In your interest.
Online Personal Finance Magazine
No beating about the bush.
The wars of the present and the future are going to be fought using economic tools more than military might. Building this economic power requires the revival of seafaring strength that was allowed to deteriorate on account of a short-sighted and corrupt approach
Before you take down a fence, you might want to know why the previous owner put it up.
- GK Chesterton
A few disclosures in the context of this article and the previous one (headlined 'Cochin Port Trust bats for DP World, LBW cabotage').
1) I have received phone calls and messages-some angry-from friends and others in the industry, reacting as though this is some ill-informed lobbying against DP World and/or Cochin Port/Vallarpadam Terminal. Nothing could be further from the truth. These articles are based on facts and observations.
Among other things, this writer travelled to Kerala in June 2011, undertook a walkabout of the Cochin Port area, met with a variety of people in the industry, and researched the subject through available as well as sourced material. Let me also clarify that I have some very good friends who work in very senior positions at DP World and their associated companies globally, but I value my common sense and position as an Indian first.
2) The success of one or more unitised cargo hubs in India, bringing origin/destination and trans-shipment cargo not just for India but also other nearby countries through these hubs, is something that many of us seafarers and have seen evolve in other parts of the world from the 1960s and '70s, and we consider it to be our birthright and overdue for India. In this context, Cochin and therefore Vallarpadam, are about the best located to make this happen-with the possible addition of Tuticorin and New Mangalore.
Because there is scope-India can easily justify three or even more trans-shipment hubs for mainline ships. My own involvement with intermodal container movement in the country, operating for APL with the help of the Indian Railways (the first dedicated container train operated from Delhi to Mumbai and Madras way back in 1989), bear testimony to this, because even then, the aim was to try and bring the then mainline APL container ships into Madras Harbour.
3) The stated policy of the Indian government for years now, has been to "migrate" trans-shipment sea cargo from other "regional" hubs (Colombo, Dubai/UAE, Singapore), as well as to give a boost to coastal and other domestic shipping, including inland. But the government's chosen arms, viz DG Shipping, Mercantile Marine Department, the port trusts and others, have failed miserably in achieving this. That in the bargain, coastal as well as inland shipping in India has been almost destroyed is also a bitter truth and the reasons are plain to see. To the oft asked question is 'does cabotage work?' The answer is, yes. It works in other countries where it is implemented in letter and spirit. And it worked in the Indian Ocean economies prior to the arrival of the Europeans-described so well in "Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750", by KN Chaudhuri.
I would like to take forward the discussion on why cabotage has been made to fail in India, and simultaneously, how domestic shipping, both coastal and inland, has failed over the past few decades. From here in Delhi, where bombs have gone off near the High Court for a second time in four months, enough is enough. It's time to press the restart button and fix things.
Bimal Roy's 1963 classic "Bandhini" was just one among many movies of that era that portrayed how river transport, especially paddle wheel steamers (some of them were capable of transporting whole trains across rivers), was an intrinsic part of life in the lower reaches of the Ganges. Bhupen Hazarika's songs can still be heard-ballads about commerce and trade, as well as human emotions, from river to sea. The Bombay-to-Goa steamers were an important link along the Konkan Coast, and in the 1970s, we could set our clocks by their arrival and departure at Ferry Wharf. Before independence, of course, coastal shipping on routes like Karachi-Saurashtra/Cambay ports-Bombay and further south, all the way to the Malabar coast were well developed. They just don't exist today.
It is easy to blame the way the British drew lines on maps, across centuries-old trade routes, and destroyed these, especially water-borne trade. But even with the post-1947 coastline and rivers providing ample opportunity for sea and river cargo by ship, the powers-that-be simply let things die. Road transport, since it does provide better opportunities to earn, prevailed at the cost of what was good for society. The death knell was well and truly sounded when all training and certification moved into English, condemning generations of natural seafarers, as the regulatory and statutory authorities literally killed this form of transport.
Compulsions of corruption
Where's coastal and inland shipping today? Barring the aggressive growth of barges in and around Goa, and the recent re-introduction of some amount of self-propelled barges as well as oil industry support vessels, it does appear as though we have pretty much lost the plot as far as the domestic shipping industry aimed at coastal and inland waters is concerned; this despite the alleged protection of cabotage, and assorted mouth movements on policies and proposals. Sadly, most of them remain lip service. The big reason is simple: Once out on the water, it is very difficult to collect hafta, toll, octroi, zakat, or any of the myriad other levies, legit or otherwise. In addition, the whole exercise is totally stacked against the Indian flag coastal operator-taxes on everything, huge amounts of paperwork and worst of all, outright non-cooperation by a variety of entities.
