October 30, 2014

The National Maritime Authority is a bad idea

Not many in commercial shipping thought too long or too hard about President Pranab Mukherjee’s statement when it was made in the Indian Parliament in early June, where he announced that the government would form a National Maritime Authority (NMA). This is because they thought this was to do with the country’s maritime security. He said as much. His exact words: “Recognising the importance of coastal security, my government will set up a National Maritime Authority.”

It appears now, from the buzz in media circles, that the NMA is going to be an overarching body that will oversee not just maritime security but all aspects of commercial shipping as well, including trade and commerce and the offshore industry. Interestingly, media reports suggest that the NMA will make redundant the Directorate General of Shipping, which, under the Ministry of Shipping, deals with all executive matters relating to merchant shipping. So far.

If so, I think the NMA concept is ill conceived, overly cumbersome and a grandiose idea that lacks the required attention to detail. Let me tell you why.

The idea of the NMA (actually, a National Maritime Commission) was pushed by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in May. Now, the IDSA is a Ministry of Defence funded think tank that has little expertise in maritime commerce. It is therefore, in my opinion, not qualified to suggest any kind of changes in the regulation or conduct of commercial shipping. That is assuming it did so in the first place, and that the reported possible disbandment of the DGS is not the result of some bureaucratic fancy.

More importantly, making the NMA responsible for two huge and distinct maritime functions- security and commerce- is setting it up to fail. The DGS looks after just one of those today and is nevertheless overwhelmed by its mandate to perform Flag State, Port State and Coastal State duties, not to speak of specific environmental incidents and the overview of commercial maritime education in the country. The NMA will have its hands full with coastal security alone, a massive undertaking that has still- after so many years since the Mumbai attacks- to be brought under meaningful control. The NMA should therefore not be given any other brief- especially a completely discrete one from security- like handling commercial shipping.

I am told that the NMA is supposed to be constituted along the lines of the proposed Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) — which is a centralised agency that will have effective aviation safety and oversight control and will replace the present Directorate General of Civil Aviation. I will point out that, if such a body is given the additional responsibility of taking care of security in the skies, then the CAA idea is as equally fraught as the NMA proposal. Our legislators should avoid the same mistakes many laymen make- security, safety and the promotion of commerce are three entirely different beasts.
Many writing for mainstream newspapers disagree with me about the apparent need to do away with the DGS. To them, the NMA idea makes sense. They point to the need to follow and merge IMO regulations with national ones. They rehash the age old criticisms of the DGS- that it is an organisation always led by a non-maritime person (who is transferred as soon as he or she has settled down!) and one that fails to attract the required numbers of professionals with the required expertise. An organisation that is weak and clumsy, has legacy and governance issues and has outsourced some of its functions- for example, to do with oversight on maritime education- to third parties like the Indian Register of Shipping and the like. An organisation that is under-resourced and so not adequately equipped to carry out its duties. Therefore, in their opinion, the NMA is exactly what we need.    

I don’t think so. Because, for a start, there is every likelihood that the proposed NMA will face an identical situation with respect to lack of resources or professional expertise as the DGS suffers today. Also, I foresee that, if the NMA replaces the DGS, many existing DGS personnel will simply be transferred to the new NMA, which will otherwise be staffed (probably in Delhi) by ex Indian naval or armed forces officers and bureaucrats with little knowledge of commercial shipping. I predict that such a National Maritime Authority will suffer from all the ills of the DGS, and will, in addition, find itself burdened to the point of paralysis with maritime security issues that can be overwhelming all on their own. 

Instead of proposing a big bang change that sounds good on paper but is likely to ring hollow in the end, the Modi government needs to think this NMA business through. The solution, in my opinion, is not to have a single body doing everything, but to keep maritime security separate from safety and the promotion of maritime trade. To revamp and strengthen the DGS and make it accountable. And, as always- always- attract the right people to do what needs to be done.

The government should realise that generic weaknesses cannot be overcome by the pouring of old wine into a new bottle. A grand plan, if not backed by the ability to execute it, always results in equally grand- even spectacular- failure.  


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