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India’s Maritime Domain: Untapped Opportunities

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  • Vice Admiral (Retd) Anup Singh
    October 25, 2013

    Abstract

    In order to assess the potential of India’s maritime environment, one needs to first imbibe the correct geostrategic perspective that India presents to the world. That perspective comes from looking at our peninsular configuration, the way it dominates the Indian Ocean and the way it acts as a focal point of trade routes.

    Indian Ocean is the smallest of the three navigable ones, does not possess wide, unobstructed gateways and yet happens to be the most important water body for all trade routes between the other two. And yet, the world cannot but use this ocean for nearly 50% of its energy trade, 1/3rd of its bulk commodities and 50% of its containers. The most important of these routes pass close to Indian shores. While this places a large responsibility on India in terms of security of global sea lines of communication, there is also a resident opportunity in this challenge, that of catering to the potential of business at ports and earning revenue through bunkering and maintenance facilities in our transit ports. The advantage that accrues to India because of her geographical location is enormous.

    If the West coast of India has an expanse that remains shallow for miles beyond the shore, it is not assumed as a disadvantage by anyone except port authorities and the shipping industry. Fishing communities thrive on surface Tuna and other shallow water varieties including shrimp that multiply in these waters; oil exploration and production companies find it inexpensive to carry out exploration and extraction; tourism finds safe and attractive habitat on beaches and inshore waters. Fish catch from waters off coastal Gujarat and Maharashtra alone, account for 68% of the entire country’s marine harvest. Thus, shallows are not a handicap for us.

    On the other hand, the East coast has a very steep gradient. And the fish that are harvested in the East, add up to only 30% of all India catch. That is not because there is less fish in deep waters, but because we do not sufficiently invest in deep water fishing. Maritime nations crave for deep waters as they offer abundant benefits in terms deep water ports, transhipment hubs, oil and gas nodes offshore, and, to establish shipbuilding industry along deep water shores. India’s East coast is ripe territory for all these activities with untold potential for economic activity.

    We also need to understand that the sub-continental terrain on the borders is not such a great asset. To all intents and purposes, India should be considered an island nation. With negligible volumes of trade possible across land borders, our economic engagement with the world is almost entirely dependent upon the sea. Hence the importance of India’s peninsular configuration. This aspect needs to be taken as a positive property because maritime nations are considered as “haves” as against land-locked ones.

    So what does 7516 km of India’s coastline offer? Beautiful beaches, a huge EEZ and offshore assets – not just for tourism, but also for oil and gas within the Exclusive Economic Zone which at the moment extends to 200 NM but is set to become 350 NM in the near future. In that event India’s EEZ would become 2.54 million square km instead of 2.02 million square km. And that means we are multiplying the offshore estate that is available for extracting fish, minerals, gas, oil - whatever one wants. There is abundance of fish and mineral resources that need to be tapped to generate higher volumes of economy.

    For any offshore activity – particularly trade – to generate revenue, a country needs access points, or ports. We have an inventory of 13 major and nearly 200 intermediate and minor ports. However, the largest of these by real estate measure – major ports – are still set in the mould of archaic procedures. The result is a serious lag between capacity and throughput, leading to loss of revenue and diversion of trade to more attractive transhipment hubs in our neighbourhood. If we are to move on a North-bound graph of economic growth, the first requirement is to set our infrastructure in order. This can happen through modernisation and “true” liberalisation.

    After ports, the next asset to focus upon should be the Indian owned shipping fleet. At under 9 Million Gross tons, with a fleet of just 700 vessels, we have barely 200 foreign going ships available under the Indian flag. This is an unhealthy sign for a major maritime nation. For, it is always ownership of a large fleet and more importantly, indigenous shipbuilding industry that guarantee economic growth even in times of crises. India needs to encourage the private sector in establishing shipbuilding yards with the aim of not only building a “home” fleet, but also competing with the newly emerging giants in the East.

    Another asset that our maritime domain offers is the natural network of inland waters. Despite having established the Inland Waterways Authority of India in 1986, we still transport an insignificant proportion of the total inland cargo, by water. The primary reason is a lack of awareness amongst stakeholders and the public at large, of the immense benefit that can accrue from using this medium where cost of transportation is a fraction of the expenditure incurred by road. Same is the story with coastal shipping. With nine coastal states and five coastal Union Territories – most of them industrially developed – there is no reason why coastal shipping should not be the preferred mode of bulk transportation! Once again, lack of awareness and a misplaced conception that land transportation is faster, are responsible for neglect of this avenue of an economical and environment-friendly mode of transportation.

    More than any other asset on this planet it is the seas that produce variety in weather. This variety contains untold energy which is waiting to be tapped. From solar to wind to hydrological energy, the potential along the coasts is so huge that all our domestic power needs can be met through these renewable sources alone. All that is needed is a regime of public private partnership with targets to be met within a two-decade period.

    Lastly, tourism. The Indian coastline is dotted with heritage sites dating from as long ago as five millennia. Most developing countries have nurtured and multiplied their tourism potential in order to create money, popularise their countries as business and tourism destinations and generate employment opportunities for the grass-root level. Most of our sites go a-begging in this respect.

    The economic potential of India’s maritime domain is enormous. All that is required is: a focused plan to capture this potential in a time-bound manner. The spin offs from these avenues will be realised in a burgeoning downstream industry, exponential generation of employment and “inclusive growth”.

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