Certainly there are some heavily-subsidised services to and within the Andamans and Lakshwadeep, but the less said about them the better. You have to ask the locals what they really get. In addition, the liquid and gas tanker fleet manages to keep up with the coastal needs on petroleum products, but that is also because we permit old ships which would not be allowed anywhere else. But it is with dry cargo-both bulk as well as unitised, and passenger-that there is the largest scope, biggest gap, and lowest support.
The reasons are not too far to see. Bringing a ship, new or secondhand, into the Indian flag has its own perils. Cost as well as corrution up and down the line. Anecdotal evidence exists in ship-loads of people who have tried and come foul of the closed club that the Indian National Shipowners Association (INSA) runs, as well as the attitudinal issues of dealing with the DG Shipping and its various arms.
Government offices elsewhere in the country have cleaned up their act and many of them are now in an equal participant mode with the industries they regulate, that is except for the multi-window babus in the shipping sector.
To look at things one way, we've reached a point where the situation is ripe to do away with cabotage. Frankly, it has been made so very difficult for new entrants, as well as older players, to move into coastal and inland shipping, that the gates have by default been left wide open for the unregulated flag of convenience-type foreign flag fleets. Who in these days of global recession, would just love to grab this opportunity.
From that single, short-sighted, self-destructive selling-out of India's interests, the stand against cabotage makes a lot of sense; though it is born more out of frustration, and is also totally unsustainable. Most of all, it is also anti-national, because in one fell swoop we are giving away our resources, and some day whoever proposed doing away with cabotage will pay just as the 2G, mining and CWG scamsters are paying.
So, the reality is that on one side we don't want to relax cabotage. But on the other side, we are unable or unwilling to provide a better alternative, and so we are back to square one. Because, the fact remains that without a solution there will be an even bigger loss to the nation.
Things to change
The solutions, actually, are very simple. They would need a Konkan Railway/Delhi Metro type of leadership, clear vision and a multi-pronged path. Some elements are discussed here.
# The biggest reason that entities like Vallarpadam/DP World would like to place foreign flag ships on trans-shipment has to do with saving taxes and costs, as well as being able to control and stitch together movements between all the terminals they control and more. Fair enough, that's commercial sense for them, but the Indian flag ships should be given the same terms and conditions. Here is where a level playing field for Indian flag ships is essential.
In other words, tax and regulate the foreign flag ships exempted from cabotage according to Indian levels, or exempt Indian flag ships, and this can be done under Competition Commission laws or at a stretch, anti-dumping laws. After all, why should the foreign flag ships operating in Indian waters be exempt from all laws and taxes, leaving Indian ships to compete on totally unequal terms?
# There is a need for a total change in attitude by the Directorate General of Shipping towards coastal shipping, especially towards newcomers in the field. Putting it bluntly, the various offices of the DG Shipping and Mercantile Marine Department operate like colonial fiefdoms, divided further among deck, engine, radio/electronics and others, with a total lack of best practices, suited for the day. Take a look at their dysfunctional website. It hides more than it tells and gives you an idea of where it is still in space and time and computerisation.
As a matter of fact, if the coastal shipping part of things could be hived off from the present Mumbai monument, it would be the best service to the nation, and if it could be re-located somewhere else, then so much the better. But it has to be taken out of that moldy old building in Mumbai, for sure.
# Changes to aspects of the Customs Act, Immigration Rules and also other rules governing the movement of ships in and out of Indian ports, will need to be coordinated with other ministries. This is not impossible. Briefly, Indian ships on coastal voyages are also treated like vessels arriving from abroad and subjected to the same procedures every time they leave or reach an Indian port.
In addition, duties and taxes on the ships themselves, stores, fuel and other items, need to be reviewed. Why should foreign ships visiting Indian ports get bunkers (fuel) and stores at cheaper rates than Indian ships, for example? If a relaxation on these heads is given to foreign ships, then it should be allowed to Indian ships, too.
# It has to be understood that there is a recession on globally, and shipping is no exemption, so foreign ships will not be difficult to come by. Taken forward in the same coin, there will be no difficulty in ensuring that these foreign flag ships come under the Indian flag for the duration of time they are on coastal duties, adhering to all Indian laws. However, recessions are cyclical, and once this one is over, a mature trans-shipment trade will be at the mercy of international speculators. With proper implementation of cabotage, sufficient capacity would have been built up under the Indian flag, and surplus if any would be globally competitive too.
