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Act East: why Kolkata Port will not die

Ranabir Samaddar | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:15 IST

The resurrection

  • Time and again, people have predicted doom for the Kolkata Port Trust. Yet it continues to flourish.
  • It is emerging as a key hub for the government\'s Act East Policy.
  • Kolkata Port System includes three ports: Kolkata, Haldia and a new one at Sagar Island.

The scale

  • Among all the ports in India, KPT handled the highest number of containers in 2014-15 - over 5 lakh.
  • Third highest in terms of container traffic - 46.292 metric tonne.

The plan

  • A 180,000-tonne capacity vessel to be used as a floating dock where smaller ships can unload cargo.
  • KPT expects to handle 6 million tonnes of cargo a year through the floating dock.

The Kolkata Port is dead. This is what we have been told umpteen times by top bureaucrats, political leaders and big bosses of the corporate world. But these doomsayers have been wrong each and every time.

Two facts make it clear that the Kolkata Port is actually flourishing. It had the highest all-India container throughput - handling 5,00,447 containers in 2014-15, an all-time record in container handling. It ranks third among all major ports in India with regard to container traffic - It handled 46,292 metric ton of traffic in 2014-15, a 12% increase from the previous year.

Despite its low draft, the availability of less water down the river because of the Farakka barrage, Kolkata's overall decline, its inadequate modernisation and even the allegations of the port being infested with laggards of Bengal, it has survived.

The port managed by the Calcutta (now Kolkata) Port Trust (KPT) clearly lives a charmed life.

Hub for the Act East Policy

Despite the dilapidated warehouses that surround it, there is a real possibility of the port becoming a rejuvenated hub of logistics. With the 'Look East Policy' of the government transforming into an 'Act East Policy', the Kolkata Port is set to regain its glory.

Changes are already taking place in the logistical infrastructure of the Kolkata port in the context of developing new trade routes to the East. Kolkata's strategic location puts it squarely at the centre of crisscrossing trade routes to a vast hinterland. There can be no effective 'Act East Policy' without Kolkata.

The Kolkata Port, therefore, it would seem, is once again set to defy its critics.

Over time, the Kolkata port has evolved from what was a single port into a port system managed by the KPT. It comprises three ports - the two ports of Kolkata and Haldia, and now a third, upcoming one, at Sagar Island.

While skeptics who see a bleak future for the KPT are in plenty, the repeated resurgence of the Kolkata port is there for all to see.

It made a huge mark in container handling despite operational constraints of low navigational draft in the river, unavoidable ship detentions due to lock operations of the impounded dock, and the tide dependence of ship movement - all aspects unique to this river port.

New infrastructure

What will also help the port system rejuvenate itself is the Central Government's decision to extend the KPT limit in the Bay of Bengal. The KPT plans to use a vessel of 180,000-tonne capacity as a floating dock where smaller ships (Panamax variety) of 75,000 tonnes can unload cargo. Barges (of 12,000-tonne capacity) will then ferry the cargo to final destinations like Calcutta or Haldia.

It also plans to pick a private operator chosen through competitive bidding to build the Rs 300-crore floating facility. It will be stationed at Sandheads - 60 miles south of Haldia for eight months a year.

During the monsoon, when the sea is turbulent, the floating dock will be taken to Kanika Sands, next to Dhamra port on the Odisha coast - 60 miles south of Sandheads. The choice of Kanika Sands has riled Odisha, which fears that the floating dock will take business away from the Dhamra port that has been built at a cost of Rs 3,000 crore.

KPT expects to host 80 Panamax vessels and handle 6 million tonnes of cargo a year through the floating dock

The KPT expects to handle 6 million tonnes of cargo a year through the floating dock and host around 80 Panamax vessels. Each ship can save up to $1 lakh (around Rs 65 lakh) per trip. This will be due to the time saved - the ship will be able to return from the floating dock three to four days earlier than it came all the way to Haldia.

The KPT has also proposed building an exclusive jetty to handle such cargo at Haldia at a cost of Rs 290 crore through public-private partnership. KPT officials argue that the savings in transportation could be passed on to consumers through lower prices for the goods transported.

Part of a global network

After the introduction of the container system which has made cargo movement efficient, the location of the Kolkata port is once again becoming significant in global logistical networks.

These networks include roadway and railway transportation through fast corridors and several new hubs and crossroads of national and international trade routes like those through Siliguri to China, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

With Haldia as the mainstay of the Kolkata port, the processes of trans-loading (transferring shipments from one mode transportation to another) from the sea mouth have become comparatively less troublesome.

Kolkata also has a unique strategic location - it has a large hinterland connected by various trade routes across the country and beyond by road, inland waterways, rail, and air. There can be little doubt about the importance of the port in the global network of logistical connectivity, particularly in the East and the Northeast.

Meanwhile, the Chinese proposal for a New Silk Road has become a popular symbol for economic networks in Asia as it emerges as the world's most important trading region. The New Silk Road has become shorthand for focusing on infrastructural installations, transport routes, and the development of urban hubs of economic activity.

Yet like the historical Silk Road, from which it takes its name, the New Silk Road will also facilitate the movement of people, goods, culture, and labour across the traditionally defined regions of Asia and beyond. The Kolkata port has precisely this potential.

Only when one understands this that the undying nature of the Kolkata port can become historically intelligible.

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

First published: 27 June 2015, 10:21 IST
Ranabir Samaddar @Catch News

The author is Director, Calcutta Research Group and a former professor at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata.