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Analysis: Non-major ports hold key to container growth

Analysis: Non-major ports hold key to container growth

The overall growth of Indian economy, and exim trade in particular, has driven the demand for more containerised cargo movement. Though there has been a steady growth in container traffic at Indian ports, we will need further substantial capacity enhancement at our ports to effectively handle the kind of traffic in future that is expected. Aneesh Matapurkar and Arnav Sinha explore the future of container traffic in India.

When Malcom McLean, the father of con­tain­erisation, decided to put the World War II practice of transporting trucks on ships to co­mmercial use in the early 1950s, little would he have foreseen the ubiquity of these large colourful boxes in international trade. Containers, over the last six decades, have not just replaced the older forms of transportation of cargo, but have also had a very direct influence on how businesses source products globally, thus increasing the total volume of trade.

Measures of port container traffic, much of it com­modities of medium to high value added, give an indi­cation of economic growth in a country. By that measure, the data on container traffic for some of the countries above shows that India has a fair way to go. Of course, for countries like China, Singapore and UAE, part of the traffic would be accounted for by transshipment data, which does not translate into industrial growth in the hinterland.

Unlike the international standards of 75-80 per cent of general cargo trade being done through containers, the penetration of containerisation in India is said to be in the mid-60s. But, as we see in this article, use of con­tainerised cargo, both for domestic as well as exim trade is on the rise. Barring another slump in global trade or slow domestic infrastructure growth, we should continue to witness the kind of growth we have seen in the last 5-6 years.

The most visible trend in containerisation has been the steady growth in container traffic at Indian ports, despite infrastructure and policy related issues, with the Indian Ports Association reporting a 9.4 per cent year-on-year growth in the container volume handled by  
the 12 state-owned major ports in 2010-11. In TEU terms, this would translate into an increase from 6.89 million TEUs in 2009-10 to 7.54 million TEUs last financial year.

JNPT (Nhava Sheva), which handles more than 60 per cent of the country's total containerised traffic, reported its highest-ever throughput of 4.27 million TEUs, up by 5 per cent from 4.09 million TEUs in 2009-10. Volume at Chennai, the second-largest container gateway, jumped 26 per cent to 1.52 million TEUs from 1.21 million TEUs.

Total containerised traffic for 2011-12 for major ports is projected to reach 11 million TEUs, driven by a strong turnaround in the country's foreign trade. Non-major ports would be expected to contribute another 2 million TEUs approximately.

Container traffic at non-major ports has been seeing a much higher growth rate, with a CAGR of close to 30 per cent in the 2005-10 period. More than 90 per cent of this growth has come through the Mundra and Pipavav ports in Gujarat.

Key Issues

Inland connectivity and delays at ports remain the two greatest areas of concern for container traffic in India. The two issues are actually not unrelated, and req­uire increased focus on developing a strong supporting inter-modal infrastructure for the container terminals.

In an ideal intermodal transport system, road traffic would feed into a railway hub, and the railway lines would feed into a port, for export of containerised cargo. In India, due to the absence of such connectivity, trucks are preferred for direct transport to and from ports. Given the much lower carrying capacity on trucks as well as the absence of a dedicated land corridor for cargo vehicles, this obvious inefficiency further affects the already strained terminals.

Almost 35 per cent of the containers handled on India's west coast ports are bound for destinations closer to the east coast, which is a good indicator of the need for rationalising the hinterland infrastructure.

Some of the other issues that have slowed container traffic growth in India are:

  • Absence of roads that could handle multi-axle load
  • Difficulty in ensuring filled containers on both legs of a journey
  • Lack of sufficient and economic handling facilities at intermodal points
  • Seeming lack of coordination between ministries of surface transport, railways and shipping while plan­ning infrastructure development
  • Little encouragement to development of coastal ship­ping, despite a coastline of over 7,500 km

Government Initiatives

Of course, in recent years, the government has been taking several important steps to help develop container traffic, but given the rapid growth in traffic, these mea­sures have not proven as effective.

  • Setting up of new ports and terminals with private participation – It has been widely quoted that total container traffic at Indian ports would reach 21 million TEUs by 2015-2016. To handle that kind of traffic, we will need further substantial capacity enha­ncement at our ports.
  • Decision to construct Dedicated Freight Corridor
  • Introduction of double stack container trains to Pipavav and Mundra ports
  • Entry of private container train operators

Private container train operations

One of the major policy decisions taken by the gov­ernment to encourage smoother container traffic was the introduction of private container train operations. With a view to attracting a greater share of container traffic, then stagnating at around 30 per cent, and intro­ducing competition in rail freight services, Ministry of Railways announced a policy in January 2006, permitting private entities to undertake movement of freight on pri­vately owned container trains. The salient features of this scheme were:

  • A concession period of 20 years, with provision of extension for another 10 years
  • The operators would have to pay charges for using Indian Railway's (IR) lines, signaling systems, etc.
  • Locomotives would be provided by IR to haul trains on a non-discriminatory basis on payment of notified charges
  • For delay in supply of locomotives beyond 12 ho­urs, the IR would provide a rebate equal to 2 per cent of the haulage charges payable by the conces­sion­aire
  • The concessionaire would own its wagons but not necessarily the containers being carried on them
  • Provision had also been made for the concessionaire to offer idle wagons to IR for use at mutually agreed terms and conditions
  • In the beginning, all wagons would be maintained by IR and the concessionaire would provide the requisite wagon examination facilities inside its rail terminal.

