Dissecting fact and fiction of Vallarpadam

Monday, 14 March 2011 00:31 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By a Special Correspondent

11 February 2011 marked a red letter day in the annals of Indian Maritime history, where the first International Container Transhipment Terminal at Vallarpadam situated in Kerala was ceremonially opened by Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh with pomp and pageantry.

Senior Ministers of the Central Government and the State graced this occasion, whilst many of the senior personnel in the shipping fraternity too attended.

Whilst all this was taking place, many of the invitees did not realise the happenings behind the scenes where the terminal authorities were having a head-on battle with the unions, which were adamant that the new container terminal should not go ahead until their demands were met.

Since 31 January 2011, the labour unions at the old container terminal were on a strike and refrained from handling any vessels that would be berthed which resulted in some of the vessels bypassing Cochin whilst the others had no other choice but to ‘bite the dust’ at a phenomenal cost and stay at the anchorage until the authorities and the unions resolved their grievances.

In the meantime DPW had planned a soft opening of the Vallarpadam terminal during the first week of February 2011. However, they could not go ahead with the same as union authorities threatened the shipping principals, their local agents and the terminal authorities that harm would befall them if they took the initiative to berth any vessel at the new terminal. Hence, all shipping lines that were approached refused to accept the offer to be the maiden vessel at the Vallarpadam facility.

After the official commissioning of the new facility on 11 February, it took over a week for vessels to be berthed and commence work at Vallarpadam, and that too done against the wishes of the labour unions. Hence all in all ships that chose to remain had to wait for almost three weeks to secure a berth.

Since then operations at the new terminal are continuing at a very slow pace amidst further strikes, this time around by the custom house agents, and still the productivity at this facility is much to be desired.

Before the opening, this much talked about terminal was slated to compete with the likes of Dubai, Colombo and Singapore as a transhipment hub, as suggested by its name itself. However it leaves a big question mark as to whether this would become a reality considering the string of problems it is facing vis-à-vis low productivity, limited draft at the alongside berths and only a fraction of the berth (approximately 300 meters) ready, strikes, etc.

It is a well known fact of the strong trade Union practices which still exist in Kerala, and has been one of the few states in India which are the first to react when a state wide strike (which they call Bandh in India) is called for by the joint trade unions.

The inauspicious commencement of the new terminal at Vallarpadam itself speaks of what is in store to its users in the future.

Meanwhile, at another crucial juncture in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lankan Ports have also embarked with their major port development projects at a cost of more than US $ 2.5 million and one being Colombo South Port which will add 7.5 million TEUs to the current capacity of the existing port, which is five million TEUs. At the same time, Hambantota Port in Southern Sri Lanka and the Oluvil Port in its eastern coast have also taken an expedited course towards a state-of-the-art development in the regional port sector. As for these apparent reasons the shipping industry has also placed their bets on Sri Lanka as the next mega logistic hub in the entire region.