Blue Economy” has emerged as a term referring to a healthy ocean, supporting higher productivity. The current focus is confined to marine products, including minerals, as if this is all it concerns. The concept of blue economy is much broader and encompasses even maritime activities, such as shipping services. Why not look at the benefits of using the ocean for building infrastructure to supplement infrastructure on land? Why not think of a mechanised floating port? A re-look at geoengineering is required. By definition, blue economy infrastructure is environment-friendly because larger cargo consignments can move directly from the mothership to the hinterland through inland waterways, obviating the need for trucks or railways. This agenda includes the creation of environment-friendly infrastructure in the ocean. When land acquisition is such a contentious issue, shifting some infrastructure to the seas is a good economic and political strategy. It can be done in India. Conforming to this spirit, an offshore infrastructure (by creating an ocean-based transshipment mechanism) project was successfully launched by the ministry of shipping last year for transporting imported coal to the thermal power station at Farakka in West Bengal. Such transshipment, out on the high seas yet within India’s economic zone at the Sandheads in the Bay of Bengal, worked out to be financially viable and environmentally friendlier, compared to traditional handling of cargo at ports. As ship sizes become bigger, transshipment/ lighterage operations on the high seas are becoming more viable. What makes it especially attractive, and therefore possible, in Indian waters is the vast coastline of almost 7,500 kilometres, with no immediate coastal neighbours except for some stretches around the southern tip. This is not possible, for example, in the Persian Gulf region because of the proximity to trade routes and contiguous countries. The Strait of Hormuz has several overlapping maritime jurisdictions. In some sense, India has the advantage of a latecomer, helped by natural geography. For an offshore transloading zone, the availability of calm waters during the monsoons is a problem. But this can be overcome by conducting such operations closer to the coast and seasonally, in calmer waters. There are several potential efficiencies from such a blue economy infrastructure concept. All ports do not need expensive dredging of long approach channels. Ports can multiply operations because each cargo shipment is of small parcel size, with no extra capital expenditure for dredging or for large berths and associated equipment, or for creating port reception infrastructure for large ships. As larger surpluses are generated, some parts can be utilised for better and more environment-friendly “smart ports”. Less physical congestion unclogs bottlenecks at ports. This has several advantages. Faster clearances mean less waiting time and savings on demurrage. A shorter waiting time for ships also helps the environment by reducing fuel burn. As transloading takes place on the high seas, it creates an opportunity to spread the cargo across more ports. It makes ample sense to create a well-distributed network for handling bulk cargo along the entire coastline. If we introduce “smartness” to transloading zones, we can add value and reduce transaction costs. A major network of inland waterways has historically developed on the east coast. On the west coast, it exists only in Goa and Kerala. The eastern waterways can be easily connected to ports for transshipment traffic. The Ganga, Brahmani, Godavari and the Mahanadi basin systems have dormant waterways, but they all lie on the east coast. The proposed project to rejuvenate them will bring cargo to their mouths. Transloading bulk cargo at sea will complement major ports and other underutilised non-major ports. Offshore operations do not completely eliminate the need for more efficient ports, but they require faster evacuation of the smaller parcels for cargo that is not transported through inland waterways. For both shallow and deepwater ports, offshore cargo handling will be a capacity-multiplier. While relieving infrastructure shortages and pressure on an overburdened rail and road network, this will also bring immense benefits by reducing costs, delays and pollution. A transloading zone is a green concept, rarely recognised by stakeholders, including the government.
The writer is chairman, National Shipping Board