Modernisation and mechanisation have become a key focus area for port operators in recent years. This has primarily been driven by the need for increasing efficiencies in cargo handling, reducing costs and improving customer service. As ship sizes increase, there is a need for greater efficiency in cargo handling as well as in managing all port operations. As compared to global ports, Indian ports are still inefficient in terms of cargo handling. This is a result of constraints such as long dwell time, poor turnaround time, obsolete equipment and poor maintenance, inadequate port access facilities, skewed handling capacity for different types of cargo, lack of deeper draughts and poor hinterland connectivity.
Nevertheless, the past two-three years have been quite eventful for the Indian port sector, particularly in terms of technology deployment at both the major and non-major ports. The replacement of manual forms by web-based e-forms, introduction of direct port delivery, installation of container scanners and radio frequency identification-based systems for gate automation, paperless transactions, automation of issuance of delivery orders, etc., are some of the major initiatives that have been taken to improve the ease of doing business.
The adoption of new technologies is being driven by the need to enhance operational efficiency and improve customer service, as well as to increase utilisation of the existing infrastructure.
Going forward, the increase in efficiency levels at ports will not only depend on the pace of technology adoption but also on the implementation of dedicated policies for promoting mechanisation and modernisation initiatives, uniformity and coordination in IT implementation across ports, provision of a meaningful feedback and review system and a dedicated inter-ministerial committee to address these issues.
Key technological advancements at major ports
In a bid to match global standards, the major port trusts have taken several measures and have deployed various technologies to increase the level of digitalisation and mechanisation at the ports. Detailed below are some of the key initiatives taken to improve the ease of doing business ranking of the maritime sector:
- Enterprise resource planning (ERP) system: With a view to promoting ease of doing business through digital transformation, ERP systems have been deployed at the major ports. The system adopts a set of best practices for carrying out all business processes (through business process re-engineering) and integrates key port users, exporters, importers, shipping lines, port ancillary industries and different modes of transport (road, rail and waterways). The key features of the ERP system are an integrated database and dashboard, cloud computing, custom-designed interface, a reporting system, an integrated supply chain, business process re-engineering, single sign-off from any port/location, etc. So far, the ERP system has been implemented at five major ports.
- Indian customs EDI [Electronic Data Interchange] system (ICES): ICES is designed to exchange customs clearance-related information electronically using the EDI. A large number of documents that trade, transport and regulatory agencies are required to submit/ receive in the process of live customs clearance can be processed online through ICES. It has two broad aspects:
- Internal automation of the customs house for a comprehensive, paperless, fully automated customs clearance system that makes the process of customs clearance transparent and efficient.
- Online, real-time electronic interface with trade, transport, banks and regulatory agencies concerned with customs clearance of export-import (exim) cargo through the EDI gateway (ICEGATE). ICES is currently operational at 134 major customs locations handling nearly 98 per cent of the country’s international trade in terms of exim consignments.
- Single-window interface for trade (SWIFT): The implementation of SWIFT was undertaken to reduce interface with governmental agencies, dwell time and the cost of doing business. The key advantages of SWIFT are the replacement of nine separate documents with an integrated declaration, integrated risk assessment, online clearances and automated routing of cargo.
- Port community system (PCS): A PCS is intended to integrate the electronic flow of trade-related documents/information and act as a centralised hub for port trusts and other stakeholders. Launched in December 2018 as an upgraded version of PCS 1.0., PCS 1x is a cloud-based new-generation technology with a user-friendly interface. It seamlessly integrates new and existing stakeholders on a single platform and offers a database that acts as a single data point for all the transactions. It captures and stores data at first occurrence, thereby reducing manual intervention, the need to enter transaction data at various points and the resulting errors in the process. Meanwhile, the implementation of PCS 2.0 is also on the cards. It will be integrated with ICEGATE for faster flow of information.
- Logistics data bank (LDB): The LDB is an advanced container tracking software that provides online data on movement of inland shipment of goods. Its deployment offers visibility and transparency with respect to exim container movement in the country’s western corridor. It has been developed under the DMICDC Logistics Data Bank project, which is a joint initiative of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation and NEC Corporation, Japan, to bring in efficiency in the current logistics and supply chain environment through the use of IT.
While the new technologies have been successful in reducing transaction time, standardising information exchange processes, optimising maritime data and hence improving India’s ranking in the ease of doing business, the port trusts face certain challenges in their deployment. Factors such as the shortage of trained and skilled manpower for operating advanced technological systems, a general reluctance among port trusts to adopt new technologies, strict labour laws, presence of old and obsolete equipment and server issues have limited the adoption of these technologies. Besides, the lack of uniformity in technology adoption across Indian ports has slowed the process of integration of IT systems in the entire maritime chain.
With regard to ERP, in particular the geographical spread of ports, inconsistency with existing business processes, reliance on printed records, limitations of ERP technical capabilities, changes in employee responsibilities, and ownership issues are some of the factors which have slowed the pace implementation at Indian ports.
The way forward
The opportunity for mechanisation and digitalisation at Indian ports is enormous. The government’s flagship programme, Sagarmala too has modernisation as one of its core components. The programme focuses on promoting ease of doing business, using electronic channels for information exchange and establishing a single-window clearance system.
It will therefore be necessary to improve efficiency at yards, berths and port gates by deploying IT solutions and modern equipment. Ports also need to create specialised high capacity berths, supported by state-of-the-art equipment and skilled and trained manpower. Customs procedures at ports have to become more efficient by facilitating online submission of documents and forms, providing single-window clearances, and obtaining more container scanning equipment.
In view of the current levels of mechanisation at global ports and the quest of Indian ports to match global standards, other advanced technologies will have to be depolyed in the near future. This will involve the use of sensor technology, robotic automation, GPS and cloud-based databases.
With inputs from Ajay Gupta, Senior Deputy Director, Deendayal Port Trust, and Cyril C. George, Deputy Chairman, Chennai Port Trust, at a recent India Infrastructure conference