Tuesday, June 08, 2010

All ready to make an impact

The Rs 2600 crore International Container Transshipment Terminal at Vallarpadam, Kochi, is all set for a soft launch next month. A look at the behind-the-scenes activities and the significance of this world-class terminal

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, work is going on at full swing at the Vallarpadam International Container Transshipment Terminal, at Kochi. Lorries whiz past raising clouds of dust. Paver blocks are being laid to make a road. Workers carry furniture inside a building.

On the wharf, eleven rubber-tyred gantry cranes (RTGs) can be seen. Costing $1.7 million each, the RTGs have been imported from Abu Dhabi. What is yet to arrive are the massive ship-to-shore cranes, 70 metres in height, which will be arriving from Shanghai in a couple of weeks.

Standing besides a five-storey building is Suresh Joseph, the General Manager of DP World Cochin, which is a partner of the Cochin Port Trust, for the Rs 2,600-crore project. He is wearing a fluorescent green vest and a yellow helmet.

Joseph speaks to a Malaysian engineer, Kim, about cleaning out the culverts on one side. He tells another manager that the tiles on the staircase in the administrative building of DP World have been inadvertently chipped at one end.

Work is going on at a frenetic pace because the terminal is supposed to have a soft launch in July.

“This is the biggest integrated port project undertaken in India,” says Joseph. There is a brand-new railway line and an exclusive highway link.

The terminal has an area of 265 acres. Inside, apart from the 605m wharf, there is a stacking yard, a documentation centre, a workshop, an office for the administrators of the Special Economic Zone, four electricity sub-stations, and an amenity centre.

Joseph looks down, taps the paver-block surface with his foot, and says, “You cannot imagine the amount of hard work that has gone into this project. The site conditions were very adverse. This is reclaimed land, and the soil was slushy, with a lot of muck.”

So DP World had to adopt various soil-stabilising measures. One method was the installation of stone columns. “You bore down to a specific depth, remove all the bad soil, and then tamp in stones of various sizes,” says Joseph. “The aim was to replace the unstable soil, which did not have the strength on which we could build the infrastructure.”

This took 18 months to finish. And now everything is slowly falling into place. But, recently, a senior official of DP World complained about the slow pace of dredging done by the Cochin Port Trust.

“90 per cent of the work is complete,” says N. Ramachandran, the chairman of the Cochin Port Trust, a day later. “It is only in the basin area near the wharf that needs to be finished.”

He points through his large glass-paned office on the sixth floor, on Willingdon Island, at the vessel ‘Jalsu,’ standing immobile in the sea, not far away. “That is a dredger,” he says. In 20 minutes it scoops up 8,800 cubic metres of earth. The ‘Jalsu’ will make eight trips in a day to the outer sea to deposit the silt. On an average, it scoops up around 70,000 cubic metres of mud daily.

The Port Trust is creating a depth of 60 feet in the channel so that large ships can arrive at the terminal. “We are also increasing the width from 200 to 300m,” says Ramachandran.

Not many people know about the tremendous economic importance of the terminal. As of now, containers from places like Nagpur, Madurai, and Coimbatore are taken to the nearest sea port: Chennai, Mumbai, Kochi, Mangalore, or Tuticorin. From there the containers are transferred by feeder ships to Colombo where they are loaded on to large ships which will take the goods to places like Europe and America.

“What the terminal at Kochi will do is to make the journey to Colombo unnecessary,” says Ramachandran. “Exporters will save around $300 per container. The travel time will be lessened by seven to ten days. This will be of great advantage for Indian exports and imports.”

The scope for business is enormous. “Colombo receives between 2 to 3 million containers from India annually,” says Ramachandran. “Singapore and Dubai get similar volumes. A substantial part of this business will come to Kochi.”

The other big advantage is the numerous employment opportunities that are going to come Kerala’s way. “There are going to be several Container Freight Stations,” says Joseph. A CFS is a place where containers and cargo can be stored, and get the required Customs clearance.

“Normally, every major terminal gets the support of about 15-20 CFS,” says Joseph. “But thanks to the negative image of Kerala, as a state prone to labour agitations, there are only two CFS at the Rajiv Gandhi Container Terminal at Kochi.”

But now, five CFS have already come up in places like Kalamaserry and Eloor. “There will be many more,” says Joseph. “Several private companies have expressed interest.” Many workers will be needed to man this. Security personnel will also have to be hired.

The number of trucks which will arrive at the terminal daily will be around 2500. “There will be a need for many drivers and cleaners,” says Ramachandran. New petrol stations will come up, apart from spare parts shops. Packaging units will have to be set up, since material sent abroad has to be carefully packed. Small hotels and restaurants will also come up.

“As the city’s population increases, there will be a need for new houses,” says Ramachandran. “Since so many ships will be arriving, there will be opportunities for firms to supply water and food materials to the crew.”

However, there is one drawback. “The number of vehicles that are going to be unleashed from the terminal is going to be enormous,” says Ramachandran. “Places like Kalamaserry, through which trucks will have to pass, to enter national highways, will become jam-packed. So, the state government has to develop new roads and flyovers on a war footing.”

Another underlying concern is the possibility of strikes. “We cannot afford to lose a single minute to a strike,” says Joseph. “The workers should remember that we are competing with international terminals the world over. Transshipment is so sensitive to time, that if you say that for ten minutes I am not going to serve this ship, there will be huge repercussions. Shipping companies will immediately move off to other more efficient terminals.”

In the meantime, DP World has been hiring some of the best talent it can obtain. “We have people who have worked in international ports like Dubai and Salalah,” says Joseph. They have applied for jobs because they wanted to return home to Kerala. Malayalis from other terminals in India have also been hired.

“Some senior recruits have 30 years of experience in working in an international port,” says Joseph. “That is a major bonus for us.”

On May 24, a comprehensive training programme has begun. This is being spearheaded by the DP World Training Institute in Adelaide and Dubai.

“In the end, the biggest benefit will be for the image of Kerala,” says Joseph. “For so long it had an anti-investor reputation. Now, with this world-class terminal, the people are signalling that they are as interested in development as the rest of India.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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