The maritime sector initiatives announced by the new Indian Government have everybody in a euphoric tizzy. Shipping and its allied sectors have been neglected for so long that the sudden focus on the industry appears to be much brighter than it otherwise would. Or even should, because many of these initiatives, for example those connected with waterways, will take years before they pay off- there is no low hanging fruit here. Some measure of optimism is warranted, sure, but this must remain guarded optimism for now.
In my view, the Modi government in general, and Shipping Minister Gadkari in particular, need to look seriously at a critical area of shipping that they have ignored so far- the manpower segment. This will not just involve the overhaul of the corrupt and decaying (decayed?) seafarer assembly line; it will also include attracting and setting up legal, financial, insurance and other such markets in India, with existing senior Indian maritime professionals as their backbone. Additionally, an appropriately developed educational and training environment would ensure a steady supply of expertise for the future as well.
The advantages are obvious. The advent of marine finance, law and insurance firms will go a long way towards developing India as a maritime hub. These do not require massive investment; these require people with expertise, of course, and this is why creating an appropriate maritime business climate is essential. We do not have this yet, but mind-sets can change and be changed very quickly.
The assembly line issue is actually easier to resolve, if only the blind men in the industry would stop looking at the elephant one appendage at a time, blaming each other’s spheres of influence as the reason for the mess. Since those blind men will not regain their sight anytime soon, this problem needs a holistic solution imposed from above. It needs policing to weed out corruption. We know what needs to be done here. We have done it before. Not all that long ago, Indian officers were considered amongst the best in the world. That should be the aim once again.
Indians tend to see things in a vacuum. We fool ourselves, thinking that the rest of the world has stopped and is waiting for us to catch up. That this mentality is laughable is obvious; in the last two weeks alone, Singapore- which wants to challenge London- has announced plans to boost its involvement in marine insurance and ship finance. Working groups have been established to, amongst other things, “develop Singapore as the premier ship finance centre in Asia.” And in Dubai, a new maritime arbitration centre has been set up, the first of its kind in the Middle East. The Emirates Maritime Arbitration Centre will address and resolve maritime disputes based on legal frameworks and set maritime regulatory guidelines and standards. This is part of the “Dubai Maritime Sector Strategy” which aims to “position the emirate as a world-class maritime hub.”
Any guesses as to how many Indians will be part of the maritime growth of these two countries? Judging by the numbers already there, hundreds, if not thousands. This is worse than brain drain or economic loss. It is a tragedy that a country with thousands of years of maritime history- and one that aspires to be an economic powerhouse- does not have the wherewithal to exploit the expertise of its own nationals.
Messrs Modi and Gadkari need to act today. The climate and the machinery to develop maritime expertise- out of the huge pool of seamen and ex-seamen already available to them- needs to be put in place quickly. People are key-always. Little progress will be made in the maritime sector, including in the parts of it that they themselves have put under the development spotlight today, without men and women who are qualified and efficient to run those sectors. Not to speak of the tertiary and spin-off benefits to India and Indians of following the course I recommend.
It is imperative that we make a start now. India cannot hope to replace London- or even Dubai or Singapore- as a maritime hub by tomorrow, but it can start on a measured path that can make it a worthy rival in relatively quick time and with relatively low investment.