Wagon maintenance charges would be included in the haulage fee. As the
industry matures, wagon mai­ntenance could also be undertaken by other
appro­ved entities.

The scheme had met with a reasonable strong res­ponse with several domestic and international logistics firms like Gateway Distriparks, DP World, Sical Logistics, JM Baxi & Co and Arshiya International registering for container train operation. There was also significant int­erest shown from financial investors, as on the face of it, this looked like an attractive business to get into.

Today, private operators move about 20 per cent of the roughly 1 million TEUs of container cargo that is transported in India. These operations are carried out through about 80-90 trains, while CONCOR, the public sector player and the incumbent runs around 200 trains. Many of the licensed operators have postponed investing in their own trains because of several issues, apart from the economic slowdown, and lease trains from the ope­rators that own them. The private operators are also rap­idly setting up support infrastructure, providing door-to-door services and improving efficiency to compete with CONCOR. CONCOR's share has come down from nearly 100 per cent at the time of their entry, and is expected to further fall to 60 per cent by 2012-13.

Some of the key issues that have plagued the private operators, and have prolonged the period for break-even are:

Absence of adequate terminals: In the absence of adequate terminals, the operators are being forced to move their cargoes to alternative terminals, leading to extra freight burden.

High haulage charges: Container train operators have to pay rail haulage charges to the Indian Railways for using its track, signalling and teleco­m­munications infrastructure. Such charges typically acc­ount for about 80-85 per cent of the operational expenses of such companies. There has been an increase in these charges recently, which has to be passed on to the cus­tomer, making these services uncompetitive in com­pa­rison to road transport.  
Low utilisation rates: Most private players have focused on the exim trade, where traffic is one way-mainly from the port to the inland point but not vice-versa. In addition, more than 75 per cent of the containerised traffic plies between Mumbai and Delhi; the other significant corridors being Gujarat-Delhi and Bangalore-Chennai. This means that while in one dire­ction the train is almost completely laden with cargo, on the return trip it remains largely empty, thus making the operation very expensive.

Role of CONCOR: CONCOR has had the adv­antage of building its infrastructure of ICDs and ware­houses over several decades. Private players cannot build their own infrastructure in a short period and have to rely on CONCOR's assets, which charges its competitors very high rental rates.

Requirement of wagons: Though the indu­stry is not facing an immediate shortage of wagons, with growing traffic the need for more modern wagons is being felt.

The fact that many of the private operators are still in the red, and there are rumors of some even looking for an exit altogether, has not been the best of advertisements for development of container traffic in India. But, the long-term prospects of private container train operation still seem good. Investments made to develop a support infrastructure and further growth in global trade will con­tinue to encourage containerised movement of cargo. It just remains to be seen how many of the current operators would be able to last out the difficult times.

ICTT: A late arrival

The commissioning of the first phase of the inter­national container transshipment terminal (ICTT) at Vallarpadam, near Kochi, in February this year is expe­cted to be a major step towards development of container trade in India.

It is surprising that it is only now that a hub port like this has been developed in India. The absence of a hub port meant that large vessels had to dock at transship­ment terminals in other countries, such as Colombo, Singapore, Dubai and Salalah. The cargo would then be shipped to India in smaller vessels, causing an unnecessary increase in time and costs.

The commissioning of the ICTT, located strategically on the international maritime route, is expected to help save around $200 for each container and almost a week in time, according to some estimates. Its expected dra­ught of 14.5 m will let even the largest container vessels to dock here. Phase I of the project, developed on a BOT basis by DP World, would have the capacity to handle 1 million TEUs. On completion of the final phase in 2016, the total capacity is expected to be 4 million TEUs.

A major issue currently faced by the project is lack of clarity on the cabotage laws. According to Indian cab­otage laws, movement of containerised cargo in Indian waters is allowed only to Indian flag vessels. This pre­vents foreign vessels to carry cargo directly to the port, and defeats the purpose of building a transshipment terminal.

There has been a recommendation in the past even from the Planning Commission to relax the cabotage laws, but there does not seem to be any clear position on it, leading to the ICTT continuing to lose business to other terminals like Colombo.

Way forward

It is believed that there is an elasticity of 2.15 bet­ween GDP and container traffic growth. With India's GDP growth hovering around the 8.5 per cent mark, container traffic could also see an 18 per cent annual growth for the next few years.

If current shipping trends are anything to go by, it would be safe to assume that large container vessels would see increased use in global trade. To cater to these large vessels, the hub ports would require draughts of over 13 m, along with other infrastructure facilities. Currently, apart from Vallarpadam, Visakhapatnam is the only other port with a draught deep enough to rec­eive such large vessels.

Growth in container traffic in India will be driven to a greater degree by non-major ports and surrounding int­ermodal infrastructure on the supply side, and sectors like textiles, food grains and capital goods on the demand side. But whether this growth actually materialises would depend to an even larger extent on whether the private and public sectors can work together to pro­vide timely capacity augmentation and a nurturing policy environment.

Aneesh Matapurkar is Director, and Arnav Sinha is Senior Associate, Infrastructure & Industrials Practice, o3 Capital Global Advisory Pvt Ltd.

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