Seven years after Sagarmala was launched, the National Democratic Alliance regime is infusing fresh momentum to the flagship project that seeks to harness the potential of India’s 7,500-km long coastline, 12 major ports and 200 non-major ports and 14,500 km of potentially navigable waterways. It aims at slashing logistics cost for both domestic and export-import cargo through port modernisation and new port development, port-led industrialisation, coastal and inland water transportation. There has been significant progress in capacity augmentation of major ports with installed capacity rising by 79% to 1,561 million tonnes per annum from 871.5 MT in 2014-15. The waiting time for inbound and outbound cargo has also been reduced, with the overall turnaround time down to 52.80 hours from 96 hours in 2014-15. There are also efficiency gains with ports adopting measures for easy data flow like direct port entry, direct port delivery and upgraded port community system. Inland waterways are being developed as it takes 10-times less money to move a cargo by river than by congested highways.
Multimodal terminals built at Varanasi, Sahibganj and Haldia along the Ganges thus enable goods to be ferried to northeastern states through Bangladesh. River cruise terminal infrastructure and jetties is being put into place. Recently, the National Sagarmala Apex Committee (NSAC) announced projects for the holistic development of coastal districts.
Despite these gains, overall progress has been sporadic—especially in the major ports run by the government—due to land acquisition problems, inadequate fund mobilisation, limited private sector investments in key areas like port modernisation, among other factors. According to a report in this newspaper, a parliamentary standing committee reviewed the project in its report released in March and observed “unsatisfactory progress” in port modernisation, enhancement of port connectivity and port-led industrialisation. It noted that only one port modernisation project was completed last year while no progress has been made on the all-weather, all-cargo Vadhavan port in Maharashtra. Port modernisation projects have also seen cost escalation. On port connectivity to the hinterland, there were only a few projects for linkages with non-major ports. On port-led industrialisation, only 8 out of the 12 major ports have initiated this on earmarked land. The committee recommended expediting port-led industrialisation with globally benchmarked targets and integrating land acquisition and port connectivity projects. On inland waterways, its share of freight movement was less due to lack of depth of waterways for the movement of cargo and shortage of inland vessels.
Despite this track-record, the NSAC went on to approve 735 more projects worth over 1 trillion for Sagarmala, taking the total number of projects to 1,537 worth 6.5 trillion. Union minister of ports, shipping and waterways Sarbananda Sonowal explained that the decision to enhance the number of projects was taken at the instance of various states. The big challenge, however, is to impart a sustainability dimension as the coastline is fragile. The sea level is rising at an average rate of 1.6-1.7 mm a year and the impact is being felt in coastal sediment transport and shoreline erosion. Where are the resources for these projects? The asset monetisation drive for ports has barely taken off as MoPSW could monetise only three out of the 13 identified projects. During PM Modi’s trip to Europe, he invited the Nordic countries to invest in Sagarmala. Last but not the least is the fact that only 8% of India’s exim trade and 40% of coastal cargo is carried by Indian ships. Increasing the share of Indian ships to carry cargo—through a comprehensive review of the Merchant Shipping Act,1958—will truly fulfill the ambitions of Sagarmala.