THE size and scale of operations of some private ports such as Mundra and Pipavav in Gujarat have come to challenge the very definition of `major' and `minor' ports in India. Until recently, it was not common knowledge that a major port is called so only because of a Central government nomenclature, and not necessarily because it is a bigger facility. If there is one agency that can be credited with blurring this distinction between major and minor ports in the country, it is the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB), an agency created by the State government in 1981 to oversee the development of the ports sector in Gujarat.
During its two-decade-long existence, the GMB, with its innovative as well as first-time experiment of port privatisation in the country, has been a major centre of attention. In the process, it has changed the mindset of not only the bureaucracy, but also the maritime population towards ports and shipping. The GMB regulates and operates private ports, captive jetties, private jetties and GMB jetties, along with ship-breaking yards, which is altogether a different activity from port operations.
While the GMB manages and controls the GMB jetties, it plays the role of a regulator in the case of the rest of the facilities, which have varying degrees of private participation. The GMB also plays an important role in port-led development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), rail and road links, port-based industrial parks and container freight stations in Gujarat.
Gujarat accounts for one-third of the coastline of the country. It also has two gulfs - the Gulf of Cambay and the Gulf of Khambhat, which provide natural navigational safety and logistical advantage to reach out directly to a vast hinterland comprising the whole of northern India and some parts of central India. The strategic location of the State has also helped since it is the nearest maritime outlet to West Asia, Africa and Europe.
But even with these natural advantages, Gujarat may not have been the leading maritime State in the country had the GMB not taken up a more proactive role. With a long-term vision of making Gujarat the gateway to India's prosperity, the GMB has been tirelessly striving to attract private investment in the ports sector. The efforts have already yielded results, with the volume of cargo handled by GMB ports rising from 16 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) in 1995 to 90 MTPA in 2004. Port revenues in the same period rose from $4.4 million to $55.5 million, a compounded annual growth rate of a whopping 33 per cent.
Going forward, the cargo handled by GMB ports is projected to grow significantly and to 180 MTPA by 2008 and rise further to 340 MTPA by 2018. While capacities continue to be added to the existing ports, a demand-supply gap is likely to appear by 2013, and in 2018 there could be a supply gap of nearly 80 MTPA. The GMB is now scouting the globe to attract international investment in the ports sector of Gujarat. Five greenfield sites - Bedi, Simar, Mithivirdi, Vansi-Borsi and Maroli - have already been profiled for their investment potential. All these ports offer excellent draught, with Bedi offering 15 metres and Simar 20 metres.
If the GMB has already been able to catapult smaller ports into the big league, it is not too difficult to imagine what the future would be like.