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Consultation Meeting on April 1, 2015 on the Port and Logistics Project

 

   An informal consultative meeting was held on 1 April 2015 in the CRG office on the initial grounds, presuppositions, and possibilities of a study on the KPT (Kalcutta Port Trust) as a logistical centre.

 

   The attendees were Ranabir Samaddar (Calcutta Research Group), Paula Banerjee (University of Calcutta), Subir Bhowmik (journalist and independent researcher),Samata Biswas (Haldia Government College), Kaustabh Mani Sengupta (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Iman Mitra (Calcutta Research Group), Bikram Sarkar (former IAS and ex-MP), Atin Sen (Pennon Shipping Private Limited), and Deep Gupta (DHL).

 

   Ranabir Samaddar started the discussion stating the purpose of the study. The project will revolve around the idea of shifts in logistical infrastructure of the Calcutta port in the context of development of new trade routes and implementation of the Look East policy of the Indian government. The specifics of development of a port system in Calcutta and uniqueness of its strategic location (intertwined with the port system at Haldia) will also come under scrutiny. Apart from that, the town of Siliguri, a nerve centre of military logistics, located in the northern part of West Bengal and connecting trade routes with several neighbouring states and countries will also appear in this study in the context of logistical development and generation of various forms of informality and illegality. Study the strategic position of the port of Calcutta, to look into the vision of forming of a port system taking into consideration both Calcutta and Haldia.

 

   The first question relevant for a genealogical analysis was pointed out, namely: What made Calcutta such a major port in the past, despite its being a river port? It was suggested that here we need to explore the key question whether Calcutta being the capital of the British empire helped the port thrive or was it the other way round insofar as the port gave British power, entrenched in Bengal, a huge leverage in empire building? Following that trail the other question that was raised was: Does the old factors that made the Kolkata port such an important entrepot for trade and commerce still hold good -- if not wholly, at least partially? Or else what explains Calcutta port's survival? Is it only it is a public sector undertaking, or has it much to do with Calcutta's geo-strategic and geo-economic location?

 

   While doomsday advocates and skeptics who see a bleak future for the KPT are in plenty, the repeated resurgence of the Port makes serious research obligatory, particularly given the fact that in recent time, KPT is again having a sort of resurgence with the Kolkata Dock System of the KPT scaling a new high in container handling in 2014-15 with the highest container throughput of over 5 lakh. It has handled 500447 containers till March 10 in the fiscal of 2014-15. This was an all time record in container handling, achieved despite operational constraints of low navigational draft in the river, unavoidable ship detentions due to lock operations of the impounded dock, tide dependence in ship movement - which all are unique to this river port. One has to add to this the fact that the Central Government has taken the decision to extend the KPT limit in the Bay of Bengal. The KPT plans to use a vessel of 180,000-tonne capacity as the floating dock where smaller ships (Panamax variety) of 75,000 tonnes can unload their cargo. Barges (of 12,000-tonne capacity) can then ferry the cargo to final destinations like Calcutta or Haldia. It also plans to pick a private operator chosen through competitive bidding to build the Rs 300-crore floating facility. It will be stationed in Sandheads, 60 miles south of Haldia for eight months a year. During monsoon, when the sea is turbulent, the floating dock will be taken to Kanika Sands, next to Dhamra port and 60 miles south of Sandheads. The choice of Kanika Sands has riled Orissa, which fears the floating dock will take away business from the Dhamra port that has been built at a cost of Rs 3,000 crore. The port is apparently awaiting a railway connectivity to start operations. In the absence of a floating dock that offers trans-loading facilities, ships are now forced to offload cargo at Orissa’s Paradip and then come to Haldia because of the low draught, depth, in the silt-clogged channel does not allow heavy vessels. The cargo offloaded at Paradip is then carried by rail or road to their final destinations. The KPT expects to handle 6 million tonnes of cargo a year through the floating dock and host around 80 Panamax vessels. Each ship can save up to $1 lakh (around Rs 45 lakh) per trip as it will be able to return from the floating dock three to four days earlier than it did if it had come to Haldia. The KPT has also proposed building an exclusive jetty to handle such cargo at Haldia at a cost of Rs 290 crore through public-private partnership. KPT argue that the savings in transportation will help trade, which could pass on the benefits to consumers through lower prices. Meanwhile the KDS has handled a cargo throughput of 15,282 metric ton, surpassing the previous highest record of 13,741 metric ton registered in 2007-08. The new record is 18.7 percent higher than the 12,875 metric ton cargo handled by the KDS in 2013-14. Along with this Haldia handled 31.01 metric ton cargo – a growth of 9 per cent over the previous year. The KPT ranks third among all major ports in India with regard to container traffic and the KPT as a whole handled 46,292 metric ton of traffic in 2014-15, recording 12 per cent growth over the 41.386 metric ton handled in 2013-14. This included the all time high rail borne traffic of 27.10 metric ton against the 23.88 metric ton in 2013-14.

