India’s weakening maritime power

National Maritime Day has come and gone, but the potential of India’s maritime prowess and power is steadily being strangled and eroded. First it was our ships and shipping lines, now it is our ports. What is left after that?

Every year in the first week of April for the past six decades, the Indian shipping industry goes through this great annual event called “National Maritime Day”—now elongated to the “National Maritime Week”. Part of this ritual involves telling young people that entering life at sea is a strange story. In a way, it fits in with the way generations of students in India have been taught to feel inferior about what India was and can be, and instead to feel highly grateful as well as obliged and patronised for life in India courtesy fictional history rewritten for a purpose on how it was the colonial Europeans who brought everything including their so-called civilisation, while looting us of centuries of self-respect, evolution and wealth.

We are used to hearing this in context with most everything—railways, military, postal services, administration, clothes and more—even our philosophies. But when one looks at the history of the maritime skills of the economies of the Indian Ocean in the centuries before the Europeans landed up, then at least one hopes the records will be straightened out. The Indian Ocean economies had ports, shipyards, lighthouses and much more, along with navigational skills that recognised the fact that the earth was round, centuries before the Europeans could even begin to think of such matters.

For example, in the great relocation of Europeans to Australia a couple of hundred years ago, fact remains, the ships and navigators for the voyage from Asia towards the Antipodes were from India. Likewise, it was the navigators and shipping industries of the Indian Ocean economies which opened the sea-lanes for Europe to Asia trade well before anybody else came and ‘cooked’ up stories about ‘discovering’ that the earth was round and making passage around the Capes.

The biggest tribute to the maritime skills that the Europeans acquired from the Indian Ocean areas are even now held on public display at the Nautical Museum in Greenwich, and in not so much public display at the nearby Trinity House, where these truths are not hidden.

In India, however, the same old fiction is dredged up year after year, indoctrinating fresh generations of maritime cadets on how India’s maritime glories began with the sailing of the Indian flag Scindia steamship ‘Loyalty’, purchased second hand, in 1919, courtesy the immaculate benevolence of our then British rulers and the suddenly re-discovered nationalism of some of our domestic royalty.  

The reality playing out is something totally different, coastal shipping in India has almost sunk, international shipping under the Indian flag is being self-strangulated, and official attitudes are ranged between the “we can do nothing” and the “you do your worst we will not change” aspects.

Nothing shows it better than a review of the Enrica Lexie/St Antony episode, which had previously been covered by Moneylife, and the Prabhu Daya/Don2 episode.

The latest updates, briefly, are as follows—and the contrast between the two could not be more drastic.

Enrica Lexie/St. Antony—Still no trace of the Voice Data Recorder (VDR) and no access to the various other data recorders on the ship either. No clarity on who is the real beneficiary owner of the ship. Much fury and arrogance in Italy with reports of Indian origin people and restaurants being attacked, Italian soldiers coming out in protest on the streets in Italy and amazingly, demands that Italian warships/frigates be sent to Kerala to rescue the ship and soldiers, by force. Ship still under arrest at Cochin anchorage and two soldiers in jail with no clarity on who actually ordered the soldiers to shoot and why the ship was so close to the Indian coast, in the first case. Likewise, no clarity on why the ship altered course after the incident and changed destination from Persian Gulf to Suez/Red Sea. But hey, the maritime administration appears to be in a huge tearing hurry to let go the ship.

Prabhu Daya/Don2—Full disclosure by the owners on all aspects of ownership, vessel, cargo and destination, and crew onboard of all data recorders and full access provided. Admission of error, out-of-court settlement and due process for re-verifying certification of vessel and competencies of complement onboard to follow. Master and crew arrested and then released on bail while all possible co-operation is being extended and investigations are not being hampered or influenced. Vessel still under arrest at Chennai. The same maritime administration is not in a hurry to let go this ship.

So what has all this got to do with National Maritime Day, then?

Just this—that the maritime administration of India appears to be still very much rooted in the colonial past, not just in outward appearance where even vice-chancellors and directors of almost defunct maritime training establishments fight each other in court and squabble over issues like who gets which car with what sort of red beacon to be on parity with their counterparts in the directorate general of shipping and the mercantile marine department, but also in the way those offices which will decide the future of Indian maritime issues are run both online as well as in brick and mortar.

Take a look at the directorate general of shipping website, for example, and weep. This is our maritime window to the world. It appears that the sole purpose of this website is to confuse, and therefore to force anybody who has anything to do with the DG Shipping’s offices anywhere, to make personal visits. And we all know what that means.

Directorate General of Shipping

Add to that the simple fact that the Indian National Ship Owner’s Association (INSA) is now more a cosy club of people who have foreign flag ships—while also maintaining a few Indian flag ships. National interest takes a backseat on almost all aspects of maritime issues, and in a manner of speaking, can best be compared to the way the Italians are outraged at their maritime interests being subjected to the due process of law in India. The message is clear—maritime interests of a nation take heavy precedence in Italy and other countries.

The lesser said about the maritime unions, the better. Nobody knows when the last audits were held, how the membership is regulated and who these unions actually stand for. Oh yes, they have a lot of strongmen and heavies floating around.

