there are vast fuel and mineral resources under the sea, and these are ripe for exploration and exploitation.

Thirdly, environmental pollution is a big concern. The movement of larger amount of goods requires a lot of transportation, and it is best that much of it is done by waterways, rather than by road. That will help reduce the pollution of road transport, take pressure off road infrastructure, and bring in economies of scale.

If you look at it, all major industrial projects, whether in the oil industry or iron and steel, etc., they all need feeding from the ships, because these are massive quantities of materials we are talking about. So, they are all coming up near ports. Otherwise, the cost of logistics would be too high. For all these reasons, we have to develop both our naval and maritime capabilities.

Q: What are the steps being taken in that direction?
On the naval side, as you know, we have just taken delivery of one of the most potent ships, the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya. This is important. If you look at the wars that the advanced nations fight, you will see that aircraft carriers are critical.

Secondly, we need to build more indigenous nuclear submarines. The power of the future is nuclear power. Even ordinary ships will someday be powered by nuclear power.

For maritime development, two major ports have been sanctioned for the next five-year plan. One is to come up at Sagar in West Bengal and the other at Ramyapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Each involves investments of Rs. 15,000-20,000 crore over five years.

Secondly, in the National Shipping Board, which is the highest policy making body for the shipping industry and of which I am a member, I have mooted the idea of a dedicated Indian Maritime Service (IMS), on the lines of the IAS or IPS.

There is general agreement on the efficacy of the idea, and I think we are going to see a lot happen on this front in the next six to eight months.

The idea for the IMS comes from the fact that today, our ports are run by IAS officers, who are not specialists on the shipping industry. They learn on the job, but by the time they become capable of doing some good, it’s time for them to be transferred. This needs to change. We need to put trained people in maritime matters at the helm of our ports.

I have also mooted the idea of bringing fishermen into the maritime mainstream. Fishing is cyclical and fishermen face the vagaries of nature in the quest to earn their livelihoods. But they are also natural people of the seas.

So, why not train them to become master mariners and ply medium and large vessels. That way, the shipping industry gets manpower, and the fishermen will not be dependent on the fishing business.

Q: What are the reforms underway?
I work closely with the minister for shipping, G.K. Vasan. In my view, he is the best shipping minister to date. He has brought in a great degree of decentralisation and transparency, honesty and time-bound programmes.

I am saying this because the man at the top makes all the difference. Today, private players are coming in and the pace of modernisation has picked up. Several big industrial houses want to invest in ports because ports are highly viable projects. We need a proactive policy to encourage this and build more major and minor ports. When ports develop, a lot of economic activity develops around them.

The reforms underway include establishing the Indian Maritime Service, which should see the light of day soon, and the idea of bringing fishermen into maritime professions.

There are other ideas that are being talked about or considered. We must give incentives to industries that use the shipping industry for exports. We also need state-of-the-art vessels for exports, and for highly mechanised fishing.

We need more automation in ports, even as we ensure that jobs in the industry are not lost. As a test case, one or two ports must be totally automated. I have raised this idea in the NSB.

Q: The Andamans are vastly untapped. Is there a plan for that region?
The Andaman and Nicobar islands have a fragile ecology. Without disturbing the ecology, we should bring the islands into the economic mainstream. Given the Andamans are important for In-dia’s security and due to the tribals, we have to tread carefully.

But the seas there also have great resources. So, whatever must be done there must be done by the government. More research vessels need to be sent there. Perhaps, we can develop exotic tourism there.

Q: The Arctic seems to be bigger on our radar.
Just like we are going on space missions to the Moon and Mars,  we must also go to the Arctic region. There are precious resources there. There is a lot of research going on in the area and it is a sunrise industry. Other nations are going there. We, too, need to have a footprint there. We are a regional superpower, we need to plant the Indian flag in the Arctic.
Q: Piracy remains a big issue on the high seas.

We need to get tough on pirates. We must employ the Indian Navy, surround ships that pirates raid and teach them a lesson. Secondly, we need to build strong rooms aboard each ship, into which sailors can retreat, and which pirates cannot storm. Sailors can then communicate and wait for help when under attack.

Q: India is being slow on exploiting the resources in our Extended Economic Zone.
There are grey areas in the Law of the Sea. It’s easier to draw and recognise land boundaries than to do it in the sea. That’s why there are more disputes in the waters than on land. All countries that are affected by this have to sort out these issues so that we can exploit our EEZ.
Q: What is the status of the project to link rivers?

A blueprint for the river linking project already exists, but states have to agree. It’s a very complex issue and one that requires heavy capital investment. I am going to bring up the idea of a demonstration project in the next NSB meeting. The easiest may be linking the rivers of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.

Q: Finally, where do you see economic activity picking up — the Arabian Sea or the Bay of Bengal?
I expect to see a lot more activity in the Bay of Bengal than in the Arabian Sea, because there are a lot of  virgin islands in the former. Also, the potential for inter-coastal trade is higher on this side.


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