Vinit Kumar, IRSEE, Chairman, Syama Prasad Mookerjee Port: A complete makeover of a major port

“In near future our focus is on efficiency improvement by mechanization and use of technology, ultimately, improving reliability and transparency to deliver a good customer experience. We also want to create a good ecosystem of ship repairing and ship building.”

Let me begin by asking you, post lockdown period, if you want to look at the months of July, August and September, how is the business picking up and how are the cargo operations at the port?

I am happy to note that we are on the positive side. Things are improving day by day. And if you, let us say, we compare the first quarter with the second quarter, our cargo was down to the tune of 30%, 35% in the first quarter, but at the end of second quarter, we are something around 20% down. So it is not only that we have recovered for the losses we had in the past two, three months, but there is little upswing. And because we cater to the steel industry, as of now, over the next month, the outlook is very good and also because of the coming festive season, pooja and all that, we find that the line up of ships is quite good, almost as good as it would have been in the last year. In aggregate, we might still be lesser. But, you know, October, we might match the last year; like almost come to the last year’s level.

Do you have still any challenges to cope up with?
One challenge is, as you know, I just told you, by now we have had more than 500, almost 500 cases. So these cases are coming every day. In our industry, you know, nothing can go ahead without human resource. At the end of the day, we need to have people who will operate the cranes and all those things. But that is one challenge which we are having. Then the other challenge is the imbalance, especially in the container trade – the imbalance of export and import, it has come down from the levels it was few months ago. But still, that imbalance is there, the imports are yet to pick up, while the exports of late have been very good; because of that the container shortages and the call management has become an issue. But otherwise, I think things are almost back to normal and been able to successfully almost tide over the crisis I would say.

Let us talk a bit about Nepal and Bangladesh cargos for which Kolkata Port is a very key port that way. I am told that now there is a separate zone arranged for Nepal cargo and the handling would be much smoother than earlier. Can you can you elaborate a bit on that?
As you are well aware that Nepal and Bangladesh cargo – both are very close to us. These are our traditional trade. We have been doing this for ages. Nepal, I would tell you that even during this crisis period, for the entire lockdown period, we kept the Nepal containers inside the port till 3rd of May. Even after that when the congestion became huge, we transferred certain boxes to 2 – 3 CFSs, but that too with 15 days free time and only a consolidated fees, you know, because normally the Nepal trade has lot of demurrage issues, but this time we kept it in the port free of cost for the entire two months period.

Thereafter, we also shifted them to a nominated CFSs that too at a fixed rate. So, we tried to give all the facilities to them and now we have space inside the dock which is earmarked for the Nepal trade which was in fact given on lease to NTWC, it’s a Nepal Transit Warehousing Corporation.

So, that’s a separate place. So they can keep their containers there. And so this is another facility which has come. Very recently, the VDI connectivity at NTWC has also started. So, that will further smoothen the operations. So, all these things have been there for Nepal and the feedback I have got from the Nepal trade as well as from various importers and exporters is that by and large, we have been satisfactorily able to manage the crisis for them.

For, Bangladesh, we are always striving to improve the trade. The recent trial movement for Agartala has been very very successful. We are getting lot of inquiries. As you know, the Bangladesh trade, the major issue is the volumes, and aggregation is an issue. So I am hoping that there are certain last minute clarifications which had to be done between the two countries. I hope it will be done shortly. With the starting of this Agartala transhipment, the Bangladesh project will also be much better.

In fact, for Bangladesh trade, I would tell you that we have allowed stuffing within our dock system. While our normally export containers are given 10 days, for Bangladesh, we give additional time of 15 days and all those vessels which are playing on the coast route, we give all the coastal discounts. So both these Nepal as well as Bangladesh trade, we treat them with a very different approach and lot many concessions which are not probably given to our own trade are passed onto that because of this peculiar situation and the conditions.

I think these are some of the positive developments that happened during the pandemic period, which are very impressive. I am told that there is a cargo container train for export to Bangladesh from Majerhat station started which will interchange cargo at ICP Petrapole. So, what does it mean to the trade?
In Majerhat, there is a Concor terminal which is on port trust lease land. So from there they have started a train to Petrapole border because there was a lot of congestion on the road at the time of the crisis.