# Cabotage is not a stranger to the Indian Ocean. Historically, sea trade in the Indian Ocean was of two sorts-international bilateral between the countries doing business with each other, and domestic. It is very important to bear in mind that domestic trade was always specifically controlled by the prevailing powers. "Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750", by KN Chaudhuri, which takes a very non-Euro centric view of things in Asia, is just one book which spells this out. Of course, the advent of the East India Company tried to change that by using European ships for trade between India and China, for example. And also by, eventually, placing their ships and flags on coastal as well as river trade routes too, using arguments and superior force of the same sort as sought to be used by modern-day East India companies.
# Cabotage is also very important to revive India's ship-building and repair industry. Till about 250 years ago, it was an acknowledged fact that the best and fastest ships of the time were built in India, with orders for even warships in Europe being placed out of India. This leadership was destroyed when India's trade was not just brought under foreign flag, but it was insisted upon that the ships be built in Europe, for trading between Europe and Asia. Re-introduction of a stronger cabotage law in India along the lines of the Jones Act in the US and the various laws on the subject in the EU, will revive this dormant industry again.
To round off, let us not forget that resource shortages, emergent powers, international conflict, food shortages, population and climate change are going to be centred in and around the Indian Ocean in the very near future. This is a known and accepted view, and if India at that time, is found short, because it has no shipping fleet of its own for its own coast and rivers, then we can look forward to a few more centuries of slavery again. This is said in all seriousness.
The wars of the present and future are going to be fought using economic tools more than military might. And for economic strength, our seafaring strengths have to be back in position, from the point of no return that they seem to be reaching right now due to the short-sighted and corrupt approaches being taken by certain elements in and out of governance.
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With inflation continuing to remain high, the apex bank is likely to continue with tightening measures despite weakening domestic and global demand that has hurt manufacturing activity
Notwithstanding the economic slowdown, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is likely to hike the repo rate by a further 25 basis points as inflation continues to remain elevated, according to Nomura Financial Advisory and Securities (India). However, the central bank may keep policy rates on hold thereafter, it said in a report published this week.
A dip in the Purchasing Managers Index to 52.6 in August this year, from 53.6 in the previous month, reflected lower domestic and new export orders. But core infrastructure sector output growth rose to 7.8% y-o-y in July, from 5.2% in June, indicating a slight pick-up in infrastructure investment activity.
With interest rates and inflation likely to remain up for some months more, Nomura suggested that consumption growth could moderate further, even as export orders are on the decline due to weakening global demand.
But it's not all bad news. There has been good rainfall this monsoon season which could have a positive effect on the festive season underway and this could lead to an improvement in domestic demand from the rural sector that could give an impetus to the economy as a whole.
Among the major sectors, cement, steel and electricity recorded double-digit growth, but natural gas and fertilisers continued to see negative year-on-year growth. The pickup in infrastructure sector output growth suggests that investment activity is improving and this should help ease supply-side inflation pressures over time.
According to K R Choksey, challenging macro-economic factors (interest rate hikes and rising fuel prices) continued to impact automobile manufacturing volumes. The major impact was seen in passenger car companies which have reported a y-o-y decline in volumes.
Commodity prices have started to show some stability but high cost of ownership is negatively affecting the demand sentiment, especially in the passenger car segment.
Overall, data released over the past few days indicates that the economy is slowing further, as both domestic and external demand is weakening, even though investment seems to be picking up.
The export orders component of the manufacturing PMI fell further to 45 in August 2011, from an already low level of 49.2 in July 2011. The trade deficit widened to $11.1bn in July from $7.7bn in June, as import growth accelerated to 51.5% y-o-y in July from 42.2%. Non-oil imports also continued to rise in July 2011, which further suggests strong momentum in infrastructure investment activity.
On the price front, CPI (Consumer Price Index) inflation eased marginally to 8.4% y-o-y in July 2011 from 8.6% in June 2011, above Nomura (brokerage house) expectations of 7.7%. Meanwhile, the input price index of the manufacturing PMI rose to 65.6 in August from 64.3 in July 2011, suggesting that input cost pressures remain strong, although the output price index eased slightly to 55.6 from 56.0. These price-related PMI prints suggest that core WPI (wholesale price index) inflation is likely to stay elevated.
The slowdown is not limited to manufacturing, but it has also affected real GDP growth. The moderation in GDP growth has been largely due to weaker final consumption, resulting from elevated prices, high interest rates and lower government spending. The government is likely to reduce spending on subsidies to meet its fiscal deficit target.
Real GDP growth eased to 7.7% y-o-y in the second quarter of 2011 from 7.8% in the first quarter of the year 2011, largely in line with its expectations, Nomura said. It is expected that growth will remain below 8% in the next few quarters because of high interest rates and elevated prices, leaving the GDP growth forecast for the financial year 2011-12 unchanged at 7.7% y-o-y.