May 2020

The pandemic has had a very negative impact on trade. At the same time, it has emphasised the need for accelerating the digitalisation of all processes at India’s ports. As it stood, the Sagarmalaprogramme did envisage a thrust on digitalising and IT-enabling all port processes. The lockdown has given ports some breathing space, which could be utilised to do this faster.

Project Unnati, a sub-project under Sagarmala, is aimed at improving processes to add an effective 100 mtpa of capacity simply by increasing efficiency. The government also envisages setting up of smart industrial port cities to leverage these major traffic hubs. In addition, the Customs and Excise Department has deployed better IT systems to help with paperwork. IT has also been inducted by private logistics players working in the port sector.

This is only the beginning. There are enormous opportunities in the sector for the creation of digital, multi-stakeholder systems at all points where there is an interface between shippers and port authorities. There is also scope for the induction of systems that help the port authorities themselves to acquire and process data more quickly and thereby shorten turnaround times for ships. This should go side by side with modernising equipment and installing X-ray container scanners, RFID-based gates, blockchain-based systems, etc. for tracking cargo to maintain inventory and prevent leakages.

Global best practices in this area can be studied by examining the models provided by the largest, most modern European ports such as Rotterdam, Hamburg, Antwerp and Barcelona. These ports have all put in new equipment that is IT enabled. They have extensively deployed IoT networks that enable physical assets such as loads at high capacity, IT-enabled berths to be most efficiently tracked. In addition, these systems can interface with truckers to ensure fast movement of cargo in and out of the port. All this has sharply reduced dwell times for ships.

This process of digitalisation is a completely new area for most Indian ports. The new imperatives imposed by the pandemic with its need for social distancing make it mandatory to reduce the labour-intensity of cargo handling processes.

The implementation of equipment modernisationprogrammes and digitalisation of paperwork is also imperative if the Sagarmala target of increasing capacity from the current 1,500 mtpa to an envisaged 2,500 mtpa is to be met. In addition, there needs to be formal coordination of systems such that different systems at each port can be unified on the same platform and also so that every port has a system that is compatible with that in all other ports. Extensive reskilling of staff and other stakeholders will have to be part of this process.

This will entail a deep cultural transformation of the ways in which the port sector works. The sector is likely to suffer from a slow global economy, which will inevitably have a lingering negative impact on trade. By enchancing efficiency and building digital systems now, India’s port sector would be better prepared to take advantage of the rebound as and when it comes.

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