And then we move on to the really important part—the commercial aspects of maritime trade. The movement of legitimate cargo into and out of the country. Anywhere else in the world, this is a priority sector, where all segments of entities involved work as one for something larger called “national interest”.

In India, it is the other way around, and again it is the reality of container movements in and out of the Kochi port system which provides the best example. Moneylife had written on this subject in the past:

Since this article was published, it appears as though the battle to sell India’s coastal shipping has gone into an even more dangerous downward spiral, and nothing brings this out more than the way the new Vallarpadam Container Terminal is functioning, where cabotage protection is now almost history. In addition, there appears to be open defiance of the Customs Act by the terminal operators, port authorities with the tacit support of the maritime administration support foreign flag vessels, and huge amounts of public money spent on infrastructure development are simply going to waste.

To provide only one example—container loads of banned commodities being smuggled out of the Vallarpadam Terminal (operated by Dubai Ports Worldwide) were sought to be re-examined by the Department of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) and Indian Customs, in October 2011. The port and terminal operators objected, the ministry of commerce backed them and instructed the CISF on duty at the gate not to permit the customs authorities to enter or do anything more than check the seals on the container, until the local police forced the issue in favour of the customs—who have every right to check anything entering or leaving the country—especially if it is totally illegal.

Why would a terminal operator object to customs re-examining a container, unless they had an interest in what is inside the container?

Please understand one more basic concept of shipping—terminal operators, shipping lines, shipping agents and all other intermediaries operate on what is known as a “said to contain” basis—which means, they do not take liability for what goes in or out of a shipment. Often they do not even know the weight on overloaded containers, or whether they contain dangerous cargo, and have to go by the declarations provided.

The provenance of what is inside a shipment is between the shipper and the consignee. Any mis-declaration or resultant issue is not the responsibility of anybody else and as a direct result, terminal operators, shipping lines and agents will bend over backwards to co-operate with the authorities.

Unless, of course, there is some element of connivance and conspiracy between the shipper, consignee and any of the go-betweens, like the terminal operator, shipping line or agents. This, too, is not unknown. So, in the case of containerised cargo, the typical ‘game’ is to point at the one-time lock being used as a container seal, and claim that, look, everything is OK.

But everything is not OK. Containers are sealed using one-time locks on the door handles. As is well known in the trade, as many one-time locks as you want with whatever markings required are available easily without any problems, and there are no reliable or cogent audits on this in the shipping business. Sealed or locked containers can furthermore be easily opened by disengaging the hinges on one side, thereby swinging the door open without disturbing the seals on the other hinges. This is the most open secret in the global container industry, and pilferage or substitution of what is inside a marine container after it has been ‘officially’ sealed is rampant.

A government-operated terminal will co-operate backwards with the authorities. Terminals which are careful about their reputations have a choice. But Vallarpadam? They are loyal, it seems, but to somebody else. Not India.

In this case, it appears that having motivated themselves into a monopoly position and having ensured that the local maritime administration in and around Kochi is eating out of their hands, the terminal operators at Vallarpadam with the support of the local and maritime authorities chose to try and prevent the customs from re-examining the containers.

Why would they do this unless they knew that something was wrong? Can we tolerate this in an independent India?

National Maritime Day has come and gone, but the potential of India’s maritime prowess and power is steadily being strangled and eroded, and that needs to be reversed. First it was our ships and shipping lines, now it is our ports. What is left after that?

(Veeresh Malik had a long career in the Merchant Navy, which he left in 1983. He has qualifications in ship-broking and chartering, loves to travel, and has been in print and electronic media for over two decades. After starting and selling a couple of companies, is now back to his first love—writing.)

Veeresh Malik
10 years ago
Latest update

Italian marines pressurised Captain to cover up
Rambabu Shastri
1 decade ago
India should embrace Islamic law. The Italians are off due to the concept of blood money and that is the law in the Gulf.
Capt Bhatia PS
1 decade ago
I have been reading the articles on a regular basis as they are informative and to the point. Wish that this information reaches the concerned authorities also, so that some action action is taken for the good concern of all.
Replied to Capt Bhatia PS comment 1 decade ago
Dear Capt. PS Bhatia, thank you for writing in.

The authorities, especially the maritime administration in India, are fully aware of the mess they are creating and the dangers this poses to the larger picture of India's economic independence. The time now is to be part of the solution and for that i will request that you please do your bit, too, by bringing these issues up at subsequent maritime functions.

Forcefully. Drive the point home to them that we know what they are doing and will not let them get away with things.

Humbly submitted/VM
S Mukherjee
1 decade ago
A very informative and relevant article in these times when the Enrica Lexie and St. Antony killing incidents have been in the news. Also really expect and hope the shipping authorities will explain the difference in their reaction/treatment in the above 2 cases as clearly pointed out. As well as urgently rectify the other shortcomings mentioned to act in a more pro-Indian manner as befits our status of an independent sovereign nation with a glorious past maritime history.
Replied to S Mukherjee comment 1 decade ago
Dear S Mukherjee, thank you for writing in.

We can do our part, howsoever little, by bringing these issues up publicly. As forcefully and often as possible.

Humbly submitted.

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