So they have just started this train service and this goes up to Petrapole. And then there the containers are shifted from rail mode to the road mode for further movement into the Bangladesh side. So, this is one service which has started. So, it is a welcome thing because you have to see from the overall trade logistics cost perspective. So, it’s a welcome step but I still feel that for Bangladesh trade, the river route or the sea route continues to be more cheaper if you see the total end-to-end logistics because it still involves one transhipment at the Petrapole border and then they have their own issues and for their road movement. So, water is a cheaper mode, I think in long-term the coastal and waterways development will gain momentum.

When you mention coastal shipping, one interesting thing caught my attention. During this pandemic, everyone is talking about digitalization and I understand Kolkata Port also has earmarked certain funds for digitalization. But what is this e-market place for coastal shipping. I would like to know more about that?
Let me tell you what we did. As you said that something good has also come out of Covid – it’s that in-house with the help of NIC, we have already implemented our entire export process – paper filing is done online now. So, there is no need for any CHA to come to the port. All payment, everything, the said release order, all the papers are conveyed to them online. It is 100% online now. Not a single paper we are accepting for the export process in the port. Import also we have done it. Import is also done – the trial is on. Hopefully, in another month’s time, we will settle it.

E-marketplace for coastal is, I would say, it is at a concept stage. But I was part of a group which was looking into the coastal business. And when we went to collect the data about coastal movement, it is not easily visible and available. Because the same ship carries coastal containers also, it carries exempt containers also, like we get boxes coming from Krishnapatnam, Vizag. the coastal containers of Chennai, Katupalli. So, these are common. So, lot of cargo which is coming, we do not have a very clear picture of what is coming from where, who are the people operating Coastal. If suppose, as a user, if I want to send something from here to southern part of the country or to any other state, then I do not know whom to contact. It’s not that people are not there, there are people who are doing. But it is very fragmented.

If you see for bulk also, there are providers. We are supplying coal to TANGEDCO. It is going from Paradip also. Lot of bulk movement is also happening. We intend to do lot of fertilizer and all these things in the future. We came up with a concept that we should come up with a portal where if you want to go for coastal booking, you have all the services and facilities which are available, who are the operators in the coastal mode. Suppose you want to send a container from here to Cochin, is there a service available and at what cost? So, one idea is that once bring it to that portal, it will generate some very good data for us to analyze. Because we have been trying to do a lot in the coast – but to be very frank we have not been very very successful. Even where we are successful, we do not know. Because numbers and data is not very clearly, apparently available to us.

So, my plan is that all the coastal booking will be routed through this portal. And in the long-term, this portal will rope in various stakeholders so they can offer their services. So, shipping companies can also join. So, they can display their rates there. So, there is a one-stop solution for somebody who wants to do the coastal shipping. That is the intent, so we are working on the concept; we had interacted with couple of companies on this. So that is the idea behind this coastal portal or gateway, you can say.

Very good initiative, I wish you success on that. Port has deployed floating cranes at Sagar and Sands-Head. So, how much could they improve port efficiency?
See, we are a river port and our basic handicap is draft. Now whatever, this shipping is going towards bigger and bigger vessels. In Haldia, I can take Panamax but I cannot take vessels bigger than Panamax. I can take a partially loaded Panamax in Haldia but cannot take up fully loaded Panamax. But we have got very good locations in Sandheads where we can do full transloading. That’s why we installed these two floating cranes and we are building lighterage at Sagar as well as Sandheads.

I can tell you last to last year, it was the first time that we handled a fully laden cape vessel of 1,65,000 tonnes. For the industry which is close to Bengal or you can say in Durgapur or our hinterland, in Haldia’s hinterland, if a vessel comes with a single port call, normally it’s a two port calls, either Dhamra – Haldia or it is Paradeep – Haldia. Now, here if you bring a fully laden vessel and you are able to discharge it, and we carried by barges to our terminal. We have made a separate terminal for this. So, that becomes quite economical.

So, the handicap of the port as regards draft is taken care by this. And I can tell you last year, we handled around 1.5 to 1.8 million tonnes and even this year, I have booking for at least 3 fully laden Capes and 3,4 Panamaxes. So, this 6 months, we handled Capes and fully laden Panamax, and rest of the time, we handle around – if I take it to the port, I can handle around 32,000 tonnes of cargo. But, at our anchorage like Sagar, I can definitely add around 12,000 to 15,000 more to it. So, that reduces the cost for the importer. It has been quite successful for us and in fact, we are thinking that we will deploy more cranes so that we can do some transhipment of containers also.

