The Chittagong Port Authority along with the Customs and off-dock workers are putting in a concerted effort to ease out movement of cargo

All the banks at Chittagong Port have been directed to operate 24/7 along with the port authority and Customs; private ICDs that do not deliver quick and efficient services stand to lose their license; the Bangladesh Land Port Authority (MLPA) has been instructed to construct an alternative road for transportation of goods, while the port operates 24/7 to evacuate cargo; landlord port model will be introduced to reduce the port authority’s involvement in operations; the off-dock workers and the port authority will procure more equipment to facilitate swift movement of cargo. The ICDs will impose CFS cut-off time for exporters for sending export cargo so that the ICDs can maintain cut-off time for sending export laden containers to the Chittagong Port. The ICDs will send export laden containers to the port between berthing of vessel and six hours before their sailing. The ICDs will also try to take out import laden containers of their designated 37 items at the shortest possible time. Bids have been invited for erecting a specialised terminal to handle bulk cargoes at the port.

Chittagong Customs House has jumped into action dispatching 94 assistant revenue officers and nine assistant commissioners for supporting the exim operations 24/7. The CPA will provide an export yard of at least 1000 teus at the CCT (Chittagong Container Terminal) and at NCT (New Mooring Container Terminal) within a short time and will transfer 4,200 teus of containers meant for auction to the newly-built silo yard. It is to be noted that neither CCT nor NCT has any export yard at present for export containers to facilitate the ICDs to go directly to the vessels’ hook point to load export containers onto vessels.

CPA Chairman has asked the off-docks operators to install scanners at their yards to prevent contraband items moving through the port. BICDA chairman Nurul Qayyum Khan said the import containers should be scanned immediately after arrival at the port.

The port authority has imposed strict limits on the duration for which a ship may remain in the port and this is forcing vessels to set sail even if certain booked containers have not been loaded. The unfinished loading can be completed at the outer channel. As per the new timetable, a gearless container vessel is allowed to berth for 48 hours, smaller geared vessels with cranes onboard can berth for 60 hours and the largest geared vessels are allotted 72 hours at the port. The port authority has also mandated that containers should arrive in the terminal yard six hours before the vessels departure.

These are some of the measures being implemented to ease the Chittagong Port which is almost chocked with congestion. The port Chairman has placed a requisition for declaring the port as a thrust sector, exemption it from paying non-tax revenue, reforming customs scanning system for quick delivery, reducing physical inspection of goods, more off-dock in private sector, and review of tariff.

Chittagong Port handles 90 per cent of international cargo in Bangladesh and the volumes at the port have been steadily growing only to overstress the existing infrastructure that was kept waiting for an upgrade for almost a decade now. The problem of cargo congestion at Chittagong Port is increasing day by day and the reasons are many – The port has 21 RTG cranes against the demand for 56, there are only seven straddle carriers whereas the port needs at least 15, most of the jetties have a shallow draft, there is a shortage of lighter vessels to transport containers from ocean-going vessels that must offload at outer anchorage as the draft does not allow for these to berth at the port, there is also a lack of enough berths for the vessels to dock. These shortcomings have put the port in a situation that has built up a queue of vessels waiting to get berth.

Six of the thirteen jetties in the port have a depth ranging between 6-7 metres, which prevent larger ships from berthing at them directly. Only two jetties have deep draft where larger ships come for lighterage before moving to other jetties. This increases the cost for shippers in addition to the delay as they have to pay two different groups of workers before the cargo is completely unloaded.

Today, container ships have to wait at the outer anchorage for around 6-12 days while the waiting time for bulk carriers is around 20 days or more. The congestion has driven up ship’s average time in the port by 43 per cent to 84.3 hours between January and June. The congestion began to mount in April when average time in the port was 62.7 hours

Adding to the woes of shipping lines are the steep demurrage for goods to be unloaded after berthing at docks. This has prompted shipping liners plying the Singapore- Chittagong route to raise price per container by $150 because of the congestion. These adversaries have forced shipping lines to cut down the calls on this route to one shipment (as opposed to two earlier) per month.

These problems have not cropped up over night at the port. Lack of infrastructure has been accruing over the years. The number of jetties has remained the same since 2007, while import volume has risen from 1 million to 2.4 million containers as of the last fiscal year. Port infrastructure has simply not grown to handle this extra volume. To make things worse, the two gantry cranes which were damaged following an accident on June 25 has substantially disrupted the container handling operations of the port.

According to the importers, on an average 15 container vessels now have to wait every day at the outer anchorage for getting schedule of berthing at the jetties. “The gearless vessels now have to wait for a maximum of five days while the geared vessels (with container handling equipment like cranes on board) have to wait for a maximum of four days at the outer anchorage. The ordinary vessels have to wait for a maximum of two days,” revealed Rear Admiral M Khaled Iqbal, Chairman, CPA. The average stay time for a container vessel for getting schedule of berthing in the jetties is supposed be around one or two days under normal circumstances.

The congestion at the port has had a cascading effect translating into higher end prices for all goods being imported. The backlog in unloading these goods (counting demurrage) means that the market price of imported products is rising. The impact on exports is also apparent with exports growth slumped to 3.67 per cent in the first 11 months of 2016-17.

Exim has suffered a lot in the last few months due to congestion of containers and vessels, even leading to cancellation of export orders by the international buyers of readymade garments. The businessmen will have to count an additional amount of Tk 80 crore per month if $100 is imposed on each container on the pretext of additional surcharge. The situation that has built up at the Chittagong Port is surely a wakeup call to all the neighbouring ports in South Asia to take a reality check of their services and infrastructure.