Captain Jimmy Sarbh, widely regarded as the doyen of the Indian ports industry, professes himself to be a happy man, now that one of his cherished professional dreams has inched a step closer to reality. Speaking exclusively to The Maritime Standard, Sarbh enthusiastically welcomes the recent decision of the Indian Government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to green light the development of a new deepwater Major Port at Vadhavan, in Maharashtra.
“This decision is not just important for the region’s ports and shipping industry,” he says. “It is vital for India. We need to create an alternative to facilities at JN Port, which will run out of a capacity within the next decade, and to reduce environmental pressures on Mumbai. I am proud of PM Modi for taking this decision which will give India the deepwater port it needs on the West Coast to handle latest generation containerships in particular.”
JN Port is currently constrained by a maximum draft of 15m. Vadhavan by contrast offers a potential depth of 20m, which would allow the port to handle container vessels of up to 25,000 teu. This would create important economies of scale for Indian traders, as well as vital ‘overspill’ capacity as existing terminals at JN Port edge closer to being fully utilised.
Vadhavan has for over 20 years been something of a personal mission for Sarbh, who as the former Regional Director, South Asia and the Middle East at P&O Ports, was the pioneer of private sector ports operations across the Subcontinent, particularly in the container terminal sector. Under his leadership P&O Ports set up Nhava Sheva International Container Terminal, transforming the way containers were handled in the country’s biggest gateway port, as well as other ventures in Chennai and Mundra, and in Pakistan and Sri Lanka also.
One achievement eluded him, however, and that was the setting up of a deepwater port at Vadhavan. He got close in 1997, when P&O Ports was awarded a concession to develop an alternative gateway to JNPT, by the then Prime Minister Deve Gowda. However, despite engaging the renowned UK-based port engineers, Halcrow, to carry out detailed evaluations and making significant investment in technical and design studies, environmental opposition to the scheme amongst the local community forced the government to backtrack, and the project was shelved – much to Sarbh’s disappointment.
“At the time we had a lot of conversations with other stakeholders, including local fishermen and villagers, and we tried hard to address their concerns,” he recalls. “However in the end it was not possible to meet their financial and other demands.”
Now, 23 years later, PM Modi has picked up where Sarbh left off and is seemingly committed to at last delivering on his vision. This time the port project is to be taken forward by a joint venture led by cash-rich JN Port, with a first phase scheduled for completion in five years, subject to the necessary approvals.
Sarbh says, “I am optimistic that the development will go ahead, as the political dynamics have changed. There will be environmental opposition I am sure, but I believe that the strong commitment at the top from PM Modi, and the involvement of JNPT will help see it over the line this time round.” He believes that the Maharashtra State Government should also support the project, given the number of jobs that will be created in the region.
Sarbh continues, “More than ever before I am convinced that this is the way forward for India. We need a new port of this size, as we cannot remain dependent on JNPT and Mundra for over 80% of our container trade as is the case now. There has to be an alternative option, and Vadhavan is the place for that.”
While the port will be particularly beneficial as a container hub, Sarbh expects that it will also handle dry bulk, liquid bulk, ro-ro, LNG and other cargo types. He says, “I believe that Vadhavan can become India’s Rotterdam, offering services for the full range of cargoes, and serving an industrial hinterland. It is in the ideal location and has the right channel conditions to accommodate the largest ships afloat.”
Sarbh says he would happily give the Indian Government advice based on his knowledge of the 1990s project. “I would willingly do so without expecting any payment,” he adds, “After all, this is my dream and I would do anything to see that realised.”