As of now, some geared vessels are coming and they are doing their own crane. They are bringing 80 to 100 extra containers, transloading them at the anchorage and bringing them on a barge. So, it’s a very successful experiment and it reduces the cost.

Any plans to further extend the storage facilities?
I will give you two sort of innovations we have done. One is that in Haldia, we have lot of space. And we have been developing around 1,50,000 sqm of area and work is going. But in the meanwhile, we realize it will be better if we can rope in our trade partners. So, what we have done is we are allotting land for 5 years and giving some discounts on the rent and asking our users to develop. And I am very happy to tell you that around 30,000 sqm of space has already been taken over by users. They are also very happy with it.

So, they also have a surety of land with them and they can develop it as they want and then they can keep it for 5 years. In Kolkata, because we deal with pulses and food grain stuff and all that, we had at least 6 to 8 old sheds, out of which, 2 we repaired ourselves. And in 2 we did an experiment, and we floated an expression of interest, if somebody would take them, repair them and use them for 5 years and pays the rent.

And I am happy to tell you that Glencore has taken it and they have now repaired it also and not only that, they have borne the repair cost. They are paying us the rent also and also it sorts of gives me a commitment from their side too that they will bring the cargo also. These are couple of initiatives which we have taken and I am very happy to say that both of them have been successful.

Mr. Vinit Kumar, with all the constraints Kolkata Port has, you have proactively brought in lot of innovation and improved infrastructure, cargo handling. So what else is on your plate for the future? What else is remaining? What are your plans in the near future?
In near future, as I told you, one is that we need to go more on mechanization. So, we are thinking of Khidderpore docks is another dock system in Kolkata Port Trust which is underutilised. So, we are coming up with a PPP proposal – it’s around 800m of quay length. 400m will be given in the first phase and it will be a multi cargo terminal where both containers as well as general cargo will be dealt. The total cost is around 180 crores.

At Haldia we are mechanizing one more berth. So, one is efficiency improvement by mechanization. Another efficiency is through use of technology, we have already brought in a trucking solution because Kolkata is a city port so we already brought in a partner for our trucking solution. So that it can optimise the truck movements so that if you are coming to drop a container, while going back, through the system you can find if you can take back a container also. We are planning a yard solution wherein – it will be either RFID based or OCR based solution.

The idea is that even a truck driver should be able to send an SMS and I don’t need high-end phone. If the truck driver wants to know in which place his container is? He has to just SMS the container number to me and I will send him back an SMS that your container is lying in this line, this yard, at this place…you go there and collect it. So, for this also our expression of interest is out and maybe in six months’ time we will be implementing this. So, technology as I said, is another thing.

Then our focus is – we are a very old port, we have lot of assets. We want to create an ecosystem – being a terminal port, we have this advantage. So once upon a time, we had a good ecosystem of ship repairing and ship building. So, we have already started ship repairing with Cochin Shipyard, our two dry docks have already started functioning. We have already at least handled 4 to 5 vessels there, we are approaching both coast guard and trade also for ship repairing. We have 3 dry docks at Khidderpore.

We are shortly coming up with a tender for giving a long-term lease for those dry docks also. So, our focus is also, we are diversifying into ship repairing. That is another aspect. And port side, I would say, other areas is – developing an entire ecosystem in Kolkata, in the last 2, 3 years, I have seen that lot of things have changed. It’s not only us who are changing but the entire ecosystem. So, everybody is coming together here to give a good experience to the customer at the end of the day. It is more about the reliability of the service, our transparency, so that is our aim that the customer – we are very shortly- in a day or two we are releasing a customer charter also as to what we promise to our customer.

So, we are giving you timeline, we are giving our hours; so in this hour, we will give you this service. You apply in this time, in two hours, or in 2 days or in 10 days, you will get this approval if everything is alright. So, focus is to turn this organisation more customer-centric, both the docks, and once I feel – if you are thinking about your customer and your employees, everything else falls in line. So that is our vision for the future.