March 06, 2014

Milking the Agenda

One would think that some new policy decisions had been made or some new truths revealed, when President Pranab Mukherjee and Shipping Minister GK Vasan spoke at the first convocation function at the Indian Maritime University recently. The President, referring to the country’s 7500 km long coastline and the dismal numbers associated with Indian ships carrying Indian cargoes, said what everybody else has already said- that India had to boost the quality of its maritime personnel and  also increase its shipbuilding capacity.  Vasan, on the other hand, repeated, almost verbatim, what had been put out in the Maritime Agenda rolled out by his government almost three years ago, saying that the aspiration was to ‘substantially increase the strength of our seafarers to 9 per cent of the world share’ from the present 6 or 7 per cent. 

I will leave aside the fact that I am deeply suspicious of the ability of the IMU, an institution mired in all sorts of unsavoury scandals and controversies almost since its inception, to deliver any kind of quality.  Even so, all that Mukherjee and Vasan said at its convocation is old hat. These clichés have been repeated too often by commercial managers, bureaucrats and politicians alike over the years and sound terribly anaemic by now. Because experience has shown us that they are just words backed up by little or no action. 

The fact is that the Maritime Agenda 2020, rolled out in 2011, said that the 9 per cent number was to be accomplished by 2015, which is next year. I don’t know if anybody has compiled statistics recently, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that 6 per cent number has fallen instead of rising, but then I can’t think of a single cohesive policy that has been implemented, in the last three years, to make the 9 per cent number even remotely possible. Grand declarations of intent achieve zilch without will and action. A vision on its own is nothing.

Which is why I am also sceptical about another grand plan- the formation of an Indian Maritime Service. The National Shipping Board, the highest advisory body to the Ministry of Shipping, recommended last week that the Government constitute a committee or appoint a consultant to work out the modalities for this administrative service that would be on the lines of the Indian Administrative Service or the Indian Police Service. Shipping has suffered much, we are told, from the dearth of professional maritime administrators; the IMS will change that.

Now I am not saying that the IMS is a bad idea. For the life of me, however, I can’t imagine how an organisation modelled along the lines of the almost incredibly corrupt and compromised IAS and IPS will effectively deliver anything.  Chances are it will just add another layer of new infirmity to old decrepitude.

It appears that we in India will do many things to solve shipping’s problems. We will conjure up grand visions and produce eloquent clichés. We will deliberate and advise. We will produce statistics and pay consultants to find solutions to problems that they know little about and will never face. We will expand clerical fiefdoms and pretend that administration is the purpose of the exercise, and the dubious panacea that this will solve much.  We will even repeat old, tired platitudes while pretending that they are brand new.

But we will not act. And we will not clean up our act. 


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