Bankers say ports are one of the best sectors to finance to. With the frenetic growth envisaged in the 2020 Agenda, port connectivity is impatiently awaited as the government works on four-lane roads and rail lines linking the gateways to the hinterland. Ports' efficiency, viability, business and trade depend on how well connected the port is, but Indian ports are either situated in crowded cities or too remote to be connected. Charu Bahri writes.Ships spend a fifth of their time at ports on average, their own efficiency impacted by port productivity. Although ports cannot exist nor function in isolation, approach to a port from the hinterland can be critical enough to spell doom or drive the success of the port because it determines turnaround and evacuation time-vital to the functioning of a port. Narrow approach roads to ports, for instance, delay the entry and feeding of export cargo and the evacuation of import cargo. In the larger context, inefficiencies amounting from poor connectivity hinder the growth of external trade and economic progress.Connecting infrastructure is the means to approach the port site through land, and therefore, is as important as the port itself. Connectivity defines how rapidly cargo can be evacuated from the port and hence, has an impact on the ports throughout. "Both rail lines and expressways are lifelines for a port, and equally important for its success," emphasises Capt JB Rohilla, Chief Port Officer & Hydrographer, Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB).In spite of awareness of the role of connectivity infrastructure, business has suffered as a result of over saturated road and rail linkages, and insufficient mechanisation. Indian major ports lag behind leading transhipment hubs in the region, Dubai and Singapore. The Indian ports and shipping sector: Breaking boundaries, tapping potential, a paper by FICCI and Ernst & Young reports that container throughput at major Indian ports (combined) is 6.8 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), substantially less than Singapore's 25.9 million TEUs (in CY09) and Dubai's 11.1 million TEUs (in CY09).Pro-linkage PolicyWith a view to enhancing port connectivity and boost the performance of Indian ports, the government's Maritime Agenda 2020 defines the minimum required connectivity to the major ports as four-lane approach roads and double line rail connectivity. The central outlay for road and rail connectivity for the 13 major ports is an ambitious Rs 7,912 crore. Of this, Rs 4,675 crore is being spent in the period 2010-12 while Rs 2,511 crore has been earmarked for the 12th Five Year Plan period (2012-17). Maritime Boards in coastline states would help execute these policies and coordinate the development of private sector intermediate and minor ports. Separate budgets are being drawn up by states to connect the non-major (intermediate and minor) ports they own."Port connectivity is high on our agenda," says Rohilla. MMB aims at facilitating the development of allied connectivity infrastructure by private port developers by resolving the foremost challenges. The process of obtaining approvals for rail and road linkages from state / central government and agencies such as the Railways is just of the many functions it performs.Private initiativesPrivate port developers-operators see connectivity as the key that holds the potential to turnaround their fortunes, and have been taking up connectivity projects in earnest, even if laying roads leading to the port falls outside the scope of the port project and laying rail lines and creating rail sidings means incurring extra costs as well as having to negotiate revenue-sharing arrangements with Railways. Rajeeva Sinha, Director, Mundra Port and SEZ Limited, describes the association saying, "Investing in developing a port without paying attention to the connecting road and rail infrastructure is to kill a port for a small reason."Ports with connectivity in place will be ports of preference, and private players have taken the lead. Dhamra Port Company is laying a 62 km rail link from Dhamra to Bhadrak on the main Howrah-Chennai line to transport cargo to and from the port. Gangavaram Port has its independent railway siding. Pipavav is well located adjacent to the NH 8E. The port has built an 11 km highway to connect to it as well as formed a JV with the Indian Railways-the Pipavav Rail Corporation Ltd-which has built a 271 km rail link to the main grid at Surendranagar. Pipavav port authorities remain in constant touch with Container Corporation of India (Concor) to enhance the frequency of trains to help speedy evacuation of containers and bulk cargo from the port. But congestion is an issue after the link joins the main rail network. The clear solution, Prakash Tulsiani, Managing Director, APM Terminals Pipavav, says, is lines devoted to freight. "The Dedicated Freight Corridor which is long pending should be completed immediately and many other such corridors should be developed throughout the country."But the Railways is also beleaguered with rakes and container availability issues. PV Chandramohan, President-Technical, Navayuga Engineering, says, "The liberalisation of cargo rail traffic would help improve the turnover and efficiency of ports. Connectivity would improve if Concor were to be privatised."Competing on ConnectivityConnectivity has long been a deciding factor for port users since it directly impacts bottomlines. "By ensuring faster evacuation of the cargo from the port, good port connectivity reduces the