Vizhinjam will make a good port – The Hindu BusinessLine

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It has depth to allow large vessels. A transhipment port,it can wean away Indian cargo from Colombo

Vizhinjam has all the features of a transhipment port | Photo Credit: –

Controversies seem to have followed the ₹75 billion Vizhinjam port project like a fellow traveller ever since the project was conceived almost 30 years ago. The fisherfolk living in the coastal belt intensified their agitation against the port project. Thanks to the intervention of intellectuals, prominent personalities and the government of Kerala, the work on this prestigious project has resumed.

Such protests do not come as a surprise. A number of port projects for deepening the approach channels of major seaports in the US and Europe have been delayed for decades due to protests by the local population. Consequently, the deepest ports in the world are not in the US or Europe but in Asia. Among the top 30 container ports, 21 ports are in Asia and only three from the US and six from Europe (Alphaliner). Asia remained the world’s leading maritime cargo handling centre in 2021 accounting for 42 per cent of exports and 64 per cent of imports (Unctad review of Maritime Transport -2022)

Strategic advantages

This is an interesting context. Vizhinjam situated about 20 km south of Thiruvananthapuram has a natural water depth of about 20m within about 3 km from the shore, negligible littoral drift necessitating minimal maintenance dredging, and proximity to the international shipping route connecting the Persian Gulf, the Far East and Europe with a minimum diversion of about 20 nautical miles from the international shipping route. It is a greenfield site which can be designed and developed, with no legacy of the past. Being a non-major port it has autonomy in fixation of port tariff. With the State government being the controlling authority, decisions could be taken at the state level.

Transhipment, Gateway ports

It could make for a world-class transhipment port. A transhipment port is defined as one where transfer of cargo takes place from one ship to another. In container shipping circles, it means the container traffic originating from ports of foreign countries gets temporarily unloaded/loaded at an intermediary port. Generally, huge mother ships which are plying on the main service lane, such as Asia-Europe, select some hub ports (ports at which cargo from outlying points is routinely collected for onward carriage) where containers are temporarily unloaded/ loaded .With the help of daughter/feeder ships they are reshipped to other regional destinations.

Major transshipment ports in the world are Singapore, Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia, Salalah in Oman, Colombo in Sri Lanka and Dubai in the UAE. A gateway port is one which depends largely on its export/import cargo originating from its primary, secondary or tertiary hinterland. Major gateway ports in the world are Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Antwerp in Belgium, Hamburg in Germany, New York in the US, Tokyo in Japan, and JN Port in New Mumbai.

A port is favoured based on its capacity to accommodate very large ships. Vizhinjam has an advantage. The important criteria for mother ships to call at hub ports will include, deeper ports with depth up to 20 m, close proximity to international shipping routes, high capacity cranes with outreach extending up to 22 rows across the ship’s beam, shorter turnaround time with excellent container handling capability assisted by an efficient IT support team. It would meet these criteria. The qualified IT personnel of Kerala could provide IT back up and innovative operating and support systems.

Meanwhile, the trend of building bigger and larger ships is likely to remain strong in view of the 30 per cent operational cost differential compared to older ships built up to 2010. As ships become bigger in size and larger in capacity they need deeper ports and approach channels.

In 2005, the largest container ships used to be in the range of 8000-9000 TEUs with a draught of about 14.5 m. During the last 20 years there has been a spectacular increase in the size of container ships. Larger the ship size, lower will be the unit cost of each container carried.

The largest container vessel in service today is “Ever Alot” of the Evergreen Shipping Company based in Taiwan. Evergreen Lines are reported to have placed orders for 12 ultra-large container ships of 24,000 TEUs and above. The world fleet of containerships in 2022 stood at about 6,000 ships.

Rivalry with Vallarpadam?

Questions about the relevance of Vizhinjam has been raised with respect to Vallarpadam in Tamil Nadu on the eastern coast. The latter has been functioning as an international container transshipment terminal from February 2011. When Vizhinjam becomes operational in 2024 what would happen to Vallarpadam?

Are there prospects for two container transhipment ports to co-exist when the distance between them is about 180 nautical miles only? Port Klang and Port of Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia co-exist within a distance of about 150 nautical miles, Jebel Ali and Abu Dhabi in the UAE remain within 81 nautical miles. Tacoma and Seattle in the US remain within 33 nautical miles. Vallarpadam and Vizhinjam can coexist in harmony in their respective segments i.e. Vallarpadam can accommodate container ships up to 10,000 TEU capacity while Vizhinjam can accommodate larger and ultra large container ships with capacity ranging from 10,000 to 25,000 TEUs. Colombo, the closet competitor to Vizhinjam handled 7.2 million TEUs in 2021; 70 per cent of its container traffic is contributed by the Indian sub-continent.

The purpose of developing Vizhinjam is to reduce transshipment of Indian cargo at foreign ports as it results in $80-100 per TEU higher cost to Indian EXIM clients. That makes Vizhinjam a worthwhile proposition.

The writer is former Chairman, Mormugao Port Trust and an Adjunct Professor of Indian Maritime University, Chennai

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