 

  A sense of history is thus important to judge the important question as to whether the old colonial ports are capable of overcoming the burden of history and legacy to fit into the new logistical imagination that has created the unique production-supply chain management which is where the Asian economies like China and South East Asia have outsmarted the West, and if so, what would it take to do that, and if not so, why? Thus the question: Why Calcutta cannot be Singapore or can it be Singapore? This means we are asking whether India plays smartly into the emerging geo-politics of Asia and takes advantage of it, and what does it take to make sense of the Look East? Or, will it be the case that India will miss the bus because of its paranoia over Chinese naval encirclement? 

 

  The shift in infrastructure has become quite apparent after the introduction of the container system which has succeeded in resolving some of the earlier problems related to cargo movement. With that, the study will focus on the location of the Calcutta port in global logistical networks that include roadway and railway transportation through fast corridors and the emergence of several new hubs and crossroads of national and international trade routes like Siliguri.

 

  One participant shared his experience as a a leading figure of the Calcutta Port Trust in the past. In his view, the port system in Calcutta has gone through many difficulties due to tussles with Bangladesh on the issue of water sharing. Since Calcutta is a riverine port with a narrow opening, 40000 cusec water is needed every day for the ships to draft into the port. Introduction of the container system has improved the situation only slightly.

 

  At this point, another participant pointed to the long history of survival of the port and asked about its reasons. Several points came during the ensuing discussion, including the advantage of having Haldia as a mainstay of the Calcutta port, comparatively less troublesome processes of transloading (transferring shipments from one mode transportation to another) from the sea mouth, and Calcutta’s unique strategic location which benefits from having a large hinterland connected by various trade routes across the country and beyond.

 

  Another participant explained that the survival of a port depends on two main aspects: (a) ‘predictability’, or time management, and (b) ‘cost’ including charges for holding the container and other expenses. It was also added that water is still the cheapest mode of moving cargo. One of the many unique features of the Calcutta Port is the presence of a large number of middlemen or brokers known as stevedores who oversee the process of loading and unloading of cargo. In this context, it was pointed out that the specificity of labour in the logistical sector should be brought under study, especially in connection with the shifting terrain of infrastructural development and changes in relation between labour and new technologies of signalling and loading and unloading of cargo. All these to be analysed with keeping the following fact in mind, that the handling time of goods in Calcutta port is much more compared to some other ports of India. In this regard one needs to look at the workings of the container freight stations in the port.

 

  It was also pointed out that studying two more areas - pattern of crime, disaster management and security system - will be important for the study.

 

  Some more points came up during the discussion, such as, existence of Calcutta port is aided by the chaotic political situation in Bangladesh where no stable port system has developed.; regarding shipment two relevant issues -predictability and cost, and linked to these the issue of labour; infrastructural development (more automisation) being inversely proportional to the number of workers; at the same time labour as a human force being extremely important for the management of the port., particularly with Calcutta being perhaps the only port now where brokers are present in the shipping line.

 

  The meeting was concluded with summarizing few focal points that need to be addressed in the study: (1) Cost of operation in the port; (2) Locating the shifts in the infrastructural network of the port, and in this context the possibilities and recent programmes of revival of the port; (3) Given that the port is considered as belonging to service sector, possibilities of introduction of fresh business areas and coming of new stakeholders which can make the port more alive; (4) Uniqueness of the geo-political location of the Calcutta port (along with Haldia port) and its hinterland; thus studying the location of Calcutta in the framework of trade routes to northern and north-eastern part of India, and the possibility of road connectivity between Calcutta and Thailand.; (5) specificity of the port in the global network of logistical connectivity, particularly in the East and the North east; and (6) pattern of crime, disaster management and security system.

 

In the half day workshop to be held on 20 April 2015 the plan will be further discussed and finalised.

 

 

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