overall logistics cost of the customer and ensures faster delivery of cargo to the customers increasing the profitability of their businesses, in the process capacity of the port also increases," observes Rajiv Agarwal, Managing Director, Essar Ports. "Transportation cost forms a major part of the overall cost of cargo. Reducing cargo transporting cost has a great impact on the cost of commodities, improving economies and standard of living of the people," observes P Mara Pandian, Chairman, Mormugao Port Trust.Take the country's largest container terminal, JNPT, as an example. More than half of the country's container traffic is routed through JNPT; most of these containers come from West Uttar Pradesh/NCR region. Importers' and exporters' preference for this port is explained by the port's seamless hinterland connectivity and shippers' inclination for the port, which in turn is reason for the high frequency of ships calling at the port. Better linkages between private sector ports, especially those competing with JNPT, have already impacted business at JNPT and other ports as Mundra, the fourth largest commercial port, is only "marginally lower than JNPT" as Gautam Adani, Chairman, Mundra Port and SEZ recently mentioned at the half-year results of his port.The direct impact of improved connectivity of private non-major ports on the major ports depends on three factors, according to Sushi Shyamal, Partner, Ernst & Young, "If the hinterlands of the ports overlap, they would compete in the long run. Also, major ports that do not invest in upgrading infrastructure and de-congesting traffic would lose out in the long term. Lastly, the risk of traffic of large shipping lines managing terminals at major ports-DP World manages the Nhava Sheva International Container Terminal, and APM manages Gateway Terminal-going to neighbouring ports is low as long as they hold on to such operations.""There is enough cargo to go around," says Captain Rohilla. He attributes this to high demand projections and figures that show that the existing capacity still falls short of the rising trajectory demand is expected to take.Development modelsIncreasing port development activity has brought more players into the sector. Now that port connectivity projects are coming under the spotlight, is there scope for these to be modelled on the PPP format rather than contract? Could road and rail connectivity projects awarded with private partnership in the equity be made viable?According to Sinha, "Since new ports are being developed on the PPP model, there should be no problem in developing road and rail projects also on the PPP model. Rail and road connectivity to the nearest rail line and highway respectively, is integral for the success of a port. But such development must be roped in with the development of the port and thus driven by the port operator. A port operator would ensure that the fee structure is aligned with the purpose of developing the port whereas a third party would simply be interested in recovering charges as soon as possible. Connectivity projects are sometimes seen as risky - if you think of it, the viability of road and rail links connecting a port comes from the port operations. Only a port operator with a vested interest in the success of the port would ensure the connecting infrastructure is available for reasonable charges. Road and rail connectivity offered at reasonable charges is one reason for Mundra Port's success. Compartmentalising port and its supporting connectivity infrastructure is akin to creating fertile ground for disputes."Agarwal's opinion is, "Port connectivity projects should be taken by government agencies as they will benefit from the increased scale of operation in terms of higher traffic through rail and road network on commissioning of these facilities. However, if a port has high traffic potential, the connectivity project may be viable on its own as it will increase the capacity utilisation at the port and higher traffic will flow through the connecting rail or road network. In such scenarios, the PPP model would work."While the PPP model has its takers, naysayers exist as well. "The PPP model is unsuitable for port connectivity projects," opines Dr Chandramohan. "Road and rail connections are a part of the overall services offered by a port and hence must be charged for as a package. Users would face a nightmare if they had to negotiate separate windows run by toll road and railway operators. In the interest of efficiency, usage fees for essential connectivity services should be added in the cargo charges."Contending that PPP projects are at the mercy of private contractors who often keep lingering project completion, MK Ajayakumar, GM, Afcons Infrastructure, affirms, "Port connectivity projects should be modelled as contracts rather than as PPP projects, because speedy completion of projects which is not possible on PPP."Development challengesEarlier this year, Afcons Infrastructure made headlines for successfully constructing the Vallarpadam railway link in Kochi for Rail Vikas Nigam. At 4.62 km, the rail bridge is the longest in India built at a cost of Rs 3.5 billion, funded by the Central Government through the Ministry of Shipping. The Vallarpadam railway link is part of an 8.86 km rail corridor connecting the International Container Transhipment Terminal (ICTT) on Vallarpadam Island with Kochi city, and is being exclusively used for goods container traffic to and from ICTT. Ajayakumar says, "Land acquisition is the major challenge faced in port connectivity projects." The Vallapardam rail link project faced initial delays because of land acquisitions too. In all, 12.5 ha of land belonging to the government, the Cochin Port Trust and Indian Railways was acquired for the railway line."Land acquisition and dealing with regulatory agencies are the two biggest challenges faced in executing port PPP projects. Financing is much easier to organise," adds Sinha. To cite an example of the extent land acquisition can delay port connectivity projects - Mormugao Port is well connected with the rest of the country by two national highways NH-17 and NH-4A. But the existing road connecting the port (NH-17) passes through the city of Vasco da Gama, where heavy congestion has caused significant restrictions on the movement of trucks and trailers. While work on a new four lane bypass road, 18.3 km long, commenced in 2001, only 13.1 km of this road has been completed and opened as yet. "The last stretch of 5.2 km is still incomplete because the Government of Goa has to still hand over some land. This project is required to be taken on priority basis," adds Pandian.Shortages of land plague brownfield developments at major ports too, necessitating port connectivity projects to overcome these challenges. The Chennai Port Trust, for instance, is setting up a dry port and multimodal logistics hub on a BOT basis, on 125 acre of land near the Sriperumbudur SEZ, about 40 km away from the port. Key to this development is the Rs 600 crore Chennai-Ennore road and the Rs 1,655 crore elevated four-lane corridor to Maduravoyal. Connectivity projects thus become priority projects.Inland waterways: Scope for expansionGlobally, shipping lines select ports offering better logistics. The Port of Rotterdam is favoured for its seamless intermodal connectivity by rail and road as well as an excellent inland water network that moves most of the bulk and container cargo. Closer home, there is plenty of scope to improve upon the country's 14,500 km long navigable inland waterways. Of this, 5,200 km is attributed to major rivers and 500 km to canals suitable for mechanised crafts. Inland waterway transport (IWT) handles only around one per cent of total inland cargo transport, typically carrying iron ore and fertilizers etc. But there is tremendous scope to expand usage of this environment-friendly and low cost medium.Inland waterways are most effective when the start and end points are the source and place of consumption of the material respectively. So, IWT projects tend to be seen as less lucrative than rail and road connectivity. But IWT projects demand lower investments - both for creation and maintenance. Developing 1 km of highway costs the same as developing 100 km of waterways. IWT may acquire more takers as other modes of transport become more expensive in the face of rising fuel costs. Investments worth Rs 30,710 crore are proposed for the development of IWT projects in the coming decade.Technology: Enhancing efficiency of connectivityWide approach roads to a port are not enough to ensure the steady flow of cargo. Incoming transportation vehicles must be swiftly cleared and given directions as well. In 1997, a decision was taken to privatise Singapore Port, which considerably improved available infrastructure, its utilisation and operational efficiency. An initiative introduced at the time was a fully automated and paperless Flow-Through Gate system, which makes use of passes issued by the port authorities to identify and clear trucks for entry and gives drivers instructions regarding the exact position in the yard where the container will be stacked within 25 second. The system is highly efficient, handling an average traffic flow of 700 trucks per peak hour and 8,000 trucks per day. The Flow-Through Gate System received an Innovation Award at the 11th UK Seatrade Awards held in 1999 for its contribution to the port's excellence. Today, Singapore Port handles 30 million TEUs of containers, which represents around one-fifth of the world's total container shipment throughput.Not in the pipeline?Most Indian ports boast of one or two kinds of linkages-typically road and rail-with the hinterlands depending on the use they are put to; inland waterways and pipeline linkages are few. Kandla is well connected by rail, road and pipeline, but lacks an inland waterway connection. Mormugao in contrast has excellent inland waterway connectivity thanks to the Mandovi and Zuari rivers but does not connect with a heavy duty expressway or a major rail head. The country's busiest container cargo terminals at JNPT are well connected by rail and road but lack pipeline and inland waterway connectivity. PV Chandramohan, President-Technical, Navayuga Engineering Company, observes that JNPT does not need a pipeline or inland waterway linkage since it doesn't handle bulk liquid or solid cargo. Inland waterways are not developed in the hinterland. Besides, container traffic does not recognise hinterland especially with long haul rail connections. Haldia dock stands out for boasting of all four connections. But because of the large tidal variation and the currents in river Hooghly, the berths are located inside an impounded dock. Draughts are low outside the dock. These factors mar the efficiency of the dock.Major ports located in busy metros can't develop new connections like pipelines and an inland waterway. Interestingly, cities often develop around ports to support the activity. But some years down the line, the city becomes a hindrance